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Tales from the Trenches: Shooting Behind Bars: A Real Fight Club

By Simeon Soffer

From Simoen Soffer's <em>Fight to the Max</em>

Cinematic immunity: The false sense of invincibility that you get when you’ve got a camera in your hands in a very dangerous situation.

This term is truly put to the test when you’re locked in a room full of convicted rapists, murderers and armed robbers.

Fight to the Max is a feature documentary about prison boxing championships in the Deep South. It is the second of a planned trilogy of prison sports documentaries—the first was The Wildest Show in the South, about prison rodeos, and my next project, Bound and Chained for Glory, will look at the Superbowl of Prison Football. Here are some of my thoughts on making a film in the prison system.

The balance of trust can be a high-wire act. You’ve got to convince the prison authorities that you’re not going to make them out as evil oppressors, and then you’ve got the prisoners who don’t want to incriminate themselves by telling too much. When you’ve been stripped of everything, your pride and self-respect is all that you have left, and the inmates don’t want that taken away.

The boxers in Fight to the Max viewed the film as a possible means to achieve freedom; just being in the presence of someone from the outside can have a profound effect on their lives. While filming I was always accompanied by guards and assistant wardens, who provided safety and access. To the prisoners, however, the guards represent authority, and this can have a chilling effect on the inmates’ willingness to tell their stories. It can be a frustrating and sad experience, but for the most part it is quite inspiring. This constant pushing of the envelope of trust continues to be the greatest challenge in making my trilogy.

On Fight to the Max I shot 15 hours worth of film over a three-week period, and I edited in just over two months on an Avid. I always shoot on Kodak film, and I’m very efficient about it. Interviews use the most film and take up the least amount of screen time, so what I do is keep a digital slate nearby, roll sound continuously, and shoot only a few minutes of interviews, even if I talk to the subjects for hours. I just make sure that the little amount that I shoot looks great and covers a variety of subject matters. The finished film doesn’t show what’s on the editing room floor.

I also shoot black-and-white film for interviews; 7231 is my favorite. It looks beautiful and is about half the price of color. In both Fight to the Max and The Wildest Show in the South, black-and-white represents incarceration, and color is freedom. I also look for images that tell the story and illustrate what’s being talked about. And I like to get the subjects to do things so I can film them in action, to complement their interviews.

I always script out my films—even documentaries—with dialogue and screen direction, using Final Draft. The films rarely come out as scripted, but it’s a great way to prepare myself for the situations that I may face, as well as explore my own ideas about the subject. When working on the script for Fight to the Max, I thought of using the license plate plant to make the opening titles, and realized that I could use my main character as a narrator. I also sorted out what would be black-and- white and what would be color, and I weeded out a lot of tangential ideas that would have used up valuable resources exploring on film.

Choosing characters and stories always seems to come naturally for me. On Fight to the Max I had my AP go out and shoot preliminary interviews on DV. I studied all the tapes, and I thought I had figured out whom to follow. Of course, none of the guys I picked ended up in the film. The people who end up in the film are the ones to whom I personally gravitate, and vice versa.

The fact that the boxing matches were a celebration of life and a moment of freedom for the prisoners came as a total surprise. The boxers performed amazing dance routines, for example, prior to their matches. For shooting the fight sequences, I used four cameras—two in the ring, one at a high angle and one roving around. Two were always sync speed and the other two off speed, and one camera was always shooting 300mm. I tried donning some protective gear and shooting POV shots of the boxers sparring, but after a bunch of body blows I quickly gave one of the trainers a lesson in how to use the camera. He learned how to shoot film a lot faster than I learned how to take a punch!

Ultimately, it’s the lessons that I learn while making these films that are the most important to me. I used to think that I was disciplined until I saw how the prison boxing teams train: up at 4:00 a.m. to work in the fields until 2:00 p.m., then dinner, then boxing training from 4:00 p.m. until 9:00 at night, then back to the dorm, seven days a week.

Although I’ve shot films in many intense situations, filming a boxing championship in one of the world’s toughest prisons wasn’t logistically the hardest shoot for me. But it was a very intense experience for a filmmaker. Balancing my own feelings of crime and punishment, while being true to my film and the people in it, was the greatest challenge. I got great satisfaction out of shining a light into a dark place in the world, even for a moment.


Simeon Soffer’s film Fight to the Max recently screened at the AFI Festival, and will air on Discovery Channel this year.