Right in the kisser 

Girlfight writer-director Karyn Kusama began boxing in 1992, when she was fresh out of New York University’s film school. At Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, a world away from chic Manhattan fitness centers, Kusama started to see boxing as "a very pure sport in a way, as controversial as it may be."

The ideas and emotions which inform her powerful debut film were germinating at Gleason’s; never more than the first time she sparred with a man.

"When I was being very tentative with him," she describes, "and he was being tentative in response, in terms of throwing out punches, he got me into a clinch and he whispered in my ear, ‘Hit me, you can hit me.’ It was one of those moments that was like a bomb going off in my head. A lot of the appeal of the sport became very clear to me. It’s so much about permission, and this private interaction in a ring that only those two players can really understand."

The intimacy of the sport, and its inherent contradictions, informed the creation of Girlfight’s central character, Diana Guzman, a Latina teen living in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects who finds an outlet for her anger and restless energy in the boxing ring. Diana subsequently enters into a tentative romance with Adrian, a fellow boxer with the same name as Kusama’s sparring partner. Their romance is a combustible mixture of attraction and competition, in part because both characters are true yin-yang hybrids.

The real Adrian, says Kusama, "was this young guy who had a sort of feminine beauty, but he was a very skilled boxer, and I thought it was interesting that his name could be for a woman or a man."

Diana also displays characteristics attributed to the opposite sex — aggression, hostility, a propensity for violence — yet within a sport known for its brutality, she discovers discipline and grace. So while most of her peers define themselves solely by their attractiveness to men, Diana rejects traditional femininity and takes on the role of protector to her younger brother and easily exploited friends. Kusama acknowledges that Girlfight might be read by audiences as a response to the type of girly-girl submissiveness which is having a resurgence among teenagers.

"The original idea was conceived six years ago," she explains, "so the film is sort of set apart from what the cultural trends are right now. However, I would venture to say that this kind of film serves as an alternative to those images, because I personally think they’re terribly damaging, not to mention just a bit boring. It feels like a limited culture that (Diana’s) living in, so perhaps that extends to the culture that we’re living in right now."

The idea of a woman freely expressing power strongly appealed to Kusama, although the world Guzman inhabits is worlds away from the St. Louis suburbs where the 32-year-old filmmaker grew up.

"I never was violent in the way this character is violent," explains Kusama, "I wanted a much more interior life. I had an active imagination, and I was more the kid who was fascinated by the outcasts. I have a lot of empathy for those girls who just can’t seem to find a place for their kind of energy, their kind of intensity. I’m quite a bit different from (Diana), but I share her interests and her struggle for balance."

Part of that balance involves Diana’s relationship with Adrian. At one point, the pair, both featherweights in the same amateur league, face each other in the ring, which puts all the forces which unite — and could possibly divide — them squarely in the forefront. In this sense, Girlfight has more in common with a film such as Love and Basketball (also from a female filmmaker), where devotion to the game was an integral part of a couple’s relationship, than Price of Glory, which focused on Latino boxers.

In post-Title IX America, female athletes are starting to come into their own. Witness the coverage of the recent Olympic Games in Sydney, which treated men’s and women’s events with equal reverence. But the controversy surrounding track-and-field medalist Marion Jones and her husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, highlights the push and pull — the support and the tensions — inherent in a union between two athletes.

"I know a lot of guys," says Kusama, "who probably would not behave the way Adrian does in the film — how he decides to handle that situation — but that’s the point to some degree. These are characters who find something unique in the other, who see and respect each other as equals, and that is the complicated sort of dilemma they face."

Kusama looks forward to returning to boxing, something she had to put aside to focus her energies on making and promoting Girlfight, a film she asserts is more in the vein of a classical melodrama such as On the Waterfront than Rocky-style inspirational tale. So how does Kusama rate as a contender?

"I was somebody who had skill," she says frankly, "who should have started earlier, and who has absolutely no desire to hurt people. I don’t have the fighter in me in the ring that I have outside of it." Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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