As smooth and powerfully packed as its protagonist, Katya Bankowsky’s documentary Shadow Boxers focuses on Lucia Rijker, widely considered the greatest female fighter in the world. Bankowsky met Rijker in 1995 when she fought in the Golden Gloves, which had only recently been opened to women. The filmmaker, briefly an amateur fighter herself, followed Rijker as she turned pro and won the Women’s International Boxing Federation World Title in 1997. Rijker is not only a boxing champion—she holds the screen like a star, and she’s even thinking about a career in movies when she retires from the ring.
Shadow Boxers opens with vignettes about half a dozen women boxers as they experience the adrenaline rush of their first matches. Winners or losers, they are almost all hooked on the experience. “Why wouldn’t I want to make history?” a clownish former gymnast says to an interviewer who wonders what attracts her to boxing. Bankowsky undercuts the romance with a glimpse of an older male fighter commenting that he wouldn’t let his daughter or son box.
This prologue sets us up to see Rijker in a class apart from these other women boxers. Not that the adrenaline rush is absent, but her immersion, dedication, and dazzling skill is the equivalent of a great ballerina who lives to dance or a great musician who lives to play. Rijker is also particularly attuned to the existential confrontation that occurs in the ring—one with the self rather than the opponent. “Because you can get hit, because you can get hurt, because you can get knocked down, it’s like real life. In every fight, I learn something new about myself.” The woman who admits that her ferocious anger could have made her a danger to others outside the ring centers herself for a fight by chanting the Lotus Sutra.
Rijker was born in Amsterdam to a white mother and a black father. An athlete from childhood, she became the European women’s kick-boxing champ in her teens and defended her title for 10 years. In 1994, she moved to Los Angeles and began boxing. Her potential was obvious, and she was quickly signed by powerful promoter Bob Arum (who says he has no interest in women fighters except for Rijker) and trainer Freddie Roach, who rates her as one of the greatest fighters—male or female—that he’s ever known. Roach wants Rijker to fight for a couple of years, make some money, and retire while she’s still on top. Rijker keeps two pictures on her wall—one of herself as a child and one of a boxer who died in the ring. She says she doesn’t want to turn into one of those boxers who are so addicted to fighting that they keep trying to make comebacks. A brilliant career can end tragically in a blood sport—that awareness is what gives the film poignancy and dramatic tension.
Bankowsky’s boxing experience serves her well. The matches are filmed with exceptional insight into the ritual preparations, the entrance into the ring, the sizing up of the opponent, the fight itself, and the moment of triumph. Rijker narrates the fight sequences in voice-over, and her precise memory of what she was doing and feeling adds immeasurably to our understanding of the person and the sport. The film, which was shot over a period of three years—focusing on the six fights that led to the championship—switches fluidly between color and black-and-white, and the handheld camerawork is all the more impressive for being so invisible. The emergence of women in boxing has inspired several documentary and fiction films; Girlfight, the Sundance winner opening this fall, showcases a stunning young actress, but Rijker is more fabulous than any fiction.
A high school girl comedy with a slightly didactic edge, Colette Burson’s Coming Soon is located in an exclusive New York prep school, where our three heroines worry about their college prospects and fear that sex is not what it’s cracked up to be. The film is refreshingly direct and even courageous in its confrontation of female pleasure—specifically orgasms and masturbation, the staple of teen-boy comedies, but hitherto off-limits for girls.
Stream (Bonnie Root) is never more than a cell-phone call away from her best friends, Jenny (Gaby Hoffman) and Nell (Tricia Vesey). More sexually precocious than Stream, Jenny and Nell are rooting for Stream to lose her virginity to rich, spoiled Chad (James Roday), who’s hardly the great lover he imagines he is. Chad almost convinces Stream that she’s had an orgasm with him on the floor of his family’s stretch limo; Stream discovers the truth when she finds herself pressed up against a Jacuzzi spout. Her newfound ecstasy provokes her friends to question their own experiences.
Made on a limited budget, Coming Soon is too sketchy to be a satisfying comedy of manners. Burson shows intelligence and promise as a filmmaker, but she adopts an arch, relentlessly bright tone in an effort to keep up the pace. Everyone in the large cast, which includes Mia Farrow, Peter Bogdanovich, and Spalding Gray in thankless adult roles, works much too hard. The ideas behind Coming Soon evoke more sympathy than the film itself.
A mockumentary about the Internet, made in the late ’90s, during what history will regard as its primitive phase, The Love Machine mixes computer-wonk sophistication with old-fashioned 16mm, the medium that director Gordon Eriksen still prefers. The combination of nonglitzy filmmaking, techno-hip subject matter, humanist progressive politics, and sleazy, near-pornographic imagery is unsettling and oddly satisfying. Evading easy categories, The Love Machine slipped through the distribution cracks, despite winning an enthusiastic audience on the festival circuit. The new Pioneer Theater is opening it for a run, as well as showing in repertory the four features that Eriksen codirected with his partner, Heather Johnston. Lena’s Dreams and The Big Dis should not be missed.