Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Documentary Feature: Fightville

Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier
Fightville (2011)
Directed by: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
Featuring: Dustin Poirier, Albert Stainback and Tim Credeur

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

The ongoing controversy over violence and its place in the sporting world has left mixed marital arts with a stigma that will be hard to shake.

However, with the UFC rapidly expanding and growing in popularity, it's arguable that the debate surrounding it has, in some ways, been invaluable to its enduring popularity.

An oft-misunderstood sport that dates back centuries, mixed marital arts (MMA) takes a sort of pride in its focus on the primal urges we so often repress and refuse to acknowledge.

Coming off its Toronto premiere at the 2011 Hot Docs Film Festival, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Fightville focuses on the physical and psychological toll that MMA takes on everyone involved — from the promoters and trainers, right down to the fighters themselves.

At the heart of the narrative are the people at the Gladiators Academy — a tiny gym next to a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in a rundown strip mall in southern Louisiana. Fight promoter Gil Guillory and trainer Tim Credeur are part of MMA USA, a grassroots organization that ultimately prepares their fighters for the glare of the UFC spotlight. Some succeed, while others falter.

Credeur makes it his personal mission to weed out the weak among his group. He waxes philosophical about the sport — he's the films biggest MMA cheerleader, connecting lessons learned in life to those that can be taught in the cage. A brutally honest coach who won't hesitate to teach with his own fists, he's a force to be reckoned with and anyone who survives and thrives under his leadership will usually wind up on the larger-scale MMA circuits.

The Gladiators Academy provides fulfillment for the two young men at the centre of the story — twenty-something's Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier and Albert Stainback. MMA is more than just a way for these young men to make money and put food on the table; for them it's an outlet to indulge in what they see as their only talent — and it's the main source of their pride.

With its thundering soundtrack, rousing fight sequences and assured camerawork, Fightville ultimately rests on the shoulders of the affable Poirier. Although he remains largely tight-lipped on his violent past, his focused intensity still gives way to a good-natured spirit.

Despite revelations of multiple run-ins with law in his youth, his mom steps up to the plate to express the pride she has in her son's complete character transformation — despite the noticeable worry lines still etched on her face.
Albert Stainback

Yet, where Poirier emerges as a star pupil under Credeur's tutelage (he's now a UFC featherweight), there's also those who flag under the immense pressure — and that's where Stainback enters the picture. Where Poirier is composed and disciplined (at one point losing 20 pounds in one week to qualify for a competition), Stainback fails to balance the full-time training demands and his personal issues. What with a horrific childhood involving an alcoholic mother and an abusive father who later committed suicide, Stainback takes on the stage persona of Alex DeLarge, the brutal hooligan at the centre of A Clockwork Orange.

What point is Stainback trying to get across? Is it meant to be ironic or is there something deeper to his selection? Unfortunately, viewers are left in the dark as his decision to don Alex's black bowler cap and white pantsuit is never addressed in the doc.

What holds Fightville back from being a true knockout is its lack of backstory. Far too many questions are left unanswered — or go unasked. While it offers a glimpse into the complicated behind-the-scenes world of MMA, it only scratches the surface of the grueling routine the fighters endure and the interesting connection between MMA and their troubled upbringings.

With the exception of Poirier's mother, who fills in some of the narrative gaps when it comes to her son, there are few secondary sources to provide insight into these two young men. Both are personable and have interesting stories to tell, but there are noticeable holes where more could have been asked of them.

While often fascinating and enjoyable, Fightville ultimately suffers from a lack of in depth personal stories from its central figures.