(Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan):
Dean Murphy, Abdul Hussein, Darren Sutherland, John McCormack.
Running time: 80 minutes (PG)
Sequels almost always suck. And who wants to watch a sequel to something that is 90 years old? It's difficult to escape the feeling though that nothing is going to stop this rolling into a neighbourhood near you. Save your pennies then for The Great Depression II. It's gonna be big. (Though the first one didn't go down well with the critics.) The last time it happened, the cinema boomed: audiences longed for escapism and giggles, and the early 1930s saw a wave of innovative and classic Hollywood movies. That world didn't, however, have satellite TV and DVD players. Still, straitened times will almost certainly mean more shoestring filmmaking and that will spur innovation and imagination.
A peremptory cheer then for Saviours, an Irish boxing documentary to lift our sagging spirits. Directed by Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan, it looks like it was financed with bread vouchers and loose pennies rescued from the maw of a hungry couch. It might not be innovative, but here is a template for church-mouse documentarians everywhere: all you need is a digital camera, a telling subject and a heap of patience. The result is a small wonder. It's a documentary full of spit and spirit, heaving with great characters. You walk away from it with more insight about what it takes to make it than a month's worth of empowerment seminars.
Amazingly, this film almost never saw release. It was rescued from the dusty shelf by the fact that Darren Sutherland, one of the documentary's stars, won a bronze at this year's Olympics. Sometimes you don't know what you have.
Saviours is set in Dublin's north inner city. The area, seen through a bleached wash of greys and thin blues, doesn't look that different from the Dublin captured by Peter Lennon in his 1968 documentary The Rocky Road to Dublin. Upper Dorset Street didn't get to ride the back of the Celtic Tiger. Instead, it got The Eye of the Tiger. St Saviour's Boxing Club is a long way from Rocky, but it too has its Mickey – an indefatigable old-hat trainer in the form of John McCormack. He's a tall man with a ring of grey hair and a slight wheeze, sprinkled with enthusiasm. He rubs his hands briskly when the lads arrive. "We can take 11-year-olds up to Olympic standard," he tells us matter-of-fact. But his earthy demeanour cannot hide the magic of this place – a dream factory where working-class kids are trained to think big.
Saviours latches onto the dreams of three of its prize fighters. There's Dean Murphy, a talented youngster with deep-set smiling eyes that twinkle with earnestness and self-belief. He stands no wider than a truck. There's Abdul Hussein, an immigrant from Ghana. He looks fierce but he disarms with a wide smile. Already, you could call him a Dub – he spars expertly in local humour and he wants to box for Ireland. But he worries he will not be allowed stay here. And then there's Darren Sutherland, now an Irish boxing hero, but here just another up-and-comer. He's got a squashed nose, speaks with a Gulfstream accent and looks like he stuffs large bread-rolls down his arms.
They warm up backstage and the sound of their fists hitting the focus mitts is like somebody taking a baseball bat to a mattress. Their matches are edited into short shocks of threshing limbs. But the film-makers are less interested in the fight than what happens outside the ring. The film gets under the skin of its characters, examining their motivation and soaking up this lively community. (Sitting around the St Saviour's ring each day is a gallery of grizzled, ornery faces, the kind not seen since a Preston Sturges Depression-era comedy.)
John McCormack is both a parent and a psychologist. At one point, he tells Dean: "You're my Million Dollar Baby." But something is beginning to put a dimmer on his self-belief. Abdul, meanwhile, puts himself under too much pressure: he is losing a battle with the immigration authorities and, at one point, breaks down on camera. (Saviours is not a macho world: the club is an effusion of paternal hugs and support.) And Darren, who has gone back to college, wonders if there is a future in boxing. He starts to skip training.
The film is raw and deglossed. But it contains riches. It is a vital snapshot of a Dublin community punching way above its weight. And it comes peppered with disappointment. The journey to the top is full of falls. Some of the fighters don't make it. Raw talent doesn't mean a thing in a world without a shovelful of self-belief. Saviours is the kind of film-making that bottles inspiration and itself is the product of such. If this is what impoverished film-making can do, then bring it on.