On the trail of women boxers in India: A conversation with the makers of With This Ring

0 Posted by - June 11, 2010 - Conversations, Features, Screen

Anna Sarkissian and Ameesha Joshi are emerging filmmakers from Montreal, Quebec, currently making a documentary in India “on a shoestring budget” about women boxers called With this Ring. The synopsis from the film’s site:

Winning four world titles is not enough to get noticed in India, just ask 27 year-old boxing champion Mary Kom. She could have been a household name by now if she had chosen to pursue a more “ladylike” sport like tennis or field hockey. Instead, she is fighting against centuries of tradition in a country that expects women to be sweet and docile. With cropped hair, defined shoulders and a mean left hook, she is anything but your typical Indian girl.

With This Ring lets you step into the ring with members of the Indian Women’s National Boxing Team. From their villages to the podium, these girls quickly rise to the top of their game. At the 4th World Women’s Boxing Competition in 2006, the Indian team makes a clean sweep, winning eight medals and the Championship Team title. They officially become the best women’s boxing team in the world. And the most under-appreciated.

Art Threat recently fired off a few questions to this dynamic duo. Their responses, with images, and a sneak peak video of the film are below.

Art Threat: What is this project about and how did you get the idea?

Anna Sarkissian: Since 2006, we’ve been on the trail of the Indian women’s senior national boxing team. They’re some of the top boxers in the world, with multiple world champions in their midst. Ameesha originally found out that there were women boxing in India after seeing their images at a World Press Photo Exhibit. With her Indian heritage (she’s Gujarati), she was really curious to find out how these women were able to pursue boxing when they are expected to marry and have kids by the age of 20. The social pressure to be a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, is intense. When she found out they were some of the top boxers in the world, she knew there was a story to tell. We talked about going to India, and upon finding out that there would be a boxing world championship in New Delhi for the first and possibly last time, we knew we couldn’t pass up this opportunity. So in November, we booked last minute flights and headed to India. We had no funding, no equipment of our own. We basically begged and borrowed and did whatever was necessary to get ourselves there. It was well worth it and we were able to witness history in the making; India won four world championship titles and was crowned best team in the world.

Essentially, we’re looking at the women behind the gloves. We’re interested in their personal stories, finding out how they have overcome struggles in order to pursue boxing, which can be their ticket out of poverty. Successful athletes are often rewarded with a cushy government job, meaning they would be set for life. Many girls on the team are able to support their entire families with their earnings. As you can imagine, many of them come from small, conservative villages where boxing is misunderstood. Yet once they start winning medals internationally and earning their own money, their families become more accepting.

One of their parents’ primary concerns is that boxing will disfigure their faces, and they won’t be able to marry. It may sound trivial to us to have a cut or scar on your face, but marriage is a pivotal rite of passage in India. Some of the boxers are 25 or 26 years old and still haven’t married. Society views them as old maids. They’ve given up on some of them. You can imagine their relief to find out that Ameesha and I (we’re 37 and 27) aren’t married. We formed some common ground on that front.

People have a lot of preconceived notions about these boxers, who train to “hit other women in the head” three times a day, six days a week, 11 months a year. Even here, when we show our footage, people are startled by their appearance: short hair, defined shoulders, men’s jeans. People will come up to them on the street, asking, “Are you a boy or a girl?” just to rattle them. They laugh it off. They go about their business inside the walls of the training camp, focusing on boxing. They are marginalized by society, in many ways, but they keep training. They ignore the snide remarks and stares because they have their sights set on the next world championship, the Asian Games, and the Olympics.

Publicly, most people said they supported women’s boxing. We would ask people on the street, “what if your mother wanted to try boxing?” They told us they would encourage her to do so. But others were more candid, saying it was degrading for women to wear tracksuits and other cheap clothing when they should be in saris. Others said they would prefer for women to focus on “womanly pursuits” like weaving or pottery. One man said he wouldn’t let his wife box because she would put him in the hospital.

The site seems a little different than a standard doc film site, what is the plan for the website?

AS: We hope to make people part of the process as the film comes together. Since we’ve been sharing the production experience with an audience on our CitizenShift blog since 2006, we felt that we wanted to continue to have the same kind of relationship during the post-production. We’ve been very candid about the challenges and problems we’ve had in making this film. In a sense, we feel like we have nothing to hide. We would like our online presence to be a warts and all portrayal of the way that With This Ring was made. It feels strange to talk about ourselves in the third person while promoting our film, so we keep things intimate. It’s just the two of us working on this in our free time, there’s no huge bureaucratic production house shaping our words. We want it to feel genuine. Since this is a personal project for both of us, we wanted others to join us on the meandering journey, wherever it goes.

We hope to post more clips as we get deeper into the post-production process and of course we’ll save some nuggets for the actual film. Apparently, there’s this thing called social media that we’re supposed to be utilizing to promote our film. We don’t know the first thing about tweeting but we’re open to the idea.

What’s the best story/moment you have from filming? And the worst?

AS: We’ve been lucky in the sense that we’ve had many wonderful moments. Our film was made on a non-existent budget and we had unbelievable support from the families of the boxers, coaches, and even complete strangers. In India, they have a saying that the “guest is like a god.” You really feel that. We enjoyed more delicious meals at people’s homes than either of us could have imagined. It’s also not customary for two women to travel alone in India, so people were quite nervous about us gallivanting around the country by ourselves. They really went out of their way to ensure that we were taken care of and welcomed us wholeheartedly. That’s really what I’ll always remember about India.

The worst? Upon arriving in India back in 2006, the coaches told us we were welcome to shoot the team – for the day. Somehow, there was some miscommunication and the team didn’t understand that we were coming to India for two months expressly to document their lives. That was a minor roadblock, to say the least. We spent a few weeks waiting outside their training hall, hoping to speak to them. Eventually, we gained the trust of the coaches and the athletes and developed a good relationship with them. Since 2006, we have met up with them in Ontario when they came for a training camp in 2008, spent 10 weeks with them at the training camps in India in summer 2008, travelled to China with them for the world championships in November 2008, and returned to India in December 2008 for a final visit. At this point, we’ve finished shooting and we’re starting editing.

Filmmaker Ameesha Joshi

Ameesha Joshi: One of the best moments was the first day we arrived at the boxing camp in India in the summer of 2008, 2 years after our first visit.  Since then Mary Kom, one of our main characters and currently the  world`s best boxer,  had left the boxing scene for two years after having twin boys. We had no idea if she planned on returning to the sport, so it was absolutely a surprise to discover she had and arrived at the boxing camp the exact same day we did to begin production. 

Mary was determined to win her 4th gold medal at the next Championships, which she did!  But the best part of her returning was her arrival with a baby in each arm. We got to witness her juggling an extensive training workout while taking care of her two babies.  She was often up all night from them crying, but always got up at the crack of dawn with all the other boxers for a grueling workout and their workouts occurred three times a day, 6 days a week.  It was impressive to say the least.

There are many of the smaller moments I remember fondly, like getting caught in the rain during an outdoor boxing competition in monsoon season. Sometimes the rain would come down like a waterfall without any prior warning of a drizzle.  The chaos that ensued was rather comical, everyone was screaming through the downpour, racing to get inside, many scrambled and crouched underneath the ring for cover.  It was seconds before you got completely soaked so you had to move fast.   Then there was us huddling under our ridiculously large golf umbrella Anna had brought from home, it ended up being one of the most valuable items we packed that summer, no question it saved our equipment.  The boxers ended up continuing the competition indoors, with a makeshift ring, using their backpacks to mark the edges.  They  always made the best of any situation and there most common response to any hitch or hurdle were always the words ‘ no problem!’ 

One of the worst times was the whole process in getting special permission to visit the north eastern state of Manipur where Mary Kom lives in 2006.  We bought our plane tickets before realizing that non-resident Indians need special permission to visit.  The ordeal to get the paper work approved was long and arduous, involving long lineups over many days.  We kept pushing back our plane ticket to Manipur without knowing if we would even receive permission in time.  We  had non-refundable plane tickets back to Canada, and with next to no budget, our schedule was fixed so it was quite stressful,  but in the end we did managed to get the permission, and only because a kind Manipuri family we befriended in Delhi pulled some strings at the last minute. 

Then there was the moment we arrived in Manipur to find out Mary had just left for Mumbai for a last minute engagement.  We were more than relieved to learn she would return three days before we would leave Manipur, and she did everything to shower us with incredible Manipuri hospitality during those precious days.

Your previous short (Anna’s) was an experimental documentary, will this one be as well? And what do you feel are the problems/limitations with more conventional documentary?

AS: It’s a tough business and I can appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to make a good film. I think documentaries are often lumped together as being “badly made” by other filmmakers, with shaky camera, choppy editing and so on. In some cases, people are so focused on the message that any trace of art disappears. Personally, I think Powerpoint is a great visual tool for conveying facts and information – but I don’t want to see pie-charts at the movies. I’m certainly not a master filmmaker, but looking back at some of the NFB box sets from the glory years, I think we’ve lost touch with the art of documentary. They were true technical masters who had a great sense of storytelling. My dream would to be able to combine those two elements in a film (or die trying).

The filmmakers with the boxing team

I’m not sure that our finished product will be television-friendly. We’re wrestling with aesthetic decisions now, trying to maintain our vision without losing our audience. Ameesha and I certainly have a vision for the film that is not entirely conventional. We like long takes, wide shots, slow motion, slow pacing – letting your eye roam around the frame. At the same time, we want our film to be accessible because the stories are important to us.

AJ: In addition to Anna`s comment about our film being accessible is the consideration of audience reactions from different cultures.  Although we can’t predict what the majority will think, we at least understand the audience in Canada better than in India, where we hope the film will be widely viewed. It’s very important for us to give these boxers the media attention they need.  But in India, where Bollywood is the popular film format, I really do wonder whether the general population will enjoy our artistic approach.  I can only hope.

Anything you’d like to add?

AS: A lot! Not sure what else you’d like to know that isn’t on our website…But here’s a description of our two main characters.

AJ: Women`s boxing will be featured as an Olympic sport for the first time at the 2012 Games in London.  Having a chance to compete at the Olympics is the ultimate dream for most athletes. All hopes are on Mary Kom, but no question there are other boxers on their team that have the potential to strike gold and make history.   We were in India during the last summer Olympics  and witnessed how the three Indians who won a medal were splashed throughout the media.  I can only imagine that this display of pride would make a significant difference in changing the social taboos surrounding women`s boxing in India.

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