Finding Your Subjects
This next piece is going to be about a boxer, someone who opened a boxing gym in Newark. This is also part of the Newest Americans project, and Julie, why don't you talk about that?
So, I think I'd like to talk a little more generally first about finding your subjects, what makes a good character. So, they come in all shapes and sizes, but there are, they have to be watchable. I have to want to live with this person on tape. So, I think it's really important to have, to have a real assessment of who your subjects are. We've been talking about a number of things like looking for your complex characters. It's gotta be somebody who's willing to collaborate. To my point, in that last example, it doesn't do you any good to have a fantastic subject if they are not gonna return your phone calls. They've gotta be driving the bus with you.
It's a collaboration.
That's something I've learned over the years, With your subjects, you need to think of them as collaborators, which mig...
ht seem a little weird 'cause you're trying to tell their story or might even want to show aspects of their lives they might not be comfortable with, but there is a collaboration there.
Right. Even with photography, I always think of this idea. Like, you make pictures, you don't take them. Taking pictures always seems to me like I'm here to exploit you, so I feel like also for the film, this is a journey you're taking together. You get very attached to people you spend a lot of time with also, and you want to make sure you're making a film that they are gonna feel is true to their story. So, can you tell that story and respect them and their story because you're not putting yourself on the line. You're not vulnerable, they're vulnerable. And so finding that relationship so it's not just a good story, it's a good relationship. You want somebody, also, who can articulate themselves well so that they can speak for themselves. I'm gonna speak in generalizations because you might have someone who has mental illness and can't express themselves and the other characters in their world will, or they will on camera, you know, their stories will translate. Their struggles will translate. So I'm gonna speak in generalizations, you hope that they can articulate their own story well. The other thing is how complicated is their story? So, a lot of times, you go to tell a story and you find somebody who personifies this issue you wanna capture, but then the more you talk to them you realize that it's not so straightforward. There's other stuff going on there. Or you might kinda, you know, peek inside the closet and find out that they're not what they appear to be. So, some of it is also determining, is this the right subject to convey your message, or is part of the story a bit of that expose? That, like, being on welfare isn't necessarily a black and white issue, or you know. You understand what I'm saying, where it's like sometimes life choices make for very complicated outcomes, and so you really do need to be eyes wide open when you choose your subjects, about how much are you gonna reveal? Now, if you're doing something that's in the journalistic realm, documentary realm, not talking client work 'cause it's entirely different, you also have the integrity, your own integrity to protect. So if you go and you tell a story, as an example I spent many years working on the uninsured in America as an issue. And with a real sense of advocacy behind it, wanting to influence health care reform. And so I did a short film about a woman who had breast cancer, got kicked off health insurance when her husband lost a job and ended up panhandling just to make ends meet. Cancer metastasized and she ended up dying. Now, she has other stuff going on, like she made choices in her life. Like, she couldn't get public assistance because she had too valuable a car. And so, she didn't let the car go in order to get the health care. So then you have to say, "well, do I include that in the film?" Because that's kind of an interesting choice if I'm trying to build empathy for this character, to say "you lost your health care 'cause "the system is really screwed up," but then you make a life choice that's your own death sentence, do you share that? Or does that muddy up your film? And, if and when that information comes out, does it undermine the story I did tell?
Does it undermine, yeah.
Yeah, I think the key element here is that, especially connected to this course, which is short form. A lot of what Julie is talking about now could actually translate into really interesting narrative threads if you're doing a 90 minute doc, where you have that room, you have that time to explore some of these subtleties. And in some ways, maybe you don't know where the film is going, you know, where the story is going. I know I find that when working on these shorter pieces, and I dunno if this, maybe you could say it's a limitation of this form, but it's just a practicality that you need to sort of be able to maintain control over the narrative to some degree.
And then in terms of your subject also, another thing to think about is how comfortable are they on camera. 'Cause some people are just painfully uncomfortable on camera, and so it reads. I mean, you know it when you see it as a viewer, you know it. And so, if they're a great subject, and you are determined, even if they're not great on camera, then it is that much more pressure on you to make them more relaxed on camera, and to spend more time with them so that they get more acclimated. Because eventually, almost everybody forgets that a camera's on them. But it might take longer with some people. So walking in, you know, I think everything we're talking about is having an awareness. So don't allow the obstacles to ever get in the way, but being fully aware and in charge of what you're doing and how you need to work it in order to make it successful.
To have a fighting chance.
A fighting chance. Fighting chance.
Did you like that?
Yeah, I liked that.
A little lame (laughs).
So here, this is an example of just a great character. Choosing a subject. So I'd like you to be thinking about what makes him a good subject. Why would we bother with this guy? And then also this idea of introducing more than one voice. This is a film that ultimately had two main characters. So, then, last but not least, what's at stake? (instrumental music swells) (mellow electric guitar)
It's like bein' in a different world when you're inside those rings. There's only one person in front of you, who's not budgin'. And he hit hard, and he's faster than you, and stronger than you. And then the bell goes off, and then you go back to the corner. At that point you can either quit, or you can push through.
Ladies and gentlemen, your winner of 175,000, and now three time (crowd drowns out voice) (crowd cheering) (mellow electric guitar) (applause)
First and foremost, I just wanna go ahead and thank everybody for comin' out to show support for us today. When me and Gary first moved in here, there was water on the floor. I mean, there was none of this, everything you see here was not here.
Come on, come on, let's go.
No, it's not broken, it doesn't do that.
Ready, set, go. (grunting)
It was an abandoned space in the back of a leaky rec center, just above the hockey rink. Nobody had really been back here in years. But most people see an abandoned building as just waste, we see it as opportunity. My partner Gary Blor and I came in here and got to work. (saw cutting) (Aerosol can spraying) (chains jostling)
We created this whole Ironbound Boxing Academy, as a vehicle to teach these kids that coming from tough circumstances is actually an asset, not a liability.
You don't wanna hit it down, you wanna hit through it. So I'm goin' through it, do you get what I'm sayin'?
Just last week there were four kids shot just up the street from here. With the robberies, the guns, the violence, you can't live in this environment, or come to school in this environment, and not be exposed to the realities of Newark.
I'm not gonna get it, Coach.
You gotta, it's gradual.
So where you see yourself five years from now.
I dunno, I don't think that far. Hopefully alive.
Why wouldn't you be?
I could die tomorrow.
I served five years in the Marines, completing two tours; one to Afghanistan, another one to Japan and the Philippines. I've been mortared, I've been shot at, stepped on an IED, it didn't go off. Through my time in the military, I've lived a lot of different places. There's no place that compares to livin' in Newark.
(singing) ♪ I always wanted to be a hero, ♪ ♪ Hero! ♪ ♪ Now I gotta be a hero, ♪ ♪ Hero! ♪
While I was at Annapolis, I had a internship at the Saint Benedict's Preparatory school here in Newark. I fell in love with the place instantly. I just was fascinated by the fact that, in this environment, there was an elite prep school that targeted young men of color. And I could only imagine where I could've gone, had I had that support when I was younger.
One of the things I think about when I look at you, is "what are you gonna have to suffer as you get older?" You'll give your life away if you're not careful. So the advice here today is make the best of what you have today.
My mom raised me. I've never even met my Father. When I was at Annapolis, my mom suffered a stroke. She's been bed-ridden ever since.
All right, that's good, let's go!
To just keep my sanity, I started to really lean heavily on boxing. It's something I wanna share with other people to help them become mentally stronger.
Now everybody's favorite, jump rope.
What it takes to be a good boxer, it would take to be a good marketer, would take to be a good accountant, and that's really what we're trying to teach.
Four, three, two. Seven, three, two, come on.
One of the reasons we call it the Ironbound Boxing Academy is we don't work out, we train. We ask them to commit to us like we commit to them.
Remember how we used to have to find you for practice?
Like, you weren't consistent. Why are you more consistent now? Like, why do you try and find me now?
Like, there was a time where like, I was just tryin' to find what was gonna make me happy and-- I tried the whole girls thing, and that's not really gonna make me happy. But I find that boxing actually does make me really happy. And that's when I started being more consistent, finding you, finding the guys. Even when you weren't able to train, I trained by myself.
So, great character. Great character, not just a great character, but a guy who would phone us and say "hey, we got XYZ goin' on, you might wanna come." "Oh, you need me to pick you up? I'll pick ya up. Don't worry about it, you can leave all your stuff at my place." You know, "hey, thought maybe we should go home with one of these kids, and I'll reach out to the kid's parents." You know, it's rare you get somebody who's that proactive, but I gotta say, not only was he a great character, but he was an even better collaborator, which made this all a really wonderful experience. We ended up, as you see here, introducing the second, the kid in this film, and so you get to know this kid in the course of the film as well. And the funny thing that unfolds is the dynamic between the two of them, 'cause the kid starts kinda parenting his coach. So, it kinda takes this interesting morph in the course of the dynamic as you watch it unfold. So, you do watch, and you know, you got this taste, but again, you see that you're immersed in their world. You've got a driving force of a character, and it's unfolding. You know, bit by bit you learned a lot in that four minutes. We took you to the opening day of a gym. We took you backwards to the work being done to create that gym, then we took you to Afghanistan. Then we took you to a prep school in Newark, New Jersey. You know, so if you think about how much ended up happening within that short time span, how much was introduced in this story.
And in the full film, which is 15 minutes, you also go to the young man that he's training from Peru, so he's from a Peruvian, you know, immigrant family. So you've got this, sort of cross-cultural thing just happening within the story. These kinds of characters, and these kinds of stories and subjects are, you know, you hope you get things like this all the time. And it's relevant, it connects to so many different issues that are in our country right now, and in our society.
Mmhmm. So, and I think the overarching question is, you know, "how do you help young men succeed?" "Is he gonna really help these kids succeed?" So, I think in terms of what's been established here, as what is the question, the question is overcoming adversity. Personal agency and empowerment.