Knuckle, along with The Guard, is one of two Irish films which were in contention for this year's Sundance awards. But where The Guard is a comedic look at a fictional copper; Knuckle is a more troubling film.
This is a documentary about the 'fair fights' of the traveller community. While we far too often hear about the horrific violence which can come from traveller feuds, it is rare to catch a glimpse of the uncomfortable way travellers attempt to avoid these showdowns.
When two families have a falling out they each send a champion to take part in a closely refereed bare-knuckle boxing bout. These fights are supposed to settle family disputes in a relatively safe manner, but it rarely works out that way.
While the fights seem to calm people down in the short term, it doesn't take much to flare up old tempers, and too often fights are called for because of dissatisfaction over the result of a fight from the past.
The central subject of the film is James Quinn McDonagh, the undefeated champion of the Quinn McDonagh family. He's a man who expresses a dislike for the fights and seems to genuinely wish they didn't happen, but he knows he's good at them. So when James feels he has to, or if the money is too good to pass up, he'll raise his fists.
The duality of James is an interesting hook to the piece; he spends a lot of time denouncing the fights, but he always seems to revel in them when they occur.
Another interesting character is James' brother, Michael. Michael seems a much more dangerous man than his brother and is much more willing to participate in fights. He even occasionally seeks them out, but a lot of this seems to stem from a desire to not live in his big brother's shadow.
Michael's passion to be a fighter can overwhelm him at times, to the extent that in an early fight he ends up breaking the rules. Some may not find that surprising - given the bare-knuckle nature of the contests - but a truly fascinating aspect of this story is how important those rules are to the community. There are many rules designed to increase the safety of the events and the two neutral referees will not hesitate to disqualify a fighter for breaking them.
With all of these interesting elements, this could have been a brilliant documentary, if only it was planned better. Director Ian Palmer followed these fights for twelve years. He was drawn into the culture after filming a Quinn McDonagh wedding back in 1997. Palmer does point out that he knows he lost sight of what he was doing as he became more drawn into the fighters' world, but it is never really clear what he intended in the first place. He may have had a vague idea of making a film early on, but really he was just filming. When he finally started to feel guilty about the fact that he was enjoying these fights, he just stuck together whatever footage he had in a way that only barely works. His narration is quite unfocused and peppered with apologies for the gaps in coverage as well as for his own lack of focus.
The stories on offer are fascinating and the footage is truly remarkable, not least because of the perverse pleasure the audience feels at watching the actual fights. Hopefully one day an equally remarkable filmmaker will be able to make a good documentary out of it.