The word that kept coming to mind as I watched Felipe Jorge's 74-minute feature documentary Touch Gloves is "tenderness." Weird, eh? How could a documentary about a non-profit boxing gymn in Haverhill, Massachusetts be equated to something, well, gentle?
I asked myself that very question, yet as I watched Ray Hebert, the club's owner and operator, I couldn't help but think about "tenderness" as I watched a man who is dedicating his life to the youths and young adults who populate the gym, some in hopes of achieving some form of boxing success, some simply to work out, and some simply because it's a better option than the trouble they might find themselves getting into outside the club.
The Haverhill Downtown Boxing gym is a no-budget, non-profit effort run by a team of folks who work full-time jobs yet dedicate themselves to the gym and, perhaps more importantly, to these young people.
Touch Gloves is an observational documentary that follows the boxers from training through to the Golden Gloves competition in Lowell, Massachusetts. Throughout the film, you get an intimate, honest portrait at life inside the gym and the varying personalities that will make up Haverhill's boxers ranging from 11-year-old Andrew to young men like Eddie Rozon and Duncan McNeil among others.
Quite often, when I receive a heads up that a film is a "no-budget" effort what I'm really being told is "Hey man, my production quality sucks because I didn't have any money." While it's a legit observation to make, the truth is it kind of sucks because it allows someone watching the film to think about that as the film is playing out. Fortunately, in this case Felipe Jorge has worked wonders despite the challenges of working on a limited budget.
While boxing documentaries aren't exactly rare, Jorge has wrapped the film around the compelling personality of Ray Hebert, who also serves as a producer on the film. Hebert, whose son is also a trainer in the gym, is a passionate teacher of the young people he works with yet his instructing is infused with remarkable discipline and ample doses of compassion. As someone who isn't particularly a boxing fan, I became a fan of Hebert and the work he's doing to improve the lives of these young men and women.
The cinematography in Touch Gloves is intimate and honest without being invasive and without being exploitative toward these young people. There's also a refreshing honesty in the film - so often, it seems like when we get these inspirational docs that the core subjects come off as angelic beings. Hebert can be gruff and his language occasionally rough, yet he's created with Haverhill an environment of structure and safety for these young folks.
Touch Gloves is getting set for a special local screening on June 26th in Haverhill, unquestionably a wonderful opportunity to show off the fine film and for the community to wrap around this gym that struggles to survive even as it teaches these young people how to thrive. It's worth noting that Jorge tackled much of the production work himself including directing, editing, and much of the lensing with some assistance by Chris Esper. While there are fleeting moments where one can get the feeling that the film's a low-budget effort, for example a couple of the interviews have some lighting issues, for the most part Touch Gloves is a wonderful portrayal of life inside the Haverhill Downtown Gym. I did notice what looked like one caption error fairly early in the film as Karl Hanson, the gym's administrator, was incorrectly identified as Hebert.
Touch Gloves is an inspirational film, yet not so much in that warm n' fuzzy way we're always used to seeing with these types of films. While I wouldn't exactly call it hardcore, Jorge never lets us forget the odds these young people face and the challenges they have in their lives. It's refreshing to see a sports documentary where not all the successes are about sports. Hebert and his team are trying to turn these young people into productive, disciplined people and it's exciting to watch the moments when it feels like that's happening. For their part, the young people who participated in the film are honest and present themselves as unrehearsed.
With spirited music and both heart and mind firmly intact, Touch Gloves represents the potential of indie filmmaking to genuinely make a difference and one can only hope that this film makes a difference for Haverhill and the young people and families whose lives are touched by it. For more information on the film, visit the Haymaker Films website linked to in the credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic