“It wasn’t about doing a boxing film,” says Nanette Burstein, codirector with Brett Morgen of On the Ropes, a portrait of boxing trainer Harry Keitt and the three young pugilists he shepherds through to the 1997 Golden Gloves Tournament. “We didn’t necessarily have a political or social or informational agenda; for us, it was most important to tell a compelling story about real people.”
After Burstein spent six months training with Keitt at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center in Brooklyn (“I thought it would be a great way to release my aggressions,” she says), the 29-year-old NYU film grad student decided to document Keitt and his young hopefuls: Tyrene Manson, a self-assured young woman wrongfully arrested for cocaine possession; Noel Santiago, a fatherless kid with a crack-addicted mother; and George Walton, an up-and-comer looking for guidance.
The filmmakers explain that the boxers were chosen as much for their own compelling stories as for their relationship with Harry, once an amateur fighter (he sparred with Muhammad Ali) and a drug addict with a criminal record (he spent four years in Sing Sing for attempted murder). “They all represent a different part of Harry. He’s the hidden hero of the film,” says Morgen, likening their central figure to the protagonist of Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe. “He’s someone struggling with his past, fighting
his demons, and trying to find redemption by saving someone else.”
Both Burstein and Morgen started out making narrative shorts before stumbling onto the nonfiction format—Burstein through a job editing documentaries for PBS, Morgen by fouling up his undergrad student film and then switching to a nonfiction version at the last minute (coincidentally, at Ken Burns’s alma mater, Hampshire College). The directors claim it was essential that their documentary follow the tenets of fiction filmmaking: a sympathetic central protagonist, a three-act structure, a dramatic score and sound design. Morgen, a 30-year-old Los Angeles native, explains, “We basically took our love of dramatic narrative film and said, ‘Let’s apply that to documentary.”‘
About a third of the way into shooting their two-year project, Burstein and Morgen discovered firsthand the impact of real-life filmmaking. “As events in our subjects’ lives became more dire, our relationship with them strengthened,” says Burstein. “We were like therapists, and
like surrogate parents, and brothers and sisters,” adds Morgen.
At one point during shooting, when Keitt confronted Noel about his desire to quit, “both Nanette and I put the camera down and jumped into the conversation,” says Morgen. “We felt, ‘Forget the film, this is this kid’s life.”‘ When Tyrene faced incarceration, the directors even contemplated adopting her child. But as close as they got to their subjects (they still keep in daily phone contact with all of them), Burstein concedes their cultural differences. “We were still living in different worlds. Their issues were far more insurmountable than ours.”
Despite Hollywood interest (a fictionalized version of On the Ropes is set to go into production shortly), the directing duo say they will remain committed to nonfiction. Their next project, American High, a weekly television documentary series on Texas high-school students, is being prepared for a major network. Morgen says: “When we go to L.A., people say, ‘When are you going to start making “real” movies?’ But we just made a film with real people, so are they suggesting we now make an artificial film?”