Thinking in the box

‘Jerusalem Boxing Club,’ a documentary about the eponymous organization that operates in the Katamonim, is both a definitively Jerusalem story and a typical Israeli one.

‘Jerusalem Boxing Club’ documentary movie (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Jerusalem Boxing Club’ documentary movie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a region that has been racked by violence for so long, one might have thought of better ways of keeping the peace and promoting self-esteem and respect for others than to don boxing gloves and get into the ring. Gershon Luxemburg begs to differ. The manifold advantages of Luxemburg’s sterling work are deftly conveyed in Helen Yanovsky’s touching documentary Jerusalem Boxing Club, which will be screened in Hebrew and Russian with Hebrew subtitles at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on July 17 at 2 p.m. as part of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival.
Jerusalem Boxing Club tells the story of the eponymous outfit that operates out of a bomb shelter in the Katamonim neighborhood. The film focuses on four of Luxemburg’s young charges and neatly proffers something of a comprehensive demographic spread.
The aspiring pugilists include two youngsters of Russian origin (Vlad and Christina) – one of whom comes from a broken home – an Arab from the district of Jebl Mukaber (Gaith), and a religious Jew (Akiva) from the West Bank settlement of Beit El.
It quickly becomes clear that for Luxemburg, boxing is much more than just a sport and, as the documentary progresses, we discover more aspects of Luxemburg’s checkered life and layered personality. It is also clear that Yanovsky doesn’t treat the film as just another project.
The documentarian came upon the story by chance.
“When I studied at university, I worked in a camera shop on Emek Refaim, I think it was around 2007, and Gershon would come by to have his camera film developed,” she recalls.
Yanovsky got some early insight into one of Luxemburg’s more endearing traits.
“He would come to the store and hand out medals he had received at some boxing championships. That’s Gershon for you,” she says.
Yanovsky heard all sorts of tales about the boxing club from the veteran trainer and thought about going over there to take some still photographs of the place. That soon developed into a more expansive documentation foray.
“Towards the end of my studies, I had to come up with an idea for a final project, and I decided to make a documentary about the club. As soon as I got there I was enchanted, and I didn’t leave for four years,” she recounts.
The strength of Yanovsky’s bond with the club and with Luxemburg is evident throughout the 65-minute screening, and the Cinematheque audience will be treated to a moving portrait of the four youngsters, the ambience at the club, the national junior boxing scene and, above all, the 70-year-old Soviet-born boxing trainer and club manager.
Yanovsky says she didn’t know what she was letting herself in for.
“It started out as a final project for my [Tel Aviv University] degree, but I began to get to know Gershon better,” she says.
Even so, the main thrust of the film was still focused on the four novice boxers and their trainer.
“It was still basically about the relationships between them. It takes a while for a character to unfold. I began to understand that the film needed to dig deeper,” she explains.
Luxemburg comes across as an emotional character, with a heart of gold lurking not too far below the surface of his hardened exterior. He plays something of a father figure role, and we gradually get to see more of Luxemburg the man as part of his personal history – some of which is disturbing – comes to the fore.
Luxemburg is very much a product of the refusenik era when Soviet Jews who applied to make aliya were often hounded by the authorities and were put through the mill before they obtained the sought-after exit permit. He comes across as an impassioned Zionist and served in the IDF several years after doing his bit in the Soviet army.
There are diverse story lines threaded through Jerusalem Boxing Club. We see how involved the youngsters are in the club and how attached they are to Luxemburg and the sport. But, as they learn from their seasoned mentor, there is more to life than boxing, even though excelling at or, at the very least, giving your all to bettering yourself in a field of sport can push you along the learning curve of life.
As charmed as she might have been by the main protagonist, Yanovsky says she maintained her professional poise throughout. She refuses to be drawn into a discussion about some of the metamorphoses that Luxemburg underwent over the years, preferring to leave us to draw our own conclusions which, of course, is the way it should be with a documentary.
Luxemburg’s past political stance is more than alluded to, but it is unclear where his political allegiances lie today.
He affectionately calls Gaith “my little Palestinian” without a hint of condescension and has a particularly strong emotional bond with him.
“For Gershon, it doesn’t matter what religion you are or what your ethnic background is,” says Yanovsky. “For him, everyone who comes to the boxing club is equal. There is nothing political or socioeconomic about it. Once you enter the boxing club, you are a part of it. And the more you need Gershon and get close to him, the closer he gets to you.”
There are some juicy pearls of wisdom dotted through the documentary.
At one point, Luxemburg cautions a muscular boxer that “It’s disrespectful to use too much force with a much weaker opponent. It’s not ethical. These are very important lessons in life, too.”
He also notes that people “learn how to box in order to be more relaxed and balanced.”
In a way, Jerusalem Boxing Club is a definitively Jerusalem-centric story.
Jerusalemites will recognize the landscapes. And the repetitive, yet intriguingly differing, shots of the exterior of the bomb shelter will surely strike a chord with anyone who has lived in the Katamonim and other similarly socioeconomically ranked neighborhoods of the city. But this is also a typically Israeli story and a touchingly human one, too. 
For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem Film Festival: *9377 and