Last weekend, I got a chance to see Fight Church, a documentary about the intersections of MMA and Christianity by filmmakers Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel. Due to my personal vanity, I'd like to say that it was through special invitation, the kind of kind of exclusive screening that only press gets invited to, but that wasn't the case. It just happened to be playing as part of the local film festival. What that happened to mean, however, was that much like my imagined exclusive screening, the directors and one of the subjects of the film were in attendance to field questions.
I didn't originally intend this to be anything deserving of it's own piece, but after consideration, there was a lot I wanted to get down on paper, or it's e-equivalent, that wouldn't be fitting for a simple review of the film (which you should also check out by the way). So, I've set some thoughts down as a series of notes regarding the conversations I had with those involved with the film following it's showing.
- As regular readers will know, Bloody Elbow recently ran an investigative piece focusing on Paul Burress, who, it turns out, was one of the principle driving forces in getting this film made in the first place. Naturally, one of the first things I wanted to know was: If any of these allegations were known to the crew during filming? The unanimous reaction from those present was that they were not. That's not to say that the directors, or Mr. Hocker and his wife, were overly supportive or dismissive of the allegations (they were very supportive of Burress), but the overwhelming reaction to the story appeared to be one of genuine surprise, and the disbelief that comes with reading about allegations of repeated sexual misconduct, when they're directed toward someone with whom you've become very closely associated.
- Interestingly, neither director, Daniel Junge nor Bryan Storkel, had any major interest in MMA as a sport. Which is, perhaps, why the movie came off as much less of a 90 min promo than most MMA documentaries. They did say that at least one member of the production crew was a big MMA fan, and that his voice was very valuable in the project, but it was refreshing to see MMA fighters filmed (to an arguable degree) as regular people, without feeling a vested interest in building them as personal heroes.
- One of the things brought up by audience members (including Sydnie Jones of WomensMMA.com) was the fact that this was a very masculine movie. There was a lot of emphasis on the idea that MMA was a way for these churchgoing men to reassert their male dominance. However, the impact that that had on their families and the relationship that had with their congregation was notably lacking. Women voices in the movie were limited to concerned wives, hoping that their husbands could still preach on Sunday. It was a topic that even the directors admitted, that it just hadn't occurred to them to explore it further. Although they expressed some regret that they hadn't.
- Most interestingly for myself, as a unashamed (although not all that vocal) atheist, is how consistently I generally agree with the fight church ethos; the idea that there's a natural and serviceable relationship between MMA and religion. Partially this is because, as an outsider, I'm not particularly concerned by the moral qualms of a system I don't partake in. But also because, through the work I've done surrounding MMA, I've gotten to hear and learn about the backgrounds of a lot of athletes in the sport, many of which are less than happy or stable. The ability for religion to provide a community and a system of support leads me to feel that it's a natural fit for a sport housing many who need that kind of structure. That said, the whole "The church needs to be more manly" thing is really surreal.
- The turnout for the film was small, and the crowd, while appreciative of the film, did seem a bit removed from it as a subject. This gets back to my worry that the core demographic that will really find this movie fascinating (hardcore fight fans) are just not the kind of people that turn out for film festival documentaries and that regular festival goers, might feel it a bit unapproachable.
- Hocker and his wife spent an almost embarrassing amount of time talking with Sydnie and me (the present media) after the film. They were really eager to discuss, not only the ramifications of Bloody Elbow's article, but the project as a whole. I was a little taken aback at how open they were to engaging with us and it was really fascinating to meet one of the "fighting pastors" who was the focus of much of the film.
- Finally, and it's hard to escape this in the wake of our coverage of Burress, while this film is about much more than him and the Victory Church which he is a part of, Burress does cast a long shadow over it. All told, five different fighting men of God make up the core narrative, but Burress and his "fight church" are the backbone. The sub-narrative about the legalization of MMA in NY is a point/counterpoint of Burress' own lobbying efforts against those of Father John Duffell. The concerns over the safety of MMA are brought into sharp light by Burress' attempts to re-enter MMA competition following a long history of concussions. Burress and his "Fight Ministry" are not the story. The story is that of an uneasy union between violence and faith. But, Burress is the agent through which much of that story is relayed. In the wake of the allegations against him, that fact is granted an importance which was almost certainly never intended.