by Vladan Petkovic
- BERLIN 2019: André Hörmann's newest documentary charts the tumultuous circumstances in which two promising young boxers from a Chicago ghetto grow up
Versatile Bremen-born, LA- and Berlin-based filmmaker André Hörmann's newest feature-length documentary, Ringside, has just world-premiered in the Berlinale's Generation 14plus section. The film, about two young Chicago boxers, tackles themes including life in a ghetto, the American prison system and father-son relationships, but at heart it is a story about young men struggling to beat overwhelming odds and become accomplished professional athletes.
Destyne Butler and Kenneth Sims are two black kids from Chicago's notorious South Side ghetto. The film opens with a montage of archive footage and photographs from when they were 12 and were the most promising young boxers in the city, aiming to qualify for the Olympics. But some three years later, their paths diverge: Kenneth becomes a US junior champion, while Destyne ends up in prison for a spate of burglaries.
We learn about how they grew up through interviews with their fathers, also former boxers who went on to coach them, both adamant about getting their kids out of the dangerous ‘hood through boxing. Destyne Senior relates how he used to dabble in crime, too, selling drugs and stealing cars, but managed to avoid prison. Kenneth Senior, on the other hand, built a career and moved his family out of the ghetto into the more peaceful suburbs.
When Kenneth does not manage to qualify for the London Olympics, he is devastated, but with his dad's support, he starts taking part in amateur boxing matches, and soon gets noticed by a well-known New York promoter. The scene after he signs a five-year contract, as the whole family stands in Times Square, so happy that they cannot actually believe what is happening, is one of the emotional highlights of the film – a dream come true.
Meanwhile, Destyne's dad manages to get his son into the prison boot camp for first-time offenders, which, if he successfully completes it, should allow him to shorten his sentence early enough to start training for the 2016 Olympics. But in any case, the question remains: can he get his technique back?
For many young African Americans, sports are often the only way out of the vicious circle of poverty and crime – but even when they think they have escaped it, it is often not over. During the course of the film, two boxers from South Chicago (one of them a close friend of Kenneth Senior's) end up getting killed in gang-related shootings.
Ringside is a very engaging film, in the best American tradition of documentary storytelling. At all times, we feel we are in safe hands with Hörmann's approach, which includes some simple but creative editing, such as when, in a parallel montage, we see Kenneth winning match after match while Destyne works out in prison.
Ringside is a co-production between Germany's Sutor Kolonko and Brooklyn-based Motto Pictures. US company Submarine Entertainment has the international rights.
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