Southpaw (1998)

D: Liam McGrath

Documentary chronicling the recent life of Irish boxer Francis Barrett, a member of the culturally and politically disenfranchised Travelling Community who became the first of his people to compete for his country in an international sporting event (the Atlanta Olympics). Though primarily a sports chronicle in the standard format, the film does incorporate some small element of social critique in examining Barrett's social environment. It charts events leading up to and following the Olympics, climaxing with his bid to win the Irish Amateur Boxing title in 1997.

Without being particularly distinguished, Liam McGrath's film is interesting. It does raise more questions by inference than it does directly, cautiously touching on racism and hypocrisy within contemporary Ireland without paying too much attention either. Its range of interviewees is notably limited, with only one journalist speaking for the entire Irish media on the question of how Barrett has been treated in the press.

It ultimately turns entirely on the personality of Barrett himself, which is infectious and likable enough to hold the whole together. He does emerge as a tragic figure though, locked by loyalty to community and family into what is obviously turning out to be a career with much undeveloped potential. Curiously, the film is not particularly keen to draw this out, satisfied simply to note the boxer's affection for his people and the importance of what he is doing and only obliquely noting that true success has eluded him. Whether this stems from a fear that the audience would be unable to take a more pointed look at such a nice character (not to mention that it might be perceived as a slight upon the community he represents), or from an inability to see the angles is uncertain.

The most remarkable thing about this film is its success. Selected for screening at the Sundance Film Festival of 1999, the film received a full theatrical release in Ireland some six months after its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh in 1998. This is practically unheard of for an Irish documentary, and one wonders if Oscar success will follow (it has been quite some time since an Irish documentary was nominated). It is worth seeing, and there are plenty of less interesting films being made in Ireland, but it lacks the power of the best work of John T. Davis and Alan Gilsenan or even the social concern of Donald Taylor Black to give it edge.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.