Director Jeff Unay’s given us the best film of the year so far, with his documentary “The Cage Fighter,” which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival this past weekend — his camera in the face of Joe Carman, a fighter past his prime, if indeed he ever had a prime; a compulsive souls who trains for the cage, then steps into it, at the risk of losing his family.
Unay claimed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Conan The Barbarian” was a major inspiration for the project.
Unay, now a Bellevue resident, grew up in Ethel, Louisiana, within “the only Filipino family within about a 40-mile radius.” He got most of his culture from VHS cassettes, either the video store, or taping stuff off of HBO.
“We would watch HBO and copy films,” he chuckled. “I think everyone was doing it… ‘Conan,’ I've been defending my entire life, I think is one of the most physical performances, ever. Though, you talk about a really bold and strong [musical] score — to me cinema is a visual and sonic extravaganza, and that film specifically, does that.
“When I work, the film, the subject, the themes, these things have to be expressed physically,” Unay concludes. His other two fixations were “The Warriors,” featuring a stylized bunch of New York City toughs forced to fight their way home; and “Vision Quest,” a more personal film about a Spokane wrestler training for a seemingly impossible match, and finding love along the way.
“I think if you take those three films, you throw them in a blender, you end up with this film,” Unay said.
The director spent years in computer design, specializing in computer-rendered heads and facial expressions. He helped build Andy Serkis’ visage into a gargantuan ape for Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” and oversaw creature-face building for James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
He’d never directed a feature film until he met Joe Carman at Kent’s United Fitness Center. Carman was sweating through a workout. Unay was waiting for his yoga class to start. A yoga friend suggested Carman might make an interesting acquaintance.
Carman warmed quickly to Unay – and wasn’t much for small talk.
“He told me, ‘I really need to fight right now. I just scheduled a fight, my family doesn't know it, I just really need to do this right now,” as Unay related it.
“And I was just blown away. I didn't know what he was going through, but I couldn't believe his story… how open he was with his life story and the things he was going through. And I thought, ‘here's a guy, I've just met him and he's already told me his family does not support his fighting and doesn't know that he's doing it.’
“But he told me there were a lot of thing in his life he couldn't control, and the only time he felt in control was training, and fighting.”
Carman’s family eventually entered the picture. Unay armed himself with a camera, plus a few camera assistants, and up to six microphones, to cover up to six Carman family members around the house. Sometimes he’d be filming in the kitchen, only for the mic feed to tell him something more interesting was going on in the living room.
Carman’s family sometimes seems on the verge of falling apart. The fighter confronting his dismissive, drunken father, doesn’t help either. The film’s always worth sticking with. It isn’t always easy to confront.
“Minette Nelson, one of the funders on the film,” recalled Unay, watched the completed film and told the director, “this reminds me that every family is built upon an equal measure of love, and pain.”
For anyone interested, Carman hasn’t fought for over a year, since Unay stopped filming him.
But he has started coaching some of his daughters, in mixed martial arts.
And he’s still married.
“A lot of love there,” Unay says. “And a lot of pain too.”