Female participation in male-dominated sports has been a routinely undermined issue for centuries, typified variously by perennially and largely fruitless debates. In more recent years, cinema has – with varying degrees of success – aimed to redress the imbalance of power and representation in both sporting and political spheres, seen in the likes of films such as Bend It Like Beckham [Gurinder Chadha, UK, 2002], Million Dollar Baby [Clint Eastwood, USA, 2004] and Fast Girls [Regan Hall, UK, 2012]. Following in their boundary-breaking footsteps, Anthony Vander’s dramatic short, Spar, tells the story of Isabel, who is training for the day in a London gym while her usual facilities are under construction.
Similarly to Million Dollar Baby, the sport in question here is boxing, Eastwood’s working class, Midwestern locale replaced by the gritty east London streets of Shadwell. The handheld camera frames Isabel from behind as she walks into her temporary new training facility alone, after turning down her friend Denise’s offer of moral support. It is a subtle but assured visual choice, that adds a docurealist veneer to the dramatic fiction that will unfurl. Entering the building, she is met with the sounds of aggressive huffing, and the slapping of leather upon leather as several sweat-drenched men pound their mitts into taped up punching bags. It is an immediately intimidating situation, and Isabel and Denise’s earlier trepidation seems justified.
As is too commonly expected, a trio of men ogle her, equally weighing up her sexual and sporting prowess. It might not seem like it on the surface but they, too, are intimidated. The boxing instructor’s well-meaning intention to integrate her is undone by a clumsily delivered and very public introduction. As onlookers, some of the men gradually begin to reveal more individual attitudes about her; one of them, Marcus (Andre Fyffe), juvenilely teases her from a distance, while his friend, Anthony (Jordan Pitt), appears exasperated by his boxing buddy’s jibes. It is a moment marvellously underscored by, perhaps, the film’s best scene: a one hundred meter sprint shot silently and in slow motion, each of the men’s natures disclosed by their competitive exhibition of strength, endurance and mental focus. The scene concludes with Isabel suggesting a sparring session with Anthony, who appears threatened by the prospect.
A training montage ensues (an obligatory inclusion in any self-respecting sports movie), here declaring more about the filmmaker’s liberal leanings – a kind of multicultural roll call of characters – than any real narrative progression. That the cast consists of decidedly assorted cultures and led by a mixed-race woman is not an issue that is flagrantly signposted or exploited for any dramatic benefit but, rather, quietly celebrated, comfortably addressing a poetic and historical absence of empowered black women on the big and small screen.
The montage leads us neatly to the central sparring match between the two leads, the silent sequence feeling more balletic than belligerent, with the classical piano score providing a solemn weight and sense of import to a moment that is less about competition and more about acceptance. There is, of course, a clear homage to Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, USA, 1980] at play here, a referential touchstone that is virtually impossible to ignore within this territory. The sequence is crafted and performed convincingly, ending in a respectful embrace, which sees the two now on equal footing, not only competitively but also politically, an understanding at least for Anthony, whilst the others continue to banter childishly, suggesting that, whilst some minds can be open to conversion, there is still some way to go.
Spar is a strong piece of work, with authentic and unforced performances that render the characters flawed but redeemable. We are not dealing with stock heroes and villains, just flawed humans. The cinematography (by Eduardo Jed Camara) is unobtrusive and understated, and the score is delicate in its melancholic minimalism, which neatly matches the ambivalent surroundings that inform Isabel’s complex emotional state. These are all very specific and considered choices that temper what, in less skilled hands, could have been a clichéd and overstated melodrama, and prove Vander to be an intelligent filmmaker with a bright future ahead of him.