In His Corner
With 'Split Decision,' Marcy Garriott Follows Jesus 'El Matador' Chavez's Fights In and Out of the Ring
There is a recurring theme in U.S. feature films about second chances -- second chances at love, life, the way characters conduct their lives. Lot's story in the Bible may have been the inspiration, or maybe Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Whatever the source, the theme reappears with regularity in films from classics like It's a Wonderful Life to upcoming releases like Down to Earth. A desire for redemption, for enlightenment, for a clean slate fuels these stories. The tale of the American Dream is a kind of second-chance story -- it may be the ultimate second-chance story made in the USA.
In many ways, documentary filmmaker Marcy Garriott's acclaimed documentary Split Decision, which opens this Friday at the Arbor, is a kind of "second-chance" story as well. However, in this story, there is no magic wand or wish to change the past or manipulate the present. Instead, the drama of boxer Jesus "El Matador" Chavez's story is in his vigilant determination to earn a world boxing title in spite of a legal system that continues to punish him for a crime he's paid for.
Chavez was born in 1972 in Mexico but grew up as an inner-city kid in Chicago. He discovered boxing early, and in 1987, he was voted Chicago's amateur boxer of the year. But he got sucked in by the wrong crowd. In 1990, he was part of a grocery store robbery in Chicago. No one was injured, and Chavez never even got his cut of the hold-up money. A week later, he was arrested and incarcerated. He was 17.
Because he was technically an undocumented alien, upon his release in 1994, Chavez was promptly deported to Mexico. He returned to the States and settled in Austin later that same year to get away from the Chicago street scene. He began boxing again, training at Lord's Gym on North Lamar. Chavez was up-front about his jail time but didn't reveal his citizenship status. Friends and supporters in Austin grew to respect him as a serious, hard-working young man who made boxing the centerpiece of his life. He turned pro almost immediately and gained media attention as an up-and-coming boxer with an impressive fight record (20-1). In 1997, Chavez's chance at a world title was imminent when he was deported a second time. Stiffer immigration laws enacted in 1996 and growing anti-immigrant and tough-on-crime sentiments were coalescing to create a kind of second incarceration for Chavez. As writer Jan Reid wrote in a 1998 Texas Monthly article, "The irony of Jesus' exile is that he represents the wan hope of the American criminal justice system -- a male youth who commits an act of violence, accepts his punishment, grows up, and rehabilitates himself. But the law says that only citizens rate a second chance."
Split Decision is the story of Chavez's continuing fight in and out of the ring up to his milestone bout with Mexican National Champion Julio Alvarez in 1999, since declared the "Fight of the Year" by the Mexico City Boxing Commission and the Mexico City Press.
Austin-based filmmaker Marcy Garriott came to the Chavez story after learning about the boxer through friends and brother-in-law Richard Garriott, one of the founders of Origin Systems, who trained at Lord's Gym. A former engineer and executive at a division of AT&T (now Lucent), she gave up corporate culture to pursue filmmaking, launching her own small, nonprofit company, La Sonrisa Productions, in 1995.
"As soon as camcorders came out, I had one," Garriott says of her early start as a filmmaker. "I've always done personal things and edited. I've been editing for over 10 years. I knew I wanted to do something more serious in that regard. But there's a big step between doing your home projects and then doing something more professional."
She spent time at ACTV and ACAC, learning the ropes and getting certified as a producer. With that experience, she made two educational videos for children (Let's Go Flying! and Heart of Antarctica) and Swing Hard: Helping Kids Succeed, a video about Jackson Cole and the Children's Sports Foundation at the Meadowbrook Housing Project in South Austin.
"I was ready to do a documentary," Garriott says, and Jesus' story "just fell in my lap. When Jesus was deported, it really became clear, not only was it a story worth telling in terms of what was happening to him personally, but it had so many larger implications in terms of all the people affected by these [immigration] policies."
On the surface, Chavez's story looks cut and dried. A man commits a crime, gets caught, does his time, comes out of prison, leads a new life. But as Garriott shows in Split Decision, the U.S. criminal justice system is not a perfectly calibrated machine. In addition, the long and convoluted development of immigration laws often does more to confuse -- and in some cases, outright destroy -- people than it does to protect U.S. borders. At various times, the U.S. has flung open its borders on behalf of agriculture and other industries in need of manual labor (i.e., the Bracero Program, the temporary guest worker programs) to encourage workers from Mexico and beyond to work in the U.S. When the need was met -- or when fears about the integrity of the U.S. border flared -- immigration policies were harshly scaled back, caveats added, former provisions amended.
Though Garriott does not outline the intricacies of immigration law in Split Decision, she does, through Chavez's story, show how the broad strokes of the law color the canvas of one man's life. In the process, the film manages to address larger questions: What is nationality, birthright, home, and culture? When given a human face, particularly through the filter of the classic American Dream story as told in the boxing ring, the answers become less distinct; the edges begin to blur.
"Even though there's lots and lots of organizations and supporters, including congressmen and senators who recognize the injustice of the laws, still, it's politically hard for people to do anything that appears to give criminals a break," Garriott says. "It remains an ongoing issue that makes me extra glad that I got into this area. So, it was a combination of having that kind of an ongoing issue with this engaging personal story and this engaging guy. He's just wonderful on camera, and he's such a wonderful person," she says.
Split Decision had its Austin premiere last April at the Cine las Americas Festival. It has since earned critical praise in film festivals across the nation. New York-based First Run features is distributing the movie and plans to take it to other cities after it opens in Austin this Friday. In this interview, Garriott shares her reflections on the film and on her role as a filmmaker and activist.
AC: Where is Chavez's story now? It sounds like the good news is that he can now box in the United States.
Marcy Garriott: He received a second pardon hearing [for the armed robbery] in Illinois, but a decision on the pardon itself hasn't been made. A lot of people from Austin went up, including [Texas Monthly writer] Jan Reid, [Chavez's attorney] Barbara Hines, and me. The hearing itself went very, very well. There was press there and even the state's prosecutor who argued to deny the pardon said, "Well, okay, so he's a role model, but that doesn't mean you should give him a pardon." I mean, he called him a role model!
It turns out that the more immediate issue was the fact that he had these two deportations. Because he was technically deported as an illegal alien, the biggest obstacle in his case turned out not to be the armed robbery, but the fact that he'd been deported twice before. That's what Barbara Hines figured out. What she did -- and it took a long time and the support of a lot of people -- is apply for a pardon for the deportations. Which was ultimately granted [in October 2000]. That's what allows him to get the visas and come back and apply for his green card. The reason why the [potential] pardon in Illinois is still important is because it lends credence to his case. It shows that he's rehabilitated. Now that the INS has given its pardon, and he's allowed to get visas, the significance of the pardon in Illinois really becomes his ability to become a citizen in the future. He cannot become a citizen without that pardon. But in the meantime, it's great, because he can at least come here and live and train and visit and fight.
[As this story was going to press, Jesus Chavez was issued his green card following a hearing in Tijuana.]
AC: As a filmmaker, you're definitely moved and inspired by Chavez's story. Your enthusiasm drives Split Decision. My question is, are you as a filmmaker still following this story until it gets to its hopeful conclusion, which is Chavez winning the world championship?
MG: Well, in order to come out with Split Decision, I had to stop filming and spend six to eight months editing it and do all those things you do in post-production. I chose to stop it after the Julio Alvarez fight and pull it together, because it's very satisfying at that point. And I wanted to get the message out about him. There's no doubt the documentary has contributed to the legal breakthroughs. It's certainly not the only contributor, but it's been one of them.
What I plan to do is follow the story in terms of putting updates on my Web site [www.sonrisa.com/splitdecision.htm]. I'll keep the text that's at the end of the film up-to-date. But I don't perceive going back in and filming again. That in itself is full time, and the project is in a different mode now. It takes time to take it to festivals. Also, I'm editing an educational version for high school students.
AC: You seem to gravitate toward projects that challenge you as a filmmaker and as an activist.
MG: If you go to festivals and see the documentaries that are really moving people, quite often there is a little bit of an activist agenda there. I'm very aware that what I'm doing is the confluence of the three things I love. One is being involved in the community and getting a chance to be an activist, which is something I really felt I didn't have an opportunity to do in the corporate world. Then there's the whole creative side, not only videography, but also still photography and the storytelling side. The third is the technical side. I'm an engineer by training, and to have something that I have to be on top of in order to make sure it comes together technically -- I love that! If I were a narrative filmmaker, I think it would be harder, but in documentary, there are very rich possibilities for finding good stories to tell that are visually exciting, that have a good dramatic shape, and that allow you to open people's eyes to something they had not seen before.
One of the things you read about when you read books on filmmaking ... they always say, you can't reach people through the facts. Even though we all like to think we're very rational -- the facts are all around us, but we really don't respond to them. You have to reach people through their emotions. I encountered numbers of people who told me, "Gee, before I saw Split Decision, I thought, 'Oh, this guy was arrested for armed robbery, I'm really not going to be sympathetic.'" And then, "Wow, I've changed my mind completely, I really see your point." It's really such a powerful tool to be able to touch people emotionally that way.
AC: I always heard talk about the alleged objectivity of documentary filmmaking. I always thought that was false. Would you agree or disagree, or is it something you even worry about?
MG: I've actually thought about that quite a bit. Part of the reason this was such an intense process for me is that it was my first project, and I really did think about it: What is documentary? What does it mean to me? What do I want to bring to it? I read a lot about how other people approach it. It's very subjective: What you choose to film, how you choose to edit it, even the subject that you choose is going through the filter of your subjectivity. The thing that was very important to me is that it have integrity. Meaning that I am capturing and presenting, to the best of my ability, what I really do perceive to be the truth. I don't want to manipulate the audience, I don't want to falsify anything, hide anything. I feel extremely good about Split Decision having a really high level of integrity, that I've really captured who this person is and what he's been through. That, to me, seems like it should be the goal for documentary makers. But to say it's objective: No, no way.
AC: It's like in journalism. There's this idea of the "objective journalist," and there is no such thing. You can't be objective, but I think you can be fair.
MG: Exactly. You can be fair and make sure you've brought integrity to the piece. It's an identical issue.
AC: The first time I saw a documentary that affected me in a real way was the documentary about Harvey Milk [The Times of Harvey Milk].
MG: Oh yes, in San Francisco.
AC: I remember coming out, being so moved, and talking to someone about how I felt, and she said, "Well, the only reason you feel that way is because the filmmaker wanted you to." That started me thinking: Is documentary really just manipulation?
MG: Some documentaries do try to manipulate in a certain direction. But I think people are so savvy and sophisticated in the way that they view and process things, that if they feel that they're being manipulated or pushed in a certain direction, they'll really resist that. I think most responsible documentary filmmakers do have a point of view but do also leave it open to the viewer to make up their own mind.
I have had people watch Split Decision and say, "I'm sorry. He was 17. He should have known better. I knew better when I was 17. I knew that if I picked up a gun and walked into store that it would change the rest of my life." In a way, that's been reassuring -- that some people can come out of it with that point of view. It means I haven't closed down everybody's options too much.
AC: Obviously you, the filmmaker, have an idea of truth, but you also allow the viewer to come to an idea of what the truth is as well.
MG: It's just not a black-and-white case.
Split Decision opens at the Arbor Theatre for a one-week run this Friday, February 9. See Film Listings for review.