U.K.-born, B.C.-raised filmmaker Pete McCormack definitely favours the tough stuff. He took on mental illness in See Grace Fly and thorny African politics in Uganda Rising, codirected with Jesse James Miller, who also edited his latest film, Facing Ali. The new documentary, which has its Canadian premiere at the VIFF next Thursday (October 8) (with a second screening on October 9), is a fast, jazzy look back at Muhammad Ali through the eyes of myriad men who stood up to him.
Watch the trailer for Facing Ali.
“I wanted to make it a no-narration thing, like Studs Terkel,” McCormack explains, in a call from his Vancouver home. “There were 10 guys who I wanted to talk to—guys who'd actually taken Ali to task, or got beat up by him—and they had to drive the narrative forward. George Foreman and Joe Frazier were always onboard. Well, they got a little difficult at one point, but we were able to TKO at the last moment. In the end, I liked them all. They are old men who lived by their bodies, and their bodies
are now declining, so there's a kind of vulnerability there.”
Canadian George Chuvalo and Brit Henry Cooper were key outside voices, especially since they helped frame the racial politics of Ali's complicated story. Cumulatively, they all make the case that the world's most famous boxer stayed at the party too long. All those 15-round fights almost certainly added up to a neurological disaster.
Of all the old fellows seen on-screen, the ailing Ali is the only one who has watched the finished film.
“His wife sent me a note that they saw it and loved it,” McCormack said. “But I knew he'd like it, because Ali has always been in favour of people speaking out.”
In 2003, Toronto author Stephen Brunt wrote a book called Facing Ali, which also included interviews with Ali's opponents.