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. Because 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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Was the pacing of the film–training, press jaunt, private stuff like Dmitriy’s rabbi cooking him food, and then the fight–a lot like his real-life rhythm? The matches themselves seem like they occupy incredibly little time relative to everything else….

Fight week can be very busy and chaotic with the press conferences, interviews, training sessions, and weigh-ins, so what you see in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico & Atlantic City is very indicative of that. It’s only made crazier by Israel cooking meals in the hotel room or sometimes there’s very little time between the end of Shabbat and Dmitriy’s fights. So there’s a rush to the locker room, getting his hands taped, warming up and, bang, he’s in the ring fighting.

That’s interesting that you mentioned the matches being short. You’re absolutely right—within the film, many of them are highly condensed. While boxing fans and others might enjoy watching much more of the fights, there’s a large section of the [film’s] audience that have a hard time watching the boxing scenes.

You don’t want to lose them every time a fight happens, just like you don’t want to have a 10 minute scene of Dmitriy studying Torah—because while that’s interesting and intelligible to some, it isn’t to others. So while it’s a credit to Dmitriy that he has such diverse interests, it’s a challenge to make a film that balances the Judaism and boxing and makes both equally accessible to diverse audiences.

So that, like, both my mother and I can both watch it.

The film isn’t about the fight scenes, however—or whether Dmitriy is going to be world champ. It’s about the experience and growth of this very unique individual. So the fight scenes aren’t any more or less important than other scenes at synagogues, press conferences or contract negotiations. We needed to determine what was important from each fight, and that’s what stayed in the film. I’d love to have a 4-hour cut, but how many people would sit through it?

But it’s very true that a boxer’s actual fight (and whole career in the ring) is very short compared to the weeks, months and years that they spend running, weight-training, hitting pads/bags and sparring. It’s not uncommon to train months for what might be a first or second round knockout. That’s part of what’s so incredible about boxers—their dedication, determination and perseverance.

Did you ask people to talk in English for the cameras, or did they just lapse into it?

I never asked anyone to do anything for the camera, language or otherwise. As you see in the film, Dmitriy speaks Russian with Russian people and English with everyone else. There were more scenes in Russian but they didn’t make it into the film.

Did you have to make special allowances or do anything differently in order to accommodate Dmitriy’s Orthodoxy?

The only accommodation was not shooting on Shabbat, which was easy to do because there really wasn’t much going on between candle lighting and the walk to the locker room.

The story of how Dmitriy became religious happens really quickly–he meets a woman in his mother’s hospital whose husband hooks him up with a Chabad rabbi. Was there more to it?

Dmitriy’s path to observance was definitely a gradual process. He says in the film that after he met Rabbi Zalman Liberov at the Chabad of Flatbush, he gradually started attending shul, putting on tefillen and keeping kosher. The transition might seem quick in terms of screen time because it’s a recalled experience. The challenge was how to fully illuminate the formative events from Dmitriy’s life without slowing down the momentum and growth of what’s actually taking place within the film.

What sort of audiences has the film been finding–is it mostly Jewish? Have you had much interaction with boxing fans?

In terms of the theatrical release and festival screenings, the Jewish community has definitely been the core audience, but we’ve been fortunate to reach a much larger segment of the population. It premiered at the AFI: Silverdocs Festival, which is one of the best documentary festivals in the world, and was broadcast by BBC Storyville in the UK (the BBC’s premiere strand for international documentary films), the YES Network in Israel and the MSG [Madison Square Garden] Network in New York.

The response from the boxing press has been overwhelmingly positive. Since MSG is the biggest sports network in New York and the home for the Golden Gloves and local professional boxing, I think the film has definitely reached the boxing fans. I also met a lot of non-Jewish boxing fans at festival screenings and at the theatrical release at Cinema Village.

To those outside the pro-fighting world, boxing seems like one of the least civilized activities people can be involved in. Forget the gambling and mob associations, it’s a sport where, in order to win, you have to physically damage the other person—and yet, Earnest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and Joyce Carol Oates extol the virtues of boxing, and you get amazing pieces of art like the first and second “Rocky” being created about it. Where do you think this comes from? What in our nature lets humans be so poetic and beautiful about beating each other up?

dmitriy salita wrapping tefilinBoxing has gotten a bad rap, and there are many untrue stereotypes. It’s not really true that in order to win you have to damage the other person or beat them up. As Dmitriy’s trainer, Jimmy O’ Pharrow, constantly says, “Boxing is about hitting and not getting hit.� In that sense it’s really about scoring more points than your opponent, and that’s not unlike chess.

Everyone knows that chess is the ultimate intellectual sport—it’s all brainpower and the ability to think many steps ahead. Boxing works exactly the same way. Boxers are thinking very fast throughout the entire fight. Add to that the physical grace of each fighter, which is in many ways analogous to dance or ballet—and that’s why they call it the “sweet science.�

I think that’s probably why intellectuals are attracted to the sport. For Hemmingway I’m sure it was the manliness as well, because the sport does require incredible toughness and tolerance for pain.

Dmitriy talks about having “one personality inside the ring, and one outside the ring,” and it seems especially true for him. In the film, he’s calm, peaceful, thoughtful, but almost always restrained and quiet. Do you get a sense that he’s holding back for the cameras, or is that just the way he is?

What you see in the film is exactly how Dmitriy is. And how you describe Dmitriy is actually very true for most boxers—they get all their aggression out in the gym and are very calm and peaceful.

On the other hand, Israel Liberow, Dmitriy’s rabbi, is totally a personality, even when he’s not saying anything–just looming in the background like a secret agent. How was he to work with? What was Dmitriy’s coach like?

Israel was amazing from the get-go. He’s one of the most energetic people you’ll ever meet. He’s really a kid in a candy store—having grown up a huge boxing fan in the Orthodox community and then getting to meet and advise a top boxing prospect? As Israel says in the film he believes their coming together was divine providence.

Jimmy’s also a tremendous character and a wonderful human being. If he wasn’t such a joker it’d be easier to see just how big his heart is. He’s dedicated the last 30 years of his life to the Starrett City Boxing Gym and the thousands of kids who have come through it. The fact that he’s 82 and still doing it is extraordinary.

Do you feel like living for a while in Dmitriy’s world made you question or change anything about your own Jewish observance?

I think I was partly drawn to Dmitriy because it was a time in my life when I was exploring my own connection to Judaism. I grew up in Potomac, Maryland where my family belonged to a conservative shul and my father kept kosher but we weren’t Sabbath observant. I was a serious soccer player and a proud Jew but observance was very foreign to me.

During college I gradually stopped eating milk and meat and shellfish and in the course of making the film I grew to observe kashrut and the Sabbath. But I moved to Brooklyn shortly before making the film, so I now lived only a few blocks from a great synagogue (Park Slope Jewish Center) and became friends with a group of people who got together for Shabbat dinner.

It would be overly simplistic to say it was because of Dmitriy and the filmmaking, but I think both were happening simultaneously. It was a time in my life when I was exploring what was involved with Jewish observance in general and what Judaism meant to my life specifically.

Orthodox Stance is available in stores or at the film’s website.

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