Strength and Perseverance: Women with Eyes on the Prize

Women lead the show at this week’s screening of our Eyes on the Prize series. Complementing this week’s feature film Speed Sisters - a film about Palestinian female race car drivers - are two powerful short films which also feature outstanding women in exceptional situations: documentary short Underdog depicts a female dog-sledder in the Yukon vying to win a the longest race in its type in the world, and Boxing uses contact sport to showcase physical catharsis of a woman suffering from recent trauma.

Below we discuss this season’s Eyes on the Prize theme, along with the challenges and expectations of gender conventions, with Vivian Belik and Naomi Mark, directors of Underdog, and directors Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley of Boxing. Editor’s note: the following interviews have been edited for length.

CPFF: This year's Christie Pits Film Festival programme is titled "Eyes on the Prize", exploring themes of perseverance and the drive to win. All three films in the July 16 programme are directed by women and focus on tough, complex women engaged in highly competitive activities. Competition is often gendered as male, especially in film. How did you approach this in developing your film? What is the wider significance of these womens' stories?

VB/NM: We were initially drawn to our main character, Yuka, because she was such a tough female in a sport largely dominated by men. She's petite, yet fierce! But, she didn't want her dedication to the sport to be solely categorized in terms of gender, so we opted to let Yuka's determination and focus speak for itself. We couldn't help but be inspired by what she had accomplished.

It was really interesting talking to Yuka and trying to get more of an idea of how her experience might differ from that of her male competitors, but Yuka would not focus on that aspect of her experience. Instead, the sport was more about taking care of her animals and improving on the race as set by her own personal standards. To us, Yuka demonstrates that the strength and perseverance required to be competitive in a sport as challenging and physically demanding as dogsled racing has much more to do with your mental attitude and inner strength than gender and physical strength.

GM/AS: The idea for this film came about after overhearing an uncomfortable conversation at a funeral, in which a person, who clearly didn’t know the deceased very well, burst into tears while talking about vague memories to people who were trying to quietly grieve. Anyone who has endured a significant loss in their life has probably experienced something to this effect. We call it “grief leaching”. It raised a lot of questions to me about how different people grieve, and handle others who are grieving. In this circumstance, the widow of the deceased sat nearby listening to this outburst and I imagined that if I were in her shoes I would not be able to show such restraint. I wondered what would happen if she were to lash out physically at this person who was, by all accounts, desecrating the sanctity of her husband’s funeral. She just held a terse smile and got up and walked away when she had the chance.

This is how we began to question the assumption that physical catharsis is primarily gendered as male. People always seem to be more understanding of the male characters who lash out physically, whereas women are treated like they are crazy for doing the exact same thing. In a football movie, there is inevitably going to be a scene where two hard-headed rivals “go a little too far” at practice because of personal conflict, and everyone steps back and then forgets about it because they are just “blowing off some steam”. As a spectator at the funeral, I wondered if there was a believable situation where the widow would be able to achieve that kind of catharsis.            

CPFF: Did you know anything about the sports depicted in your films - dog sled racing, and boxing, respectively - before starting production? What was it like immersing yourself in this community?

VB/NM: Co-director Naomi Mark grew up in the Yukon with a father who mushed dogs. It's a pretty popular sport in the North and one that can be easy to tune out when you're living there, even though it's quite unconventional to many. That's why we decided to take a pretty unique approach to telling this dog-sledding story: we wanted to focus more on Yuka than on the race.

GM&AS: We both had a lot of respect for the sport but didn’t know anything about it beyond what movies had taught us. The symbolic connections to the word “box” inspired us to set the film in a boxing class - how people can be put in “boxes” for their actions, and more tangibly, the act of boxing a loved one when they pass away. (Also, “Urning” was a much worse title, though we’re all for cremation.)

In doing research for the film, we sat in on classes at the remarkable Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. The stories of why the members joined the gym varied vastly from person to person, but the common denominator was the appeal of an environment based on trust, and that the contract of trust extends into the personal dynamics within the class. Respecting why someone wants to participate in the class, and how that may differ from another, is as important as respecting the technical precision of self-defense courses. It was endlessly fascinating and humbling to gain better insight into the way a self-defense class can impact your life.

CPFF: Vivian and Naomi, have you kept in touch with the subject of your film? Where is Yuka now? Is she still competing?

VB&NM: Yes, we still keep in touch with Yuka, we love her! Last fall we organized a drive-in screening of Underdog as a fundraiser for the 2017 Yukon Quest race. Last year she was awarded the 2015 Naomi Uemura Adventure which celebrates Japanese adventurers. Yuka is still living in the Yukon with her team of dogs and is still competing.


Underdog and Boxing screen alongside Speed Sisters at Christie Pits Film Festival on July 16th, 2017.