It was late last year that I was introduced to the work of documentarian and filmmaker Matthew Kaplowitz (a.k.a. The Fight Nerd) who at one point drew an interest in New York City’s stunt community surrounding the inner workings of Stephen Koepfer at Breakfall Studios. That pivot resulted into research offering a 30-minute glimpse into the life and effort of stunt performers along the northeast in what became Concrete And Crashpads: Stunts In New York, which was feasible for me since I largely cover movies from an angle focused on the world of stunt performance…whereas sports is a different ball park for me.
I don’t normally watch competitive mixed martial arts fights on TV – not usually interested although I dabble from time to time just to say that I watched a sport; My father is an absolute football fan and when the season starts, an alien armada could be sweeping the northeast and it wouldn’t matter until the 4th quarter was over. But, yeah, I took a bit of a liking to Kaplowitz’s most recent inquiry for a review of a documentary he pondered before several years ago before Concrete And Crashpads, and there was even a crowdfunder launched to help him finish his way through post production for marketing and other necessities.
Enter Prairie Rugilo, a martial arts journeywoman and as of 2009, an entrepreneur and head coach via her exclusive Girl Fight Gym all-female training facility in Toms River, New Jersey, and as of 2013, the focus of Kaplowitz’s 90-minute study, Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story. Filmed in the wake of the damage left behind by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, the movie’s central themes are much ado with female empowerment as they are with the universal importance of overcoming the odds. Kaplowitz exemplifies this with varying segments between shots of New Jersey with Ruglio on camera continually sharing her thoughts and insight about her hopes for the neighborhood, businesses and life along the shoreline, as well as for the students and cohorts of her school, notably her cornerwoman, part-time assistant coach and training partner, Jamie Phillips, and students DeAna Mendez and Hazelle Dongui-is.
There are five matches that occur throughout the film which both highlight the athleticism of women in amateur Muay Thai fighting, as well as their respective evolutions as people outside of the ring. The biggest dichotomy occurs between Ruglio and Mendez, further illustrated about thirty minutes in for the first of the film’s truly more poignant and emotional moments, showcasing the emotional rollercoaster involved in how ever fluctuating the sport can be, especially when it comes to putting in the work, and that’s pretty much the brunt of the documentary – facing odds and rolling with the punches as you go in life, which is part of Ruglio’s mantra in helping women to aid and empower themselves.
Burning Hammer Productions
That chasm between the two ladies is further explored by the film’s end, which is mostly delivered on a bit of a bittersweet note, but the film accomplishes a lot of what you would expect in a documentary. It’s not until later in the second half of the film where Rugilo presents a more open profile of herself and her personal life, which I think lends greatly to the notion of one’s own need for self-discovery when it comes to life, people, relationships and struggles. She carries herself with a pretty bright and forward-moving demeanor, which is characteristic of any good martial arts instructor, while the documentary features her own pursuits in the ring, often traversing between N.J. and across the Hudson River to Manhattan. Similar can also be iterated for much those in her circle, including Dongui-is whose smile is total show-stopper in this feature, and even in some capacity for Mendez, a police officer and single mother balancing between work, motherhood and her membership on Rugilo’s fight team.
Phillips, a detective sergeant for the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department in Tom’s River, a Muay Thai student and girlfriend to Rugilo, has a tacit, laconic, no-nonsense drive when it comes to her love for the sport, the competitive environment, athletic morale and training with Ruglio for most of the movie, whereas few moments allow for some levity and she’s not afraid to cut a little loose. Not everyone would know it but she comes across as perhaps one of the funniest and most charming people anyone would be fortunate to meet and we first see this just minutes in as Ruglio, dusting off and sharing some of the medals and trophies she and her students have won on camera is met with some of Phillips’s timely banter.
Interestingly enough, the documentary itself wasn’t what Kaplowitz originally envisioned at first, which makes Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story all the more rewarding. Every athlete, every student has a story to tell and the film offers a grand window for Ruglio to tell hers as a living example of positive reinforcement for women in sport and practice in a day and age where young girls get to call women like Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey their heroines. Best of all, as Kaplowitz himself emphasizes on the film’s official website, the documentary grew principally on its own which I think moviegoers and even fight fanatics can appreciate, observing the various dimensions of our subjects and the millieu in which the film exists.
Girl Fight: A Muay Thai Story presents a stark, compelling view into a world that still changes even in the wake of devastation and lingering recovery and stagnation. It’s a reminder to keep going even when you feel like you can’t, or for that matter, change direction while staying a path that stands true to you and who you are in life, even as some sacrifices are bound to occur. I enjoyed seeing these women on screen together along with some of their male training counterparts, and I think this is a staunch addition to Kaplowitz’s repetoire as a filmmaker with a keen eye on martial arts sports and lifestyle.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.