Reviews

Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan

Ireland, 2008

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 27 May 2008

Source projected DVD

Categories The 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston

With the Irish boxing documentary Saviours, directors Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan exhibit an admirable understanding of what it takes to make an engaging sports movie. Hint: there isn’t all that much boxing footage in Saviours. The emphasis is placed on individual fighters, their reasons for training hard (or not), and their battles outside the ring; thus when we do get to those boxing sequences, even those who aren’t aficionados of the sport will have a rooting interest.

The film takes its name from Dublin’s St. Saviours Olympic Boxing Academy, a well-known gym in a rough neighborhood, and its lo-fi, no frills look and feel (likely dictated as much by budgetary necessity as by artistic choice) suits its scrappy subjects. It offers an intimate look into the lives of three of the promising boxers – Olympic hopefuls, all – training at St. Saviours. There’s Abdul, a native of Ghana seeking asylum in Ireland after the murder of his uncle; Darren, a talented fighter torn between sports and school; and Dean, whose local stardom and lifelong passion for the ring are threatened by injury. Keeping an eye on all three young men, and over all of St. Saviours, is coach John McCormack, who does his best to keep his fighters on a winning path.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is how Whitaker and Nolan gently tweak expectations about who the young men vying to represent Ireland on the world stage are. Darren is of Irish-Caribbean heritage and has lived in London and St. Vincent before settling in Dublin; Abdul is not a citizen but still dreams of winning a gold medal for the Emerald Isle. The filmmakers don’t belabor the issue of their country’s national identity, but it’s wrapped up in here nevertheless, tying into how each of these young men is striving, on an individual level, to define himself.

Though we get to know and care about each of the boxers, Abdul’s story emerges as the most compelling. Displaced and uncertain of how long he will be allowed to stay in Dublin, Abdul leads a life defined by maddening temporariness. St. Saviours is a rare, consistent refuge for him, and it’s touching to see the gym’s staff offer him such strong support as he navigates the vagaries of securing his place in Ireland.

The gym is a close-knit world all its own, something that is perhaps both attractive and repellant to the three boxers. While this sense of community offers Abdul a bedrock of support that he might not find anywhere else, it also makes it harder for Darren and Deal to explain themselves when they’ve stayed away awhile, owing to schoolwork, recuperation, or just good old-fashioned girl trouble. The folks at St. Saviours are just like family—and that entails both encouragement and serious pressure.

The film succeeds in creating a vivid portrait of an unusual Dublin institution, but it’s true that in some ways, life conspires against Saviours. There isn’t a great deal of satisfying closure to any of the three narratives, ending the film on a somewhat anticlimactic note. But then again, that may be the point. Saviours is an honest film, and to be honest, life is more often about fighting than it is about winning.

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