New Orleans Film Festival: 'Ringside' Tells Compelling Story of Two Young Boxers in the Fight of Their Lives
André Hörmann's gripping documentary shows what's at stake for a pair of up-and-coming fighters
When we first meet Kenny Sims Jr. and Destyne Butler Jr., the stars of the documentary Ringside, they are kids on Chicago's tough South Side - aspiring young boxers with the footwork, speed, determination and discipline to make it big in the sport.
Over the length of the film, covering a nine-year period in the lives of the protagonists, we learn if the budding talents fulfill their promise or become mired in the violence and dysfunction endemic to that part of Chicago.
The New Orleans Film Festival showcased Ringside Sunday night as part of its Documentary Features section, with director André Hörmann and cinematographer Tom Bergmann in attendance. They answered questions afterwards, revealing they had not anticipated the film would take quite so long to complete.
That is the power of documentary is like following something for an intense amount of time.
"We started out with a short film [in] 2009 on Kenny and his dad. And it took quite a while to finance the long [version], get as much budget that enabled us to move over to Chicago and it must have been 2013," Hörmann explained. "We thought, six months and we're done."
That it took many years more to finish speaks to the journey of the main characters. Both were gifted, perhaps Butler the more so, each collecting countless belts and trophies in the ring. Both enjoyed close, supportive relationships with their parents - Kenneth Sims Sr. training his son and Destyne Butler Sr. deeply engaged with his son's development. But while Kenny Jr. stayed on the straight and narrow, Destyne Jr. veered from the path and was arrested for participating in a string of burglaries.
Destyne was offered the chance to take part in a crushing boot camp program that would have got him released from prison within six months. Hörmann and Bergmann filmed riveting sequences in the camp as Butler Jr. and his fellow inmates were put through a punishing regime, scenes that evoke Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
But shortly before graduating, Destyne was kicked out of bootcamp, for what the Butlers - father and son - feel were bogus reasons. That consigned Destyne to serving a lengthy term behind bars.
"It took four years to finish his storyline" because of the prison sentence, Hörmann told the New Orleans Film Festival audience. "If you end the film [before his release] it just didn't work. We tried that a couple of times and it didn't work so we had to kind of wait and wait and then we were so lucky that he decided to get back into the ring."
Virtually no fiction films (with the exception of Richard Linklater's Boyhood) are ever shot over such an extended period.
"That is the power of documentary is like following something for an intense amount of time," Bergmann noted. "When you see Kenny at the beginning he's 16 years old. We just flew in from the premiere in Chicago and we had them on stage there and they're 24 now. They evolved a lot. Documentary can make that visible, if you have that time and we're really grateful to our producers and our partners that were in there - nobody told us we have to finish the film by the end of this year or next year or something. Everybody went with us and said okay."
Hörmann and Bergmann, German natives, spent a lot of time in Chicago finding their subjects and establishing a relationship with them.
"In the beginning especially there's a long period of time that we hang with them," Bergmann recalled. "We're at the gyms. We didn't even bring a camera with us. We didn't shoot. We were just sitting around there observing and like getting them used to us, getting us used to them and then see like who's interesting, their stories, what is happening."
The film strikes a balance between action sequences in the ring and intimate moments outside of it, as when Sims' mother tenderly applies a moisturizing treatment to her son's hair. The filmmakers almost missed capturing another significant moment with Kenny.
"[Sims] signed his own pro contract and he got quite a chunk of money for that. It was like, 'I'm buying a new car.' We told him, 'When you buy the car, call us!'" Bergmann shared. "Nothing happened. And we kept asking him, 'Do you want to buy the car?' 'Yeah, yeah, maybe next week, maybe the week after.' One day... our phone rings. He's like, 'We're buying the car.' 'When?' 'Right now. We're signing the contract right now.' They were at the car dealership. We jumped in a cab with a camera like rushing there and we still got the scene."
We definitely didn't want to shoot fights the way you see boxing fights on TV.
The fight scenes in the film are shot and edited in such a way that as viewers we feel the emotional stakes for the fighters, an experience well beyond a mere documenting of body blows.
"We definitely didn't want to shoot fights the way you see boxing fights on TV with the cameras in every corner and there's all those different angles because it was not about saying like, 'Oh, he got a punch here.' We thought about different ways of shooting fights and we always had the idea of you could do something with still photos [and] we tried it once but we never really did it," Bergmann said at the Q&A.
Then necessity forced them to go the still photo route.
"The more successful our boxers became there was like more promoters and there was more TV involved. So it got harder to get rights and access. And [there] was a fight where the TV station said, 'No. There's no camera shooting in here. We have all the rights.'" Bergmann recalled. "So [we said], 'Can we take still pictures?' And they're, 'Yeah. Sure.' But we were already prepared from that earlier [attempt] and it worked actually probably better than if we had shot it [on video]."
Ringside screens at the New Orleans Film Festival again on Wednesday. It screens the same day at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas and on November 10 plays at DOC NYC.
Julie Goldman, Ingmar Trost and Christopher Clements produced the film. Executive producers include Mark Mitten, Carolyn Hepburn and Ken Pelletier. Distribution plans for the documentary haven't been announced.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.