2000, NR, 75 min. Directed by Marcy Garriott. Starring Jesus Gabriel Sandoval Chavez, Jesus Sandoval, Rosario Sandoval.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Feb. 9, 2001
A documentary so modest it doesn't include narration, Marcy Garriott's Split Decision is nonetheless an engaging and moving account of boxer Jesus Chavez's (as of yet) unsuccessful battle with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Chavez's story resonates on levels both political and personal; it's as openly appreciative of Chavez's self-discipline as it is critical of the unreasonably strict immigration laws that led to his voluntary departure from the United States in 1997. Born into a mining family in Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico, Chavez relocated to Chicago as a boy in 1979, and as an adult has spent time training in Austin. As a slight, spry teenager, Chavez quickly demonstrated an aptitude for the “sweet science,” training with homemade weights and building up a 95-5 amateur record. But his role at 17 in an armed robbery committed by members of the Harrison Gents, a street gang, would ripple through his adult life, jeopardizing his career and virtually costing him his family despite his rehabilitation. Two 1996 statutes providing for the deportation of would-be citizens with felony convictions ensured that Chavez would neither live nor box in the United States without an act of clemency. Never mind that Chavez -- a super-featherweight whose feline agility earned him the nickname “El Matador” -- is a likely world champion, and that he's all-American enough to fight in Texas-flag trunks. (His legally naturalized sister, on the other hand, sports a thick Chicago accent.) Sparingly shot on digital video, the film follows Chavez back to Delicias, where he's greeted with suspicion due to his halting Spanish and jogging regimen. Undeterred, Chavez trains for a match with Julio Alvarez, the defending Mexican national champion. Garriott, who traded in a career as an AT&T executive for one as a nonprofit documentarian, is clearly motivated by advocacy, not objectivity. (Nevertheless, INS agent Richard Gonzalez weighs in periodically, branding Chavez an “aggravated felon” with an unmistakable air of satisfaction.) But like 1999's similarly themed On the Ropes, Garriott's film is equally successful as a plea for justice and as a sports yarn, doling out little twists en route to its inevitably emotional finale -- as when Chavez is sidelined with barbiturate poisoning after being slipped a series of Mickeys before the climactic bout. And Garriott also fills in human detail with light strokes, as in a surprisingly intimate, relaxed sequence in which Chavez and his family dance the night away. Joel Guzmán's original music performed by noted regional artists (among them, David Grissom and Michael Ramos) adds atmosphere but is nicely restrained. (For more on the U.S. theatrical premiere of this Austin-made movie see the related feature in this week's Screens section.)