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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Packing a punch at Cannes
Michelle Rodriguez
Spoiling for a fight: Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight
One of the films to make an impact at Cannes has been Girlfight. Karyn Kusama's debut film won the grand jury prize at the Sundance festival, and she won the best drama director award too. Miles Fielder met her in Cannes for BBC News Online.

There's a new contender in town. Everyone's talking about Karyn Kusama and her feature debut Girlfight, a low budget film about a young female boxer.

Kusama's film draws heavily on her own experiences. Leaving her suburban St Louis background behind to study film at New York University, Kusama took up boxing and immersed herself in what is traditionally a very masculine culture.

"It's one of our greatest sports," says Kusama.

Boxing is a sport that needs the dispossessed to continue

Karyn Kusama

"It's a very pure expression of an athlete's ability. It creates a set of rules that the outside world doesn't seem to have a very easy time enforcing for itself.

"People that use fighting as a means to survive will use it in or out of the ring, and it's better that it be in."

The film's boxer, Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez making her own extraordinarily impressive debut), is an Hispanic teenager living in Brooklyn's housing projects.


She's poor, hates school, is motherless and has an abusive father.

But boxing provides her with some much-needed self-respect.

"Boxing is a sport that needs the dispossessed to continue," argues Kusama.

Michelle Rodriguez
Rodriguez plays an Hispanic teenagef from Brooklyn

"The sport will only reach greatness when it feels like a tool for survival for women. If you're given the opportunity to express yourself in that way - to be encouraged to hit other people - it can feel quite freeing.

"Aggression is a part of human nature, and to think that it is only the province of men is a little foolish."

Kusama looked to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver when creating her lead character.

"I wanted to create that same presence, but with a female character. I feel it's sorely lacking in the media art forms, and I like the idea of challenging typical depictions of women," she explained.

Traditionally, boxing has translated well onto film.

I like the idea of challenging typical depictions of women

Karyn Kusama

"The sport is so dramatic in it's own right," says Kusama.

"Ultimately though, I wanted to do something more than a boxing film.

"I wanted to tell a coming of age story, or depict the transformation from adolescence to some form of young adulthood, and treat that as something special because we don't all grow up in this world and face ourselves.

"I was interested in seeing that happen to a character you don't necessarily have much hope for."

Teenage romance

Girlfight is also a teenage romance. Surprisingly, perhaps, the film draws parallels between boxing and loving.

"When you're boxing you have an agreement with your opponent to work together toward a goal that is very uncertain," says Kusama.

"You want to hurt someone else, but you also want to avoid being hurt.

"There's something about that exchange of power - weakness and strength - that reminds me of intimate romantic relationships in their most raw state.

There's something about that exchange of power - weakness and strength - that reminds me of intimate romantic relationships in their most raw state

Kusama on boxing and romance

"I see love as a brutal experience because there's so much to lose. In boxing there's a necessity to experience the moment.

"If you spend all your time dwelling on what just happened to you, you get into big trouble, and if you spend time anticipating what's going to happen in the future you get into even bigger trouble.

"So you have to be very present, and that's also a funny demand of love."

Kusama is currently working on her second film, a project she intriguingly describes as a "bio-fiction thriller".

On the strength of Girlfight, it'll be one to watch.

Girlfight is due for release in the UK on 18 August.

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