by Stefan Dobroiu
- Alexandru Mavrodineanu's documentary digs down to the root of endemic, countrywide issues in Romania
Who would have thought that a story about a teenage Roma boxer and an outcast boxing coach could be so relevant for contemporary Romania, exploring some of the country's most pressing issues? After a world premiere at the Transilvania International Film Festival in June, Romanian director Alexandru Mavrodineanu's documentary feature Caisă is currently competing in the Romanian competition at the 25th edition of Astra Film Festival (15-21 October, Sibiu).
Mavrodineanu begins his doc with images broadcast in early 2000: a Romanian boxer, Vasile Dragomir, becomes world champion. In the background, we see the boxer's coach, Dumitru Dobre, overwhelmed with joy at his pupil’s victory. In the present day, we again meet Dobre, now an elderly, rotund trainer, and we soon come to understand that Dragomir rejected him as soon as he became famous. Currently an enemy of the Romanian boxing federation, Dobre spends his days training underprivileged teenagers, and soon we notice young Cristian (nicknamed Caisă, which in Romanian means “apricot”). Is Dobre right in thinking that his new pupil may be the next big thing in Romanian boxing?
The director and his camera are granted unfettered access to the training hall, Dobre's house and Caisă's extremely poor family. As members of the Roma community, they have practically no income, and at least one member of the family is in prison. They live in a world of poverty, with almost no education and virtually no chances of earning money via legal channels. In this context, Caisă's dedication to boxing looks like the boy's only chance of having a normal life – a life where the others' respect and a comfortable income are something attainable and not something he and his peers can only dream about.
There is a lot of power and immense emotion in the struggles undertaken by this extremely endearing team, Dobre and Caisă, who cannot even afford to dream. One is a pariah in the boxing world, and his boxers are not even allowed to compete in championships unless they are also represented by a boxing club approved by the federation. The other is also a pariah, but in every aspect of his life, with no chance of being accepted at a big boxing club until he proves his worth under Dobre's wing. Mavrodineanu explores this unfair context, unobtrusively showing how an underprivileged teenager can evolve with no support from the system, with nothing but an elderly coach by his side.
It is amazing how, with his camera trained exclusively on Caisă and Dobre, Mavrodineanu is able to expand the scope of the story, eventually discussing, among other topics, inequality of opportunities, endemic incompetence and nepotism, and Romania's difficulties in integrating and educating the members of the Roma community. Caisă is a lesson on perseverance, struggle and talent. It is also a story about rejection, about the invisible barrier between two worlds, a barrier that seems flexible, welcoming and elastic, but which becomes impenetrable as soon as someone tries to push through it. In one of the film's most powerful shots, we see Caisă squeezing the first Romanian lei he has earned from boxing in his overworked hand. There is such desperation and hope in this involuntary gesture that one cannot help but wish the boy the very best.
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