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Cinematic Knockout

[whitespace] On the Ropes

Documentary Duo: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen champion boxing's urban underdogs.

Filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen take viewers inside the world of amateur boxing in their documentary 'On the Ropes'

By Christine Brenneman

As a boxer in training at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Boxing Center in Brooklyn, Nanette Burstein found herself surrounded by amazing individuals. The people in the neighborhood lived with crime, drugs, poverty and difficult family situations, yet still ached to be something, to gain dignity and recognition in their lives. Burstein was so impressed with the determination she saw in these people that she enlisted the help of her then boyfriend and fellow filmmaker, Brett Morgen, to make a documentary film about four people she had met at the center. The stunning result is On the Ropes, a labor of love for Morgen and Burstein that chronicles the roller-coaster ride of the lives of trainer Harry Keitt and three of his young fighters: Noel Santiago, Tyrene Manson and George Walton. On the Ropes follows the struggles of these four individuals with a riveting mixture of grace and honesty, painting a surprisingly fresh portrait of kids in the ghetto.

Metropolitan: What was your intention in making this film and how did that change over the course of the year?

Brett Morgen: I think first and foremost we wanted to make an entertaining movie that looked and felt like a dramatic narrative, that used real people to achieve that goal. When Nanette came up with the idea of doing the film, it was perfect because the material really lent itself to that.

Nanette Burstein: For me, it was about having gotten to know Tyrene and Harry. I was pretty amazed by how many obstacles they had in their lives and yet how determined they were.

Metropolitan: How emotionally involved did you become with your characters?

Morgen: We're often asked, "How did you retain your objectivity?" and usually we just tell people there was no objectivity. We were like one big family, and I don't think we could have made the film we did or done justice to our subjects if we would have kept a distance.

Burstein: It was a really hard film to make. The content of what you're filming is so emotional, and you become very close to your subjects. We were kind of a wreck while shooting the film.

Metropolitan: How did it feel, as filmmakers, to take on this story that had a life of its own, that you had no control over?

Morgen: I think that we both feel pretty strongly that when you're making a documentary, there's so much that's out of your control that you should try to get as firm a grasp on as much as you can before you start shooting.

Burstein: Nonetheless, it is still very nerve-wracking. You don't know if your characters are going to change, which is essential for a film to work on a dramatic level.

Metropolitan: How did you convince these people to let you into their lives in such a personal manner?

Burstein: They really wanted their stories to be told, so it was nice that someone was coming in with a camera. As we were filming, we became closer to them. We were just a two-person crew--I did sound and Brett did camera. It wasn't like these strangers were coming in and filming; we were very involved with them socially, outside of filming.

Morgen: The real access that you try to achieve when you're making a documentary film is into a person's soul and to have them open up their hearts to you. I think that the kids in the film and Harry were ready for that to happen.

Metropolitan: Why do you think it's important to tell this story?

Burstein: You see the inner city on the news all the time, and people have certain stereotypical images of it. When you break it down to an individual, you see everything that's working against them. You get to know them as people and you get a totally different experience and a much greater understanding. In the media, we have clichéd images of what's going on; they basically touch the surface, and I wanted to get beneath the surface.

Morgen: Ultimately, it's a story about underdogs trying to overcome all the odds, and that's a classic story. Whether it takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant or any arena, that story has persisted through time. Hopefully, our film transcends the inner city and boxing; we hope people realize it's just a human drama. Audiences who come to see On the Ropes are consistently surprised at the breadth and width of the film and that it really isn't this ghetto or inner-city film, although there is a lot of social relevance to it.

Metropolitan: How did you deal with the tension and the level of chaos in some of the more personal moments?

Morgen: I think for the most part, when something really dramatic would happen, we'd have this duplicitous feeling. On one hand, as filmmakers, we knew that we had captured this fantastic moment; and on the other hand, it is a strange feeling. You feel like you're prying too much at times into these people's lives.

Burstein: Tyrene more than anyone really felt the injustice of her life and really wanted to be filmed; she wanted the camera there. I never felt like I was imposing on her. I felt like I was doing her a service.

Metropolitan: How has this film affected the subjects' lives?

Morgen: I think when you see a story as precise as this on screen and you're the subject in the story, the lesson that your character learns in the film is much more clear to you. Noel, maybe he would have learned this one lesson about determination and hard work at this one point in his life and then forgotten about it. Through the film, the subjects can better understand what they went through during this really pivotal time in their lives. With Tyrene and George, because they're so involved in boxing, it's going to help them out professionally because they'll have even more name recognition.

On the Ropes plays June 5 at 9:30pm at the Castro Theater as part of the Dockers Khakis Classically Independent Film Festival. It opens theatrically in early fall. The film won the Special Jury Award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Gate Award at the SF International Film Festival, and it was a finalist in the Taos Talking Pictures Festival.

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From the May 24, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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