DIR/PRO: Ross Whitaker, Liam Nolan • ED: Bob Caldwell • CAST: Darren Sutherland, Abdul Hussein, Dean Murphy, John McCormack, Jimmy McCormack
Irish documentaries tend, for the most part, to have a hint of the unprofessional about them – talking heads and directorial front-of-camera work belying the seriousness of their subject matter. Saviours, despite a reliance on some heavy interviewing, manages to come across as a natural and startlingly honest portrayal of the St. Saviours Olympic Boxing Academy in Dublin.
The film appeals on a stronger level than through the sport – holding a self-confessed aversion to boxing, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many layers in the documentary that the sport came almost secondary. Focusing on three athletes and their varying fortunes from the academy, their stories are connected by the hilarious brothers who run the gym – John and Jimmy McCormack. Ex-champion boxers, the elderly pair view their charges as sons, and treat them as such – admonishing and comforting them in turn. A view of ‘old Dublin’ that we don’t see much of these days, their attention to their athlete’s personal as well as professional lives shows a caring and love absent from the more sterile and moneyed gyms of the country.
The first story follows Dean Murphy, a shining light in the academy, who is showing much promise in the ring. Coming from the nearby flats around Dorset Street, Dean has been a member of the academy since childhood, and dreams – as they all do – of Olympic gold. Fighting back from injury, and facing into battles he is ill-prepared for, Dean gives more insight into living in today’s inner-city than anything else, and his boxing becomes a metaphor for the rest of his life.
The story of Abdul Hussein, an asylum seeker from Ghana, is more a damning indictment of the Irish immigration system than anything else. Watching his struggle to stay in the country, and his dedication to the gym and becoming an Irish citizen, was the most interesting, and upsetting, part of the documentary. The lack of information, the long waiting, the laws against him – Abdul’s struggle outside of the ring carries more weight than any fight inside of it.
The most famous of the documentary’s subjects is, of course, Darren Sutherland, who recently won bronze at the Beijing Olympics. A hard-working student of Irish-Caribbean descent, Darren shows the most professional ability of all the members of the gym, something John and Jimmy are quick to nurture, and Darren pushes himself as much for them as for anything else. Interestingly, the film shows Darren’s fear of losing – something that holds him back from trying too hard in the ring, until the brother’s disappointment in his lack of effort spurs him into reacting positively.
A documentary less about boxing than about the strength of character that can be built with some nurturing and care – from Abdul’s joking with John about where he is from (Abdul says ‘Galway’, and John replies ‘Ah, you’re a culchie then!’), to Dean’s mentoring younger members of the gym, and fielding compliments from bystanders on the streets.
A truly observational documentary, Saviours focuses more on the people than the sport, but is not the less for that. Probably not destined for a wide release, as the style of filmmaking still lacks the professionalism needed to break into that tough niche that mainstream documentaries labour in, Saviours nonetheless manages to show an unflinching truth, and a true depiction of an academy trying its best to do something positive in an increasingly difficult world.