By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
A yoga class changed Jeff Unay’s life.
It was not the actual health benefits of the class. Unay was introduced to Joe Carman at the gym. A grizzled mixed martial arts fighter in his late 30s, Carman was training for his next fight, although he admitted to Unay that he was not telling his family. “I need it in my life,” he told Unay.
The two hit it off and soon thereafter, Unay, a producer and director, found a subject for his film.
He asked Carman if he could film him for what Unay thought would be a short documentary. Three and a half years later, Unay had a full-length documentary.
Shooting without a crew, Unay carried his 25-pound camera and followed Carman to the gym, work, and to his fights. He also spent a great deal of time at the Carman home filming the family. Morning and night, Unay was a fixture aside Carman and his family who, for the most part, did not interact directly with Unay while filming.
The movie is uncomfortably compelling as the sport it covers.
“The Cage Fighter” is not an underdog story or a triumph of the competitive spirit or someone overcoming adversity. It is about family and coping with its struggles.
Carman is a flawed person. He supports his family as his wife suffers from an undisclosed illness. He has four daughters, two from a previous marriage, and they range in age from pre- to early teens. The film covers a custody issue that is heart-wrenching for a variety of reasons. Overall, from all indications, he has carved out an existence with a loving family that is disrupted due to his thirst to fight. He doesn’t tell his family that he is fighting again, but admits that it is the only thing that makes him feel good. There is also an underlying issue with his father, which might serve as a reason for his continued fighting career.
Carman works as a boilermaker and master plumber, and fought in MMA when he was younger. At some point, he told his family he was done with the sport. However, Carman is not a remarkable fighter. Although in shape, he does not sport the ripped muscles and carved abdominals as one of his opponents in the film. MMA is a sport that “eats its own,” as once skilled fighters that age are usually consumed by much younger, quicker, and stronger fighters. This is the same here, as Carman faces an opponent who is at least 10 years younger. The result should not be surprising.
Upon Carman’s request, Unay didn’t tell his family until two months into the project that he concealed the fact that he was training for an MMA fight.
When he returned from a fight with his face bruised and battered, Carman revealed the truth. Unay captured the interaction between Carman and his family.
The documentary does not present itself as a traditional one. There are no first person interviews or people talking to the camera. Unay made a concerted effort to show the reality of the situation and the raw emotion that comes with it.
Maintaining a full-time job, Unay spent most of his spare time filming the Carmans or sifting through what he had filmed. “Instead of going home at night and sitting in front of my TV, I just decided to go over to their (Carman’s) house and filmed them watching TV.”
In one scene, the Carman children discuss whether or not they should confront their father about his fighting. The conflict between the children is hard to watch, as they are concerned that telling the truth would disturb their mother and cause further trouble. “It’s just about people,” Unay said about his decision to make “The Cage Fighter.” “At some point, you have that sense that a person cuts you off,” explained Unay. “I filmed with Joe for three and a half years and never once did he (Joe) or anyone in his family tell me to turn the camera off.”
“It’s so rare to be so emotionally honest in front of the camera.”
Unay started the film in 2013. There were 149 “shoot” days, including some long hours. There were 420 hours of footage, and the editing took 7 months to complete.
It was Unay’s directorial debut. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Loyola University in New Orleans and then attended Full Sail University, where he completed the Computer Animation program. He took a job with Weta Digital, a company out of New Zealand, where he worked on two Academy Award-winning visual effects films: King Kong (2005) and Avatar (2009). He won a Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Live Action Character in a Motion Picture for Avatar. He had the chance to work with filmmaker James Cameron on the set of Avatar.
June 1 – SIFF Cinema Uptown Theater, 7 p.m.
June 4 – Kirkland Performance Center, 3:30 p.m.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.