Matt Houghton’s a director with an eye for documentary storytelling which he renders into short films with the aesthetic nuances of a feature. Well-known for his short Landline documenting a helpline set up by a chaplain from Cheshire lending a listening to ear to gay farmers, Matt has recently released a new film, Hands Up, Chin Down. Equally as insightful as Landline, this time the director focuses his lens on the boxing community centred around the voice of Jerry Mitchell, a respected coach in the amateur boxing field.
Originally beginning as a short documentary film, Hands Up, Chin Down is a split-screen film “about the rhythms of coaching and the life-long dedication of one person,” Matt tells It’s Nice That. Built up around raw audio recordings of Jerry, the film translates his words with up-close footage of the coach at work in one half of the screen, while his trainees get to work in the other. “The idea, both aesthetically and with the soundscape, was to remove the filter and the gloss as much as possible,” Matt explains of the film. “I hope it’s a film that operates in layers, but at its heart, it’s about what it means to be loyal.”
Below, Matt takes us through further details of the makings of Hands Up, Chin Down.
It’s Nice That: Could you tell us about why you decided to move this project on from a photography
Matt Houghton: All of the things that I’m most proud of creatively have developed gradually and organically, and I’ve definitely learnt over time to be patient in the early stages of a project. Especially with documentary, I like to spend quite a lot of time with people before even deciding if there’s a film in their story — or what that film might look and feel like. Taking photographs is often a part of that. I guess for me it’s part of the research process but in a pretty informal way.
When first I met (or more accurately, first heard) Jerry, it was kind of obvious to me that he’d make an incredible subject for a documentary. I love photography and the potential of a single image, but with a charisma like Jerry’s, a short film felt pretty undeniable.
INT: What sparked this project into fruition for you?
MH: I love sports films but I’m getting pretty bored of the story arcs and stylistic tropes that seem to be so well-established in the genre nowadays. I’ve used a lot of them myself: hazy locker rooms, dramatic silhouettes, earnest expressions. But after hanging out at Islington Boxing Club a few times, I just realised that the sport really isn’t like that at all. I guess the basic idea behind Hands Up, Chin Down is to challenge some of those tropes by creating a fractured portrait of someone who is utterly dedicated — but just not in the way that we’re used to seeing.
About the third or fourth time I’d been down to the club, I was watching Jerry coaching one of the younger boys, and it did kind of click. There was a strange mix of brutality and care that I was really drawn to and in many ways, the film is an attempt to express that.
INT: What feeling do you hope people gain from watching Hands Up, Chin Down?
For me, Hands Up, Chin Down started as a project that felt conceptually tight. I’m very interested in structure and experimenting with form, especially in documentary, and I wanted to make something that emphasised the different layers and rhythms of the coaching process.
We put a bunch of boundaries in place designed to challenge certain stereotypes and tried to structure the film very much around the nuances of Jerry’s character and the specifics of training. It’s three minutes long — exactly the length of a round of boxing — it’s all shot with a locked off camera, the audio is really tightly edited and the interaction between the two sides of the split-screen is very deliberate. So in that way, it’s quite complex in its construction. But through the process of making it, really it became as much about tone as it is about the specifics. My hope is that the layers of the film never get in the way and that the audience is allowed to feel something, whatever that is.
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