Down But Not Out
Directed by Miguel Gaudêncio
According to its synopsis on IMDB, the Polish documentary Down But Not Out (2015) focuses on four women stepping into the boxing ring for their first match ever. If I hadn’t looked it up, it would have taken me a few moments to figure it out on my own, as the movie doesn’t explicitly mention it. As a matter of fact, the movie doesn’t really tell the audience anything – no talking-head reflections or interviews, no narrator to hold your hand, and the only title cards are the ones that tell you what round it is in a fight. Down But Not Out is a documentary in the truest sense; it is merely a recording of events as they happened over the course of 24 hours. It’s closer to a home movie or security camera footage than Michael Moore as far as the documentary spectrum goes. It doesn’t seek to tell, it only shows.
This very hands-off approach to manipulating and telling the story is incredibly refreshing, and engaged me in a way that few documentaries have ever done. It felt like being dropped into someone else’s dream, a beautifully gritty black-and-white dream with a lively electronic score. It’s the kind of storytelling that lead me to reexamine my relationship with moving images. I found myself creating narratives for characters based on personality, filling in the gaps left by the director and editor. Watching the four women patiently warming up with their charismatic and nurturing trainer, I was certain which ones were prepared and would fair well and which ones would probably leave the ring disappointed. More often than not I was wrong, and I started questioning this mechanism within me that projects traits onto subjects based on my own cinematic schema. One woman in particular, had size and power and carried herself confidently while punching her trainer’s hands, but unfortunately it’s easy to be confident against someone who isn’t hitting back. When the bell rang, her tenacious, smaller opponent pounced on her, and all that preparation flew out the window. Her disappointment became mine because the lack of narration had me investing more of myself into the picture. The more I was required to put in, the more I got out of it – a notable lesson for any filmmaker and a reason why showing is always more valued over telling.
What’s even more surprising is that this is from director Miguel Gaudêncio, who made the 2013 documentary Desire For Beauty, which I reviewed unfavorably, specifically in regards to his heavy-handed direction. In that film, his constant stylistic tinkering detracted from the subject almost entirely, leaving the film a bit of a mess. For Down But Not Out he shows significant restraint and focus, only indulging himself in ways that feel like the serve the subject. The few musical interludes in the film, where Gaudêncio slows the action and marvels at the bodies as the punch and parry, feel like points of reflection, allowing you to process what you’ve seen and assess how you feel about it. His reverence for the athletes reminded me of Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia(1938), but with perhaps more empathy and compassion. All in all, I can’t imagine a director pulling such a 180 between films. Gaudêncio’s next film looks to be more of the same, this time focusing on women competing in CrossFit, which admittedly has me pretty excited. The change in his artistic approach to documentary filmmaking is a welcome one, and it’s so refreshing compared to today’s more overproduced landscape. Down But Not Out is about humanity, successes and failures, dreams and realities, and in its best moments reflects the viewer’s image back at them so they can see their own flaws and their own beauties.