Boxing for the big screen
Jo Tuckman hears some fighting talk in Mexico
Friday June 29, 2007
round four, eyes down and body slumped, Julio Cesar Chavez calls off the fight.
He says his hand is broken. Later, in his dressing room, he dabs away the tears
with a tissue. "It was my fault," mumbles one of the world’s greatest boxers, as
his 24-year career ends with a technical knockout by a barely-known journeyman.
A matter-of-fact voice off camera responds: "Of course it was."
Diego Luna, which dedicates much of its 78 minutes to arguing that Chavez’s
demise – that final fight was in September 2005 – was actually the fault of
former presidents, unscrupulous promoters, and even his fans. "People with power
used Julio Cesar Chavez," Luna says. "Other people’s agenda completely took
over. It is very sad."
Luna – best known in Britain for his co-starring role with Gael Garcia Bernal
in Y Tu Mama Tambien – says he has always been fascinated by Mexico’s foremost
boxing legend. Chavez was one kind of world champion or another from 1984 to
1994, winning 108 fights (87 with a knockout), drawing two and losing only six.
"I wasn’t a fan of boxing, I was a fan of Julio Cesar Chavez," Luna says. "All
of Mexico stopped to watch his fights. Old, young, left, right and centre. And
today, I wanted people to know what happened to the legend."
The film is the first project to emerge from Luna’s half of Canana Films, the
production company set up by Luna and Bernal. It has emerged alongside Bernal’s
directorial debut Deficit – a fiction feature about decadent upper-class Mexican
youth that was shown out of competition in Cannes this year – and Canana’s
annual travelling documentary festival, Ambulante.
The way Luna sees it, Canana Films is part of a wider movement to use the
success enjoyed by some individual Mexicans abroad, to build a solid film
industry back home. The so-called "tres amigos" (directors Alejandro Gonzalez
Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro) have used the momentum garnered
by their international successes to lobby for more state support for new talent
in an under-funded domestic film environment. They even talk returning to Mexico
to make films again themselves. Luna and Bernal, on the other hand, are sticking
closer to home.
"Julio Cesar Chavez is the most important sporting figure we have ever had,"
Luna says. His choice of subject, if nothing else, cements his nationalist
credentials. In a country not short of boxing heroes, Chavez reigns supreme.
Still, Luna says: "Most of the time we don’t give him the place he deserves."
But Luna’s film is actually much more interested in what went wrong than in
lingering on what went right. It speeds through Chavez’s rise from his humble
origins growing up beside a railway line in the northern state of Sinaloa, to
the glory days when, in a bout to unify the world welterweight title, he knocked
out Meldrick Taylor in 1990, 16 seconds before the end of the final round in a
fight he would have otherwise lost on points.
Instead, Luna’s film emphasises how the former president, Carlos Salinas,
turned Chavez into a kind of regime mascot, setting him up for the fall that
followed when power changed hands in 1994. Pursued by allegations (skirted over
in the film) of tax fraud, domestic violence and ties to drug trafficking,
Chavez’s career went into steep decline. He eventually made a comeback, a shadow
of his former self, for a seemingly endless goodbye tour that ended in 2005 and
that takes up the final third of the documentary.
Today the "forgotten legend" is shown as an energetic middle-aged father with
a touch of roguish charm, but little fanfare in his manner or in the way he is
treated by others. "What would be great would be if this encouraged more of
these kind of documentaries," Luna said. "We [Mexicans] need to celebrate
ourselves a little bit more." Celebration, however, doesn’t seem quite the word
for Chavez’s story.