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Boxing Gym: A Q&A with Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman

By Michelle Michalos
Wednesday, June 15th, 2011
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Frederick Wiseman (Photo: Gretje Ferguson)

Inside Thirteen had the opportunity to speak with veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman about his upcoming film, Boxing Gym. The documentary takes a fly-on-the-wall look at Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas — a true melting pot where boxers of all walks of life and skill levels come together to train.

Here, Wiseman discusses the inspiration behind Boxing Gym and his unique style of film making.

Boxing Gym airs Thursday, June 16 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Mr. Wiseman answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make this film?

Frederick Wiseman: Boxing is a form of ritualized violence. Looking back at the films I have made, violence is a subject that links many of them.  For example, the inmates of Bridgewater State Prison where I made Titicut Follies had committed some of the most violent crimes imaginable and were separated by the State from civic life.  Law and Order (a film about the Kansas City police) illustrates the necessity and role of the police in a community to prevent crimes against people and property, and to find and arrest those responsible.  Juvenile Court documents the role of the criminal justice system in establishing the punishment of juvenile offenders who have committed violent acts.  Domestic Violence I and II show the work of a shelter, the police and the courts as the representatives of the State in helping and punishing people acting violently in their personal relationships.  Basic Training, Manoeuvre and Missile are illustrations of the application of the State’s monopoly of violence in the service of protecting its citizens against external violence.  Also, Boxing Gym is related to the two films I have done on ballet, Ballet and La Danse.  Both boxing and ballet require discipline, long years of training and control of the movement of the body.   Boxing Gym is related to and thematically consistent with all these other films.  In addition, I am a boxing fan.

IT: What makes Lord’s Gym so unique? How did you first hear about it?

FW: I did not visit other boxing gyms and cannot compare it to others.  I think Richard Lord, the owner of the gym, is very unusual, mankind sensitive, responsible, tuned in to the needs of others, and an excellent teacher and effective leader.  I heard about Lord’s Gym from a friend who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

IT: Like many of your films, Boxing Gym is mostly observational – we are introduced to members of the gym through their interactions, but there are no direct interviews.  What appeals to you about this style of film making, and how did it lend itself to Boxing Gym?

(Photo: Frederick Wiseman)

FW: I do not like interviews or narration because they are didactic and separate the viewer from the subject.  When my technique works, it works because the viewer feels present at the events seen in the film and has to make up his/her own mind about what it is he/she is seeing and hearing.  My point of view toward the subject is revealed indirectly through the choice of sequences and the structure of the film, and it is more like a novel than a news report.

IT: Is boxing particularly popular in Texas?

FW: Boxing is popular in Texas.  I do not know whether it is more popular in Texas than in other states.

IT: Many of your films focus on exploring American institutions.  What drew you to these places, and what is more interesting for you to cover: well-known institutions, like the American Ballet Theatre, or lesser-known, more local places, like Lord’s Gym?

FW: When I started making films, institutions were relatively unexplored subjects on film.  An institution provides a boundary like the lines of a tennis court.  Whatever happens in the building or buildings of the institution or the geographical area that defines the subject of the film is fit for inclusion; anything outside is another film.  I am not concerned with whether the institution is well known or not, the subject is what matters.

IT: Was there anything you were surprised to learn about the members of Lord’s Gym, or the sport in general, during the making this film?

FW: I was impressed by the dedication and discipline of the boxers and the sense of community and mutual respect inspired by Richard Lord’s leadership.