Claressa Shields is 17 years old. She's from Flint; she's moved four times in the last year. She's into Twitter, boys, music. Come September, she'll be back at Northwestern High School in Flint for her senior year. But between now and then, she'll be the youngest woman ever to box in the Olympics.
Documentarians Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper (makers of the excellent California is a Place mini-doc series, mentioned on the Classical in February) have teamed up with journalist Sue Johnson—who had been tracking the impressive career Claressa (nicknames Ressa and the titular T-Rex) during her run through the world championships and Olympic trials. Over the past year, Shields defeated the top-ranked female middleweight in the world, earned a spot on the first ever US women's boxing team, and suffered her first ever loss in the ring.
Canepari, Cooper, and Johnson were so taken with Claressa Shields that they immeditely started to film a documentary about her, which is being funded via Kickstarter (check out the teaser video, and click through to the Kickstarter project page for even more detail—Claressa's NPR audio diary is particularly great).
Zackary Canepari, one of the directors of T-Rex, took a second out of preparing to follow Claressa to London and document her pursuit of a medal to do a quick Q&A with the Classical's doyen of emotional sports-related documentary films. Check out what he has to say about moving in with a 17-year-old and watching your new friend get slugged in the face, and then throw some loot at T-Rex on Kickstarter. If you're not sold yet, watch Canepari and Coopers's Aquadettes one more time and get your mind right.
The Classical: How did you come together as a filmmaking unit?
Zackary Canepari: Actually, the same day we reached out to Claressa and her coach we also reached out to Sue. It was clear from the beginning that Sue was deeply embedded in Claressa's life so from the start, we opened up a line of communication with her. And to her credit, she was very open to working with us on the project. We didn't actually meet until the Continental Games but it was clear that we all had a similar idea of how we wanted to approach the story. It's been smooth sailing ever since.
TC: What's the hardest part about making a documentary about a 17-year-old girl's life?
ZC: As you'd imagine, the hardest part is that the most powerful moments tend to happen in the blink of an eye and they tend to take place in the middle of an otherwise normal day. In order to capture those moments, we try to be around her as much as we possibly can. But obviously that can be exhausting and frustrating for all parties. So we're always trying to strike the right balance with how much time we spend with her. And when we are with her we try to be ready for anything. Sometimes we miss and it's painful. Sometimes we don't and it's magical.
TC: Can you watch her fight without feeling terrified? I'm already anticipating watching her Olympic fight and having to peek through my fingers. (Terrified because you're watching someone you know and love get punched and punch others in the face, etc) On the other side, is it a trip to see her really laying into an opponent?
ZC: The first time Drea and I saw her box in a tournament I think we were both nervous. She was fighting the 3rd-ranked girl in the world and her coach hadn't been able to make the trip with her, so she seemed very alone. And then she got in the ring and absolutely destroyed her opponent. Destroyed. I think my eyes started watering. She was perfect. Absolutely as good as advertised.
We were also there when she lost her first fight. It was surreal. Everything slowed down. I kept looking at her teammates and they all looked like they had gotten punched in the stomach. Claressa was emotionally wrecked. She never thought about losing. She hadn't prepared herself at all for what it might feel like. The emotional drain of that experience was much more terrifying than any physical harm that boxers can do to each other inside of the ring.
TC: In one of the Kickstarter updates, you talk about how you came to Claressa because you were looking for teen athletes who perform under a lot of pressure, and how they deal with that. It seems like Claressa has an uncanny grace as an athlete—and you guys have dropped the other project to film her. What was it about teen athletes that drove you?
ZC: If most people had gone through what Claressa has gone through, we'd have a hefty weight on our shoulders. Her life has been anything but easy. Yet she is one of the most balanced people I have ever met. Adult or teenager. Uncanny grace is a good way to put it. She is charming and strong and funny and magnetic. It's one of the reasons we dropped everything we were doing to work on this project. And it's one of the major themes of this film. How does a 17-year old handle such intense scrutiny and pressure? How does a teenager handle the success and failure that comes along with being a phenom athlete? These types of questions were what motivated Drea and I to look at teenage athletes in the first place. And with Claressa, it's super magnified because her success has been happened in such a short period of time. 9 months ago she wasn't even sure she'd be able to qualify at all. And now she's headed to London.