Anyone who has flipped through cable TV channels knows there's a viable audience for what could be called "the full spectrum of American society." Hoarding? That's the subject of TLC's successful series Hoarding: Buried Alive. In-laws from hell? That's the focus of AMC's Monster In-Laws. And cage fighting? That's on Showtime and other cable networks, though not under "cage fighting" but its more generic title, "Mixed Martial Arts." Punching. Kicking. Scissoring an opponent's head with your legs. All are allowed in a sport that has eclipsed boxing for televised popularity and is easy to typecast as a brutal endeavor with no real social value.
A new documentary, Fight Life, goes behind the scenes of mixed martial arts and both confirms the stereotypes (the sport is brutal) and parses out complexities that humanize the athletes and the athleticism that's required to reach the profession's pinnacle. Like any sport -- like any profession -- mixed martial arts rewards those who have a combination of talent/commitment/flair. Having a trying background may also be a plus, judging by two prominent fighters featured in Fight Life: Lyle "Fancy Pants" Beerbohm, a former meth addict who has spent time in jail; and Frank Shamrock (nee: Frank Alisio Juarez), a champion fighter and another former inmate, who tells filmmaker James Z. Feng, "I was abused as a kid. I was a ward of the state. I went to prison. I never really had anything. I never had something to look up to. Mixed martial arts was the right thing at the right time."
Fight Life is screening Friday night at the Roxie Theater as part of the United Film Festival, and the film's biggest presence is a San Francisco fighter, Jake Shields, who's a vivid counterpoint to Frank Shamrock and Lyle Beerbohm. Well-spoken and from a seemingly untroubled family, Shields, 33, is a vegetarian who attended San Francisco State on a wrestling scholarship. He dotes on his young daughter. He seems, well, "normal," if that word can be used in a sport whose professional matches are banned by the state of New York because of legislator concerns that mixed martial arts is overly violent. In the last 10 years, the sport's promoters have implemented rules changes (no groin kicks, no head butts, etc.) that have coincided with its growing popularity and its sanctioning by the vast majority of state bodies.
Feng, who lives in San Francisco, practiced martial arts as kid. As a burgeoning documentarian who faced long odds to get Fight Life completed (Feng made it on a $60,000 budget that he mostly financed by himself), he can relate to the do-or-die attitude of the fighters he interviewed, who are paid very little money until they make a name for themselves, which can take years.
"They train like it's a full-time job, six days a week; anyone who is willing to go so far for their passion, I'm interested in that," says Feng, 29. "It's similar to my own lifestyle as a filmmaker, investing my own money in my film, and not having any real support. It's a pretty rough road. The fighters are hungry and talented and dying for an opportunity. The film became very personal for me."
When I first watched Fight Life, I thought of The Wages of Fear, the unforgettable 1953 French drama about poor, desperate men who volunteer to drive tankers full of nitroglycerine over dangerous roadways. In Henri-Georges Clouzot's film, the nitroglycerine job is the only one that gives the men hope they'll ever transcend their economic conditions. Mixed martial arts has that same dynamic for Lyle Beerbohm, whose father says of him and his fellow fighters, "I don't know that they're geniuses (but) they're all decent people."
It's that sort of candid talk that gives Fight Life an added appeal. As viewers, we want to know whether these fighters succeed in their mission to climb the sport's ladder, but it also helps to hear the character of each fighter articulated by family members. Character, not skin color or other surface qualities, should be how people are judged, great philosophers have said. This and more are on display in Fight Life. On TV earlier this month, the Olympics introduced athletes of all backgrounds to new viewers, and some of those athletes (like Claressa Shields, the gold-medal-winning boxer) won over millions of new fans. The hard work that goes into athletic dreams is central to Fight Life, a film that shows the spilled blood and the black eyes that are almost badges of honor for up-and-coming fighters.
"I pretty much cleared out my whole bank account for this project," says Feng, who took three years to make the film. "A lot of the people on crew volunteered their time. When the film actually makes money, I will have to pay them. Our actual budget, if everyone got paid -- me and the crew -- was probably around $200,000 to $250,000. I started this when I was 26. I spent months researching mixed martial arts and realized there wasn't really any movie about it. I saw a huge void. I said, 'I'm a filmmaker. I want to make a name for myself. I see an opportunity here.' I jumped into it head first."
Like the fighters themselves.
Fight Life screens at 7pm, Friday, August 31, 2012, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For more information, visit theunitedfest.com.