Florence Fight Club and Knuckle are two films recently featured in this years DocAviv festival. Both films are connected, in the sense that they deal with a very raw and male dominated world and are steeped in warped perceptions of honour and what it means to be a man. Both show us strong working-class characters driven by the need to compete, fight and prove themselves, in the only way they know how – whether that way be by bare-knuckle boxing or Florentine-style football. Neither film reveals anything new in the argument, although both, predictably, contribute to that strange fascination most of mankind holds for the fight – men pairing off against one another, mano-a-mano.
As a film, Florence Fight Club, comes out on top. The characters are more interesting, the tension is well built throughout the film and because of the traditions and costume involved in the staging of the sport, it pulls the viewer into its visual spectacle. The film revolves around four characters, each playing for a different team. The tournament takes place once a year, involving the same four teams and its roots can be traced back to the 16th Century. Up until now, the game has been played with no rules, but due to an ongoing vendetta and increasing injuries, the city’s sporting body has decided to intervene.
The new rules include no players over forty years of age and no kicking another player. Two of the characters featured, Pussi and Gianluca (both over forty), are understandably riled about not being able to play – both look in good physical condition and don’t look like they would take any prisoners on the field of play. These guys are ‘old school’ through and through, want the old rules preserved and are strong physical presences throughout the film. Gianluca rails against the new rules and considers the new young players on his team as ‘weak willed’ and inferior to those who played in his day – his constant dissatisfaction results in his team eventually withdrawing from the tournament.
Pussi, who we can see from archival footage, was a formidable player in his day, overshadows his son, who is about to take part in his first Florentine tournament. The son has a lot to live up to and wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but one look at Pussi and one look at the son and you know that this is a non-starter. You can’t help but feel the son’s plight – Pussi is an imposing and commanding presence, gives strong voice to his thoughts and feelings and one imagines that the son will always be in his father’s shadow. This ‘tension’ between the older and younger players and old and new rules creates an interesting dichotomy running throughout the film.
Florentine football is popular only amongst a small number of its cities residents, there are no big stadiums as in Rome or Milan. Each match is attended by about a thousand spectators, but the build-up to these matches creates an atmosphere similar to old village fairs. The teams parade through the streets in traditional costume, there are standard-bearers carrying flags and the sound of drums heralds the coming match – this carnivalesque atmosphere belies the growing tension for what will take place on the field. The teams have put in hard training, know the risks involved, now comes the real test. Florence Fight Club works well as a documentary, holds the viewer and captures a moment in a small-town sport going through some changes.
Ian Palmer’s “Knuckle” also focuses on what might be considered a small-town sport, albeit having a slightly mythical status. Bare-knuckle boxing has gone from being the sport of kings to one generally conducted in a subterranean fashion – the stuff of dark and dingy clubs, peopled with gambling sharks and hustlers. Being an Irish ex-pat, and having met one or two travellers when residing in Ireland, I was interested and curious to see the film.
Having been shot over twelve years and focusing on family vendettas and feuds in the usually closed world of the Irish ‘traveller’ or gypsy, the film came with some hype. Using fly-on-the-wall technique, Palmer’s film documents three families locked in a seemingly endless feud that none of the families appears to want to resolve. During the course of the film, Palmer tries to discover the reasons for the feud, but because of codes of secrecy and differing interpretations, the viewer could be forgiven for not quite knowing who is in the right or how it all started.
The travelling community in Ireland has a somewhat ‘picturesque’ reputation; whilst not exactly a law unto themselves, for the most part they stick with their own kind and are generally considered outsiders, with a healthy disrespect for judicial activity. Throw into the mix their penchant for inter-marriage and its not difficult to see why they would attract a filmmaker’s interest – over the course of the film, we do witness the freakish antics of Joe Joyce, the self-styled ‘king of the travellers’ delivering ‘colourful’ taunts, and looking like he has just stepped out of the nearest backwoods town – think John Boorman’s film ‘Deliverance’ and you’re on the right track.
The film moves from family to family and fight to fight with the central character being James Quinn McDonagh, who stoically takes each fight in his stride and appears physically and mentally the match for all his opponents. The characters are as raw as the footage, there is no glamour and very little that is pretty. The fights are initiated in a juvenile fashion; one family sends another a video hurling insults at them, the other responds and then a match is fixed, and so it goes. The fights take place on back-roads and in farm yards and there is no doubting the toughness and ability of some of the fighters; one of the fights lasts two hours, probably at least twice as long as an average heavyweight championship fight, but the spectacle of the ‘contest’ is not enough to hold our interest as viewers.
Knuckle is a raw and bleak look at these traveller-families world view and environment. Whether it is down to the fact that the film is shot over twelve years, resulting in a somewhat disconnected view of the characters and their plight, neither the characters nor the family vendettas that drive them have any real heart or depth.