Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Boxing for the Lord

Dmitriy Salita is a Ukranian-born, Brooklyn-raised boxer who, at the age of 26, has an undefeated record over 26 career bouts. He's also an observant Jew. A recent documentary, Orthodox Stance, has just been released on DVD -- it's available at regular DVD stores or at IndiePix, and it follows Salita over three years of his always chaotic and often inspiring career. MJL had a chance to speak to the director, Jason Hutt, who spent three years of his own life chasing after Salita on an unending junket of press conferences, training, and fights, punctuated only by the once-a-week time-out for Shabbat -- often spent in hotel rooms, where Salita's omnipresent "religious trainer" cooks him improvised dinners by cutting up vegetables on a George Foreman grill.

Where did you discover Dmitriy?

My parents live in the DC area and in September 2002 my mother clipped an extensive article on Dmitriy from the Washington Post. orthodox stance, dmitriy salitaBecause I had been a highly competitive Jewish athlete myself and had recently moved to Brooklyn, she thought I'd be interested in the article. It mentioned that Dmitriy was affiliated with a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Brooklyn, so I called the Chabad rabbi I knew from college and asked if he would contact Dmitriy's rabbi for me.

After reading the article and meeting Dmitriy, I was really interested in these diverse and wholly original characters and cultures—an elderly African-American trainer, a Hasidic rabbi, a Las Vegas boxing promoter—all intersecting at Dmitriy...as well as the diversity of Dmitriy's experience as a Russian immigrant, religious Jew and top boxing prospect.

I had no idea what the film would be like. I just knew I wanted to see how Dmitriy experiences these very different worlds, and one day share that experience with an audience.

It seems like there are three forces competing for prominence: Dmitriy's boxing, his Judaism, and his Russian identity. The third often gets lost between the first two, but there's still a huge Russian presence in the film--from Dmitriy's stoicism to that scene in the Russian synagogue where people say he's never going to find a wife. Was it hard to get in with the Russians?

I shot Dmitriy wherever he went but his family, except for his brother Michael, were definitely camera shy. You can actually see this in the film when Dmitriy’s father is interviewed by Russian television at the Times Square press conference. You can see and hear how nervous he is in the spotlight—literally and figuratively. So, while I wanted to shoot more with Dmitriy’s family, I had to respect their feelings so I didn’t push it. Of course, when the shooting was finished, Dmitriy told me that his father was finally feeling comfortable with being filmed!

Dmitriy is very much a Russian immigrant, but he’s been here since he was 9 years old. I think you’re right about his personality being very Russian but he grew up in Brooklyn, and when you grow up in New York—whether you’re white, black, Russian, Hispanic, Chinese, whatever—I think you kind of end up being interested in many of the same things, while maintaining your family’s culture and identity at home.

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