The film tells the story of five young men aged 16 to 20 who steal, smoke dope and enjoy getting into fights. They face the biggest challenge of their young lives: will they end up in jail or take control of their own lives and rebuild trust and closeness after years of total isolation and extreme aggression? The “year of decision” is their final chance to break the vicious circle of their lives so far, to erase false self-perceptions and come to terms with reality.
“For adults, the streets lead to the next destination. But we have no destination.”
This quote, from the beginning of the film, pretty much illustrates the perspective of the five young men in this film. Eftal, Marco, Josef, Juan and Denis are given an opportunity to avoid their prison sentence. They are offered a second chance. Fair enough. But now what? While within society in general there is a growing call for zero tolerance, merciless crackdowns and more severe punishment of such young criminals, here is an initiative to help them cope with whatever brought them to this point. The Work and Box Company offers convicted young people an alternative. The programme combines working experience and apprenticeship with boxing. And no, they will not explain what boxing has to do with work, or the whole point of it, because these angry youngsters wouldn’t understand anyway. Participating is more important than understanding the purpose.
In To Fight For (original title: Friedensschlag) the filmmakers follow the boys and their coaches, mainly Werner Makella and Rupert Voss, as they spend their days talking, boxing and working in the woods. They interview the boys on their past and their personalities, and the coaches on their approach and methods. They also include some interview footage with three of their mothers, which somewhat breaks up the unity of being with these boys and their coaches and respecting the young people’s perspective, regardless of how appropriate they are. The mothers add little to the film except the obligatory tears and explanations (“That’s been my experience, too: either hit or get hit.”)
To Fight For also has an excellent soundtrack, with intense songs by P:lot, which undoubtedly adds to the kids’ situation. Unfortunately the lyrics are not translated and the songs not subtitled, so their meaning is somewhat lost.
To Fight For is not the first film about troubled youth enrolled in some kind of rehabilitation programme, and it will probably not be the last. I watched the trailer of The Streets Stop Here, a new documentary about Jersey City’s St. Anthony High School basketball coach Bob Hurly, who for decades created a place for local youth to “sport” their way out of poverty and into college. Let’s assume a trailer wants to communicate the overall idea of a film. Hurley calls himself “the most demanding person they [the students] have come across”. We see him yelling and screaming at those who underperform. “It’s only my way,” he adds. It struck me that this was the complete opposite of the coaches we see in To Fight For. Here is someone who seems to boss the kids around, demands they obey him and drills them like an army officer. In To Fight For we see the coaches box and play soccer with the boys. They themselves struggle; we hear their doubts, for example when they are talking to Marco, whose mother died of an overdose: “How do you do that? How can you make someone confront such a deep wound and then say: ‘Now stand up’?” The kids get a lot of room to do it their way, at their own pace. You start wishing that for them too. The boys are allowed to become angry; “… no boss will stand for this shit. Not a single one, believe me”, the coaches explain. Maybe it is a soft approach. Maybe it is the European approach based on dialogue and consensus versus the American approach of threat and confrontation that we see in The Streets Stop Here. The difference of approach often attributed to the big world of politics is also visible in this everyday small world.
In the meantime, the film meticulously shows what is wrong with these youngsters: they have never made a single decision about their own lives. They have never taken their lives into their own hands. And here, they are slowly brought to a point where they have to do just that: make a decision. It may start with something small like the decision not to go to jail over a 10 Euro argument. It may end with something as big as deciding to take a one-week traineeship in a beverage market. Such decisions seem trivial to us, but they are insurmountable for some of these kids, and moreover, such decisions are real-life decisions.
“What are your strengths?” “My strengths? What do you mean?”
As the quote illustrates, the film gives some cues towards understanding these kids. Absent parents is the common denominator. It is not always clear what the actual issue is, but these kids hide behind their problems and frustrations. Now they are given a chance to vent their anger and frustration and – consequently – take the next step and start making decisions about their lives. That does not work for everybody of course, and is a reason many denounce such programmes and initiatives. It takes a lot from kids and coaches alike, but if it works, some of the most intense human relationships can emerge.