Co-directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker have broken some new ground over the years through their four genuine, compelling documentaries about the Iraq War and the struggles of those who went through it. For their last documentary, How to Fold a Flag, the two directors met a struggling Iraq War veteran in Louisiana who’d entered the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) to support himself financially. During their time with the down-on-his-luck veteran, the directors were exposed to the prominent mixture of obsessive physical discipline, training, and pain that comprises the world of MMA, which forms the basis for their new film, Fightville. This isn’t the first time Epperlein and Tucker have found the inspiration for their next feature while in the middle of filming: the subject of their brilliant The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair was an Iraqi journalist they met and witnessed the arrest of while shooting Gunner Palace. While Fightville lacks the geopolitical weight that suffused Epperlein and Tucker’s earlier works, it remains a fascinating character study of the young men who strive so ardently and sacrifice as much as they do for this most basic form of triumph in physical conflict.
“Crazy” Tim Credeur spends most of his time putting aspiring MMA neophytes through their paces at the Gladiators Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana. A drab, no-frills gym dedicated to all sorts of fighting techniques, the Gladiators Academy is the anchor that keeps Fightville taut and cohesive. Credeur is a bit of an eccentric, a seasoned pro fighter who fully understands the business of his chosen sport, and his colorful pseudo-philosophical ramblings about the ethos and sublime nature of beating the shit out of someone are both thought-provoking and chuckle-worthy. The two pupils of Credeur’s who Epperlein and Tucker choose to focus on are fascinating in many respects, but chiefly in regard to their need for fighting as a lifestyle in order to secure a modicum of emotional balance in their lives. We meet Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainbeck in the middle of their training with Credeur, each of them having sunk countless hours and quite a bit of their personal finances into their burgeoning careers as fighters. While the film has a somewhat organic narrative structure, it seems painfully forced at times, and some of the “six months later” title cards come off a bit heavy-handed. Still, the honesty and vulnerability the filmmakers capture in these two young fighters is downright impressive when contrasted with the machismo that has become such a part of MMA’s aura internationally.
While some might wonder why the filmmakers passed up the chance to explore the possible negative societal effects of professional nearly-no-holds-barred fighting, this kind of distance would have shattered the intensely personal tone of the movie. I’m glad they didn’t. Fightville offers an intriguing peek into the monotonous and grueling activities that mold men like Poirier and Stainback into better fighters while offering an outlet for the men’s more transgressive proclivities. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a question that Epperlein and Tucker are shrewd enough not to ask.