Tom Augustine talks with film-maker Mark Albiston about his documentary, Billy and the Kids - and why it was vital to make it.
If you're wondering what kind of a man boxing gym owner and trainer Billy Graham is, film-maker Mark Albiston has a story for that. It involves a run-down town hall and some purple paint. The hall in the Lower Hutt suburb of Naenae needed a new coat. The boards were rotting and falling apart. The local council wasn't interested in helping, so Graham began painting it himself. "He just went and did it," says Albiston. Purple was the only colour Graham had. It's a good way of understanding Graham's outlook - act first, apologise later, never wait for the bureaucrats.
Graham's story was a natural fit for Albiston, whose sensibilities find a natural home with the less-well-off, the kids on the fringes of society, those in the poorer parts of town or the ones where you don't slow down when driving through. The award-winning director of critically acclaimed films such as the Berlin Festival prize-winner Shopping and international festival sensation The Six-Dollar-Fifty Man, it made sense for him to turn his talents to telling the real-life stories of the kids passing through Graham's boxing gym programmes for at-risk youth - and, just like Graham, Albiston wasn't going to waste any time waiting for the help to do it. "I didn't have time to try and get it funded, mate," Albiston explains over the phone, from Wellington, in the same endearingly no-nonsense, self-deprecating tenor as his subject. "I travel with my job a lot. A lot of the work I did on this film was on planes."
The warm-hearted and moving passion project, Billy and the Kids, premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival this weekend. A warts-and-all exploration of the philosophy of Billy Graham and a profile of the diverse kids that he helps, the documentary comes in at a fleet40 minutes but feels fully-rounded and intimate.
The film begins with the story of Graham himself, who grew up in Naenae. Once a rabblerouser, Graham was as likely to be found in the back of a police car as in school. On the road to becoming another statistic, fate intervened for Graham when he was caught stealing a trolley-load of Mallow Puffs from the back of a truck. Instead of the cop shop, however, Graham was delivered to the gym of another legendary boxing trainer, Dick Dunn. He went on to use the skills he learned from Dunn - for boxing and also for living a decent life.
Graham developed a number of gyms for young people like him in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods across New Zealand. The gyms teach the basics of boxing, but also counsel and guide kids toward a more respectful, dignified way of living.
It's a fascinating story - a portrait of a man with unorthodox methods but a selfless urge to help kids in need, off the skin of his own back. The gyms are entirely funded by Graham, without local council or governmental assistance and have built up a strong reputation in their communities - because of their mission to mould and rescue young lives, not become hawks for talent. "He'll take in any kid," Albiston says, "A lot can't box or even throw a ball. He doesn't care, he'll take all of them."
For Albiston, this story has a personal angle. His son Jude was one of the many Graham took under his wing and guided through difficult times. At the age of 15, Jude was falling in with the wrong crowd, in danger of becoming another statistic himself. "He turned up, didn't want to be at the gym. Then a kid came up and invited him to box and he said 'Nah.' But over time four more kids came up, shook his hand and asked whether he wanted to box. By the third kid he realised they really wanted him to join in. And by the fourth he was in there - and was there for the rest of the year."
It was an experience as meaningful for Albiston as it was - and continues to be - for Jude. "The gym helped us to turn his life around. The place is warm and welcoming, nothing is locked and everyone that goes to the gym looks you in the eye and greets you with a handshake."
The handshake thing is important - a sign of respect, a sign that you are. In Graham's gym, it's a sacred ritual, a great leveller. Albiston coaches a local rugby team, and the handshake tradition has followed.
Though Albiston has produced countless dramas, television commercials and short films throughout his career, documentaries have always been a way of "filling the soul", providing a worthwhile break from the more corporate-focused ad-world.
In mirroring his subject's approach by just making the thing happen himself, Albiston's documentary was shaped by the necessities of a short filming window - just five days. "It's good not to rush in and shoot documentaries. We had a week to shoot this, so we weren't going to be following them around forever." In the end, this proved to be a boon for the film, which instead hops energetically from subject to subject.
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They include an overstayer from Nauru, a boy suffering from anxiety, an Afghani refugee reeling from unspeakable horrors, runaways, troublemakers - kids, the lot of them - each story compounding on the next to paint a portrait of how meaningful this space is for those who rarely have the means to attain this kind of outlet.
The film, while undoubtedly positive, also serves as a reminder of the stark conditions for kids in forgotten or depressed parts of the country - areas where drugs, crime and cycles of violence are the norm. Albiston hopes that Billy and the Kids will shine a light on how everyday inaction is having a real, and costly, impact on countless childrens' lives. "People need to know. There are kids all around the country that are struggling because their parents are drug addicts, or in trouble. It's an epidemic."
For Albiston, the appeal of boxing to these kids is clear. "Billy could be running a squash club or some other sport but there's something about boxing that draws kids in these situations in. The fact is, kids at risk aren't drawn to book clubs. The idea of boxing is edgy. Most of the kids never even make it into the ring. They exercise, meet friends and talk to one another. For most teenagers that's a list that seldom gets even one tick."
In film, boxing has long been connected to stories of people in spaces of economic downturn, inches away from the wrong side of the tracks. From Rocky to Raging Bull, The Fighter to The Champ to Girlfight, there's something intrinsically working class about the sport, something in the ability to take a beating and pick yourself up, to keep swinging. While the fighters at the gym more often than not won't be seeing any world champion belts any time soon, there are plenty of stories in this film that reveal many of the kids as Rocky Balboas in their own right. One of the most significant and powerful subjects is Ali, an Afghani refugee who fled Isis with his mother and siblings after his father was killed by insurgents.
Albiston's patient, observant camera captures Ali's struggle and joy, as he grows from being unable to meet the eyes of another man to being a confident, happy, thriving young adult. For Albiston, retaining the dignity of these people and never pushing his line of questioning into the salacious, was key. "He was pretty guarded about his life, understandably. If your dad gets taken away when you're a little one and doesn't come back … there's a whole lot of that story that we couldn't tell. He'd seen the worst of life."
Albiston found that Ali was eager to pursue boxing - it was something he did with his dad back in Afghanistan. "It was tricky, you can only tell the story that people are willing to tell and we were really honoured to tell it. But it's funny - I was at the gym with my boys recently and Ali was there. We gave him a ride home. It built a relationship there. That's the way communities should be - I'd never have known him otherwise, but through the gym we're all coming together."
The gym - and by extension, the film - rolls with the times on all fronts. Recently, a girls programme was introduced for the very first time, to overwhelming success. It is one of the most uplifting sequences of Billy and the Kids - an array of girls thrashing the bag alongside their male counterparts. "Billy didn't want to have girls at the gym initially. His mum was beaten up a lot and he hated the idea of them fighting. But honestly, it's working just as well for the girls as the boys. A lot of these girls don't have father figures, or at least good ones. Some of them come from really broken homes. To have someone like Ali, or Billy, or some of the other guys at the gym who are supportive, caring and friendly - it's really important and gives them a chance at building healthy friendships and relationships with men."
It isn't all smooth sailing, however. The struggle to stay afloat financially is ongoing. It's something that rankles Albiston. "Chris Hipkins [Minister for Education] came by recently, and we were all really excited, very hopeful. He turned up and it was very obvious that he wasn't really taking it in. He said he didn't know where he'd be able to fit the gym into their funding but he still got a photograph to make it look like he'd been out in the community doing great work."
Albiston is hoping that the documentary may prompt local government to take another look at the gym and its worth to the community.
"It's been around for 12 years, the reputation it has is incredible." Ultimately, Albiston hopes that people come away from the film with renewed positivity about boxing for young people. "There's a stigma around boxing that I understand but that's not Billy's gym. I've seen it first-hand - I've seen it pull children out of deep, black holes."
Billy and the Kids premieres at the NZIFF in Auckland, August 4; in Wellington, August 7; in Porirua August 10.