Epperlein & Tucker Earn Technical Knockout in Match with UFC
By now, most won’t need much of an introduction to the world of Ultimate Fighting Championship or Mixed Martial arts. Founded in 1993, the sport only really took off when SpikeTV started airing the reality show The Ultimate Fighter. In the six years since, the extra exposure swelled the UFC’s following to massive numbers, and also fuelled a debate over the controversially primal and brutal nature of the fighting. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s doc Fightville looks at two up-and-coming fighters, promoting the invigorating aspects of the UFC, while, unfortunately, turning its back on the complex morality inherent in the sport, which would’ve strengthened the film as a discussion.
Fightville moves swiftly through its opening act, at a point where it’s unclear whether this is merely going to be a UFC promo reel, or a behind-the-scenes exposé, or an argument about the stigma attached to the name. We do get two ‘opinions’ on the validity of the level of violence, but it comes from biased voices that are directly affiliated with the organization (both, obviously, are ‘pro’ on the subject). We eventually settle down on a kind of hybrid of the aforementioned directions the film might take, except that its essential accomplishment is of a root-for-our-team sports drama variety. In their own ways, subjects Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback are common Rocky-esque, nothing-to-lose heros. Their off-training lives are mundane or stricken with heartbreak, disharmonized with the ostentatious quotations from Nietzsche, Whitman, and Barnum that partition the film into thematic chapters. When they go into the cage, the stakes are hoisted to the same degree as the high-brow lore that these writers represent.
The rigorous training sessions are where pretty much all of the film’s visceral impact is embedded. Spending shifts in the gyms that last longer than most full-time day jobs, members who train with Tim Credeur prove their commitment to the sport on a daily basis. The weight-loss ritual (for reaching the range of the assigned weight class) is especially grueling and extreme. Coupled with the likely harmful effects on the heart, this process adds another bit of ambivalence to the overall healthiness of the sport. The fights themselves are surprisingly anti-climatic. Perhaps opting for less explicit or rowdy fights for the sake of taming detractors, Epperlein & Tucker show matches that are usually over just as they begin, ending with few punches or flashy moves (save for one feel-good connection).
The camerawork is sufficient, if unnoteworthy, making sure not to draw much attention to itself. The material stands on its own pretty well, in fact. More could probably have been spent on setting up a dynamic foundation as a backdrop for the sport; based on this film, it’s unclear why an impassioned sect, including Senator John McCain, would lobby to ban the sport outright. Simple answers suggesting its primal function don’t hold weight or impact when presented on its own. As is, the sport looks a standard athletic venture, but that is a more obedient representation than a square one. At the end, when the audience experiences that involuntary waft of jubilation, it would be nice if it felt less protected.
Reviewed at the 2011 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. Special Presentations Section.
85 Mins. May 1, 2011