Upright Stance, Jab Forward: An Interview with Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian – Momoko Allard
Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian have been working on With This Ring, a documentary film about the Indian national women’s boxing team, since 2006. They sat down with me for an interview last September, just after their return from the 6th Women World Boxing Championships in Barbados.
Momoko Allard: The two of you have been working on this documentary on women boxers in India for about four years now. How did you first come to this project?
Ameesha Joshi: I first got the idea for this film in 2005 at the World Press Photo exhibition. There was a photo there of an Indian woman boxing on the beach in Madras. I was immediately intrigued. I went home and googled as much as I could. There was hardly anything on the web about these boxers, but what I did find out about them was absolutely fascinating. They were from the poorest parts of India, they were world champions, and they were completely undiscovered. Being of Indian background myself, I knew some of the cultural and social pressures they would be up against. It’s still a traditional society and overall, it’s not acceptable for a woman to be boxing.
MA: The Indian women’s boxing team has been world champion or close to the top for several years now. How did they get so strong?
Anna Sarkissian: India got a head start with their boxing program 10 or 11 years ago, well before a lot of other countries. They have a tradition of government-funded training camps for many of their sports, and they kept up that tradition with women’s boxing. The boxers train intensively at these camps around ten months of the year, six days a week, two to three times a day. International coaches have made comments about the team’s impressive boxing technique and it’s in large part due to their rigorous training regime. They just work very hard.
MA: While they’re training, are they completely supported by the state?
AS: Their food and accommodations are paid for, health care is paid for. Education is paid for if they want it, although they don’t have much time.
AJ: The training camps are set up in certain places in India and become their home. We stayed with them in their hostels, and we saw the accommodations in which they have to live and train. It’s pretty simple by North American standards. In some places, the food is substandard and the electricity and water often cut out. They deal with mosquitoes, hot weather, monsoons, all kinds of conditions.
MA: How does boxing interface with economic classes? What backgrounds do the athletes usually come from?
AJ: They usually come from poorer communities. Universally, people from poorer backgrounds tend to get into boxing because it’s a fairly cheap sport to get into. Many of them can’t afford a formal education, and it’s very much a ticket out of poverty for them. The Indian police and railway reserve a certain percentage of jobs for successful athletes. If these boxers get a medal, even on just a national level, they have the possibility of getting one of these jobs. It’s almost like winning the lottery because it’s a cushy government job with a pension. They would never have access to a job like this otherwise. It gives them financial independence and the ability to support their families, which many of them do.
MA: Starting with your title, With This Ring, the focus in this film is on gender and the gender expectations that these women defy.
AS: The title is an allusion to marriage and the choices and sacrifices that they make in order to be boxers. Many of these girls should have been married five years ago and yet they’re training full-time at a boxing camp, which is pretty unacceptable from society’s point of view. In many ways they’re marginalized because of that, with their short hair, tracksuits, and so on.
MA: You saw one of them wearing a shirt that said “Not all girls are stupid, some of them don’t get married.”
AJ: I came across a boxer wearing that t-shirt when I visited a training camp for the first time in 2005. It made an immediate impression on me. But what really struck me was the sheer number of boxers, about forty or fifty women from around 18 into their late 20s, all training at the same time. It’s quite an impressive visual. I hadn’t seen girls like that before in India. We’ve interviewed a lot of them and a question we’d always ask was, “Do you want to get married?” Many of them just laughed and said no, the last thing they wanted was to be a housewife.
MA: But some of them are married?
AS: Just a handful out of forty are married. They get a taste of independence once they go to the training camp. For the first time they can travel on the train by themselves to and from the camp. They have spending money and can buy their own mobile phone. Getting married is like reverting back to the old ways that they’re trying to avoid. For many of them, marriage is on their mind because it’s what society expects of them, but they’ll say, “not now, not now.”
MA: One of the main characters you’re following in your film, MC Mary Kom, is married, and is even raising children while she continues to box. Tell me a bit about her.
AJ: Mary is pretty phenomenal. She recently made history by winning her fifth world championship. She’s from a small village in Manipur, which is a very poor state fraught with all kinds of corruption. She had a very poor background and she had to hide the fact that she was boxing from her parents in the beginning. But she has this indomitable spirit, and many say that boxing is more mental than physical. She succeeded despite all kinds of difficulties. She took a year and a half off of the sport to give birth to twin boys, and then came back to win her fourth and fifth world titles.
MA: How does her partner deal with it, and how do they manage parenting while she’s boxing?
AS: Mary would tell you that she hit the jackpot with her husband Onler. He’s extremely supportive of her career and really encourages her to box. She financially supports him and her extended family, so that’s a fairly convincing argument in favour of boxing. Both of their families help take care of the babies when she’s away at competitions and training. They also run a boxing academy out of their home. It’s really a family effort.
MA: Were there ever times while working on this film as visitors in a different cultural context that you had to reconsider your own gender?
AS: I would say, in terms of the way people responded to us, they would talk to us as people. But I think that we had a special status because we were foreigners. I don’t think Indian women would receive the same type of respect or help. They would not be taken as seriously as we were. I noticed that men would talk to us and then say something quite derogatory to a woman, telling her to go do something as if she were a maid. We were almost in a separate category, as outsiders.
MA: Was there any situation in which your gender did become an issue or a barrier?
AJ: Actually, Anna and I have discussed how much it has only helped us to be women making this. We could be in closer proximity to the boxers. We could stay with them in their hostels. At some point I found that Anna became invisible no matter how close she stood to them with her camera. As women, we were less of a threat. We took that for granted at first, but we came to realize that it’s an advantage.
MA: Was it difficult to gain access to the team?
AS: I would say yes and that would be an understatement. There was major confusion in the beginning about what we were doing and about the access we’d been given. Originally the boxing federation said “Yes, come, no problem. We support your project.” But somehow that wasn’t communicated to the team or the head coach. When we got there in 2006, we presented ourselves and explained that we’d come all the way from Canada to film them for the next six weeks. They said, “Well ok, you can film us for today and that’s it.” Over the next two years, we gradually built a relationship with them and tried to explain the purposes of our project so that they would understand that we were there to promote boxing and their stories.
AJ: Despite gaining their trust, which we’ve finally done, it has still been a long road. Access to the boxers is very meager. They have so little free time. They have one day off a week, and understandably, they want that day for themselves. They want to shop, and they want to see their families, so it’s pretty tough to coordinate an interview and even then, you have to find someone who can help translate. It’s not simple.
MA: How did you manage the language barriers?
AS: With great difficulty. I can’t stress how much of a barrier language can be. It took us so long to establish relationships with the boxers on a day-to-day basis because of it. Even if we’d had the money to have a translator with us twenty-four hours a day, having another person there would really change the dynamic. They could be an intrusion. They could be adding their own personal bias when they ask the questions and when they translate them back to us. We did have some translators working with us, but it wasn’t easy to manage. As a result, it’s kind of a mishmash. Sometimes, we had no idea what our subjects were saying. Sometimes it was half-English, half-Hindi. We would have some of the questions translated ahead of time by one of Ameesha’s family members. We’ve been really lucky to find translators in Canada who have been working for very little money out of the kindness of their hearts because they believe in the project. We couldn’t have done this without Meenakshi Malhotra, Likla Devi and Geetanjali Dagar, among others.
AJ: You’re left to try to read everything else but the spoken word. There’s no other option. It’s not ideal.
MA: And how did you deal with the technical obstacles of working on the move, far from home?
AS: We were on a really tight budget. We traveled like backpackers, so we had no choice but to have very little equipment and to be able to carry it ourselves. We kept it simple and barely even had a tripod. We just had a camera, microphone, headphones, and a boom pole.
MA: How does that show itself in the end aesthetics?
AS: I’m not sure that you’ll see it necessarily in the aesthetics, like in the composition. But I think it’s a feeling that you’ll get because our presence will be felt in the film and the way that we made it, with just the two of us. We’re hoping to make quite an intimate film that will be poetic and personal.
MA: The demo clips I’ve seen are really beautiful. They’re not at all what I expected from a documentary about boxing. There’s a strong sense of joy and pleasure in the sport.
AJ: Thank you. Anna is doing all of the cinematography. I was familiar with her shooting style from our collaboration in film school, and I was very happy when she wanted to be a part of this project.
AS: Originally, Ameesha’s idea was to contrast training with traditional dance, which has influenced the way we’ve filmed the boxers. I love composition in depth, so you’ll see that a lot. The way they move, their grunts and shouts, plus the stark contrast with their surroundings – it’s easy to find an interesting image.
AJ: Especially when they’re working in unison, the sound and the image, it hits you. When they’re all shadowboxing, you have fifty fists punching through the air at the same time with just breaths escaping from their mouths. It gets at your heartstrings when you’re watching it. Sometimes you just know certain things are going to translate onscreen.
MA: Going through production, and now post-production, do you have a certain audience in mind?
AS: That’s always the struggle because we want to attract multiple audiences. We want to please the boxers because they’re putting so much into it. At the same time, we want an international audience to see it and to find out more about them. And then there’s the Indian audience that’s probably the most important because they aren’t accepting of women’s boxing and they don’t know much about it. We have to find a balance between these three different groups.
AJ: And there’s always the compromise with the broadcaster, depending on who they are. We’ll have to wait and see what those compromises are going to be.
MA: Women’s boxing was just recently accepted into the Olympics. You’re hoping to release your film just before the 2012 Olympics?
AJ: Yes, we figured it’s a good time for our film to be released, since women’s boxing will be in the Olympics for the first time and our main character is expected to win a gold medal. We want it to be seen by as many people as possible, so marketing wise, that’s our strategy.
MA: And in the meantime?
AS: We’ve been charting our progress online on our production blog. We have a growing community on Facebook and we publish a lot of photos on Flickr because we’re interested in involving people in the process of making the film. We don’t just want the film to come out, people to see it, and then it dies. We’d like it to have a life.
All photo credits: With This Ring
Momoko Allard is a visual artist living in Montreal. She is currently at work on a dialogue-based video project about her relationship with her grandmother, their experiences of gender and sexuality from different generational and cultural perspectives, and the communication barriers that shape their understanding of each other. www.momokoallard.com
Ameesha Joshi graduated with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Waterloo in 1996 and worked in the software industry for several years. It wasn’t until 2001, while living in Halifax, NS, that she discovered her interest in filmmaking and directed her first short, The Red Glove, about an amateur woman boxer. While making the film, she developed a real appreciation for the sport. She is currently in the third year of her master’s in film production at Concordia University, and much of her work is inspired by her cultural background. Her next documentary project will be about laughing clubs in India.
Born and bred in Montreal, QC, Anna Sarkissian is an independent filmmaker and writer with interests ranging from sustainability and gender, to citizen engagement and identity. Her work has been screened at the Canadian Parliament, festivals, and on national television. She received her bachelor of fine arts from Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in 2005 and is currently pursuing her master’s in social anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is fluent in French and Spanish and struggles to get by in Hindi, Italian and Arabic.