India's female boxers gamble marriage for fame in documentary by Concordia grads

Filmmakers Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian spent 10 years filming 'With This Ring' which is coming to Montreal Monday for a screening at Concordia University.

'With This Ring' being screened in Montreal Monday night

Documentary 'With This Ring' shows female boxers working tirelessly to earn a medal and achieve a level of status and financial security that would have been impossible otherwise. (With This Ring/Anna Sarkissian)

With no money or connections, two Concordia film school graduates flew to India hoping to make a documentary about female boxers — 10 years later, With This Ring is ready to come home.

Filmmakers Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian didn't even speak Hindi when they got on a plane in 2006 thinking they would win the trust of a group of female boxers in India.

Joshi said she was fascinated by these women who chose to take up boxing — her family is Indian and she knows how much pressure that culture puts on women to get married.

Anna Sarkissian films while Ameesha Joshi interviews Mary Kom, a five time world champion. The two Canadians lived with the boxers and ended up with 200 hours of footage. (With This Ring/Anna Sarkissian)

She saw how these women risk losing that opportunity altogether, since jeopardizing their looks means they may never marry.

Of course, the risk is softened by a possible reward; if they are successful boxers and become medalists, they are likely to get cushy government jobs with a house and pension.

It's much more than these women would have been able to achieve otherwise.

Inspired by such a unique and high-stakes story, Joshi teamed up with Sarkissian, who she met while studying film at Concordia, and the two set off for India.

"We had nothing. We were up against the wall," Joshi said.

"We had to gain the trust of the boxers and the head coaches. That took time."

Filmmakers Joshi and Sarkissian communicated with the boxers in broken Hindi, and sometimes would only get a translation when they were back home subtitling the conversation. (submitted by Anna Sarkissian)

Culture gap, language barriers

Neither of them spoke Hindi so gaining the boxers' trust was already a challenge, but it was made worse by the fact that other people had tried to capture their stories and then just disappeared.

The women doubted these two Canadian filmmakers would be different.

 "We would always ask if it was okay to be filming and we were worried they would say 'Yes,' out of politeness, not because they wanted to," Sarkissian said.

They found that the women they were filming would always be very forthcoming, then casually not follow through on things they had agreed to.

Joshi said she began to realize that the women were hiding behind their Teflon smiles and an honest connection was far off.

In the end, the boxers were eventually won over by the filmmakers, but it took two years.

"They turned to us and said, 'You're one of us now.' And they gave us team jackets," Joshi said.

After two years of work on the project, the duo were still trying to decide who would become the focus of their film. (With This Ring/Anna Sarkissian)

During those years the duo ended up filming 200 hours of footage — it was too much of a good thing.

"In 2008 we didn't even know who our characters would be. Who would be in the film, and what the story would be," she said.

The editing room became a daunting place as they decided what to cut and how to focus the story.

"When it finally finished I can't describe how sweet that feeling was. It felt like a miracle," Joshi said.

Between takes

The two lived with the boxers for months at a time and between visits they would work on securing more funding.

They would fill out grant applications and even launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which brought in almost $20,000 US in donations.

By the time the film was complete, their work started all over again — they needed to distribute it.

Getting it screened in film festivals proved to be its own uphill battle.

"The independent film festival circuit is flawed," Joshi said.

"Unless you have connections or a big named attached, you have a tough time."

She resorted to organizing her own screenings in India and took the film on a tour of British Columbia.

Sarkissian is doing a doctorate at Oxford University and was able to organize a screening there as well.

On Monday, April 3, With This Ring is getting a public screening as part of Cinema Politica Concordia's documentary series.

After all the work that went into telling this story, Joshi said she hopes as many people will see it as possible whether in a cinema, or online, where they hope to put the film at some point in the near future.