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From Documentary Newcomer to Festival Success: How a Two-Year Journey Paid Off For ‘The Cage Fighter’

Jeff Unay was a newcomer to the world of documentary filmmaking when he began working on his first film. This is how he made it to the finish line.

“The Cage Fighter”

It’s been a few weeks since “The Cage Fighter” screened at the 13th Camden International Film Festival and four years since I met Joe Carman, the 40-year-old father and fighter who allowed me to share his story with the world. “The Cage Fighter,” which depicts the lives of a middle-aged man and his family, owes much of its existence to the ongoing support of the team at Points North Institute in Camden, Maine.

Two and a half years ago, we workshopped the film through Points North. Later that year, we returned to pitch at the Points North Pitch Forum (which takes place during the festival). Along the way, we met an array of incredible mentors and filmmakers — some of whom actually joined as key collaborators on our project. Bringing the finished film back to CIFF this year was such an important milestone for our film and me as a filmmaker.

This is how we were able to create a feature-length documentary with no prior connections to anyone in the documentary industry, with no upfront funding in place, that would then show at over a dozen festivals and eventually reach a U.S. distribution deal with IFC Films/Sundance Selects. We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for the Points North Institute, but the journey was not a short one. Here is a timeline of our experience.

SUMMER OF 2015: Camden/TFI Documentary Retreat hosted by CNN Films

In 2015, very few people outside of my immediate family knew I was working on a film project. It wasn’t something I was ready to make public, mainly because I was shooting during nights and weekends as I worked a full-time job and also because I knew how truly unpredictable it is to make a feature length character-driven verite documentary.

Prior to I starting this project, I shot and edited short docs and occasional commercial projects in and around Seattle, where I live.  In 2013, I was ready to take the next step and direct what I thought would be a short film of a very interesting man I had recently been introduced to, Joe Carman. Joe is a charismatic 40-year-old local boilermaker/pipefitter by day and MMA fighter by night. In our very first meeting, he mentioned that he was going back into fighting after having stopped for a number of years. He had not told his wife or daughters of his plans as he knew they wouldn’t support this decision. But he really needed to fight right now. He was struggling with a lot of things in his life at the time and fighting made him feel something.

I knew very little about mixed martial arts, but I knew immediately that Joe was a man who was in the midst of facing his own inner demons. So I saved up my pennies and bought a second-hand Red One MX camera. I built it as lightweight as possible so I could shoot the entire project from my shoulder as I thought that was a fitting visual approach for the project. As I shot, I was really taken by how open and emotionally honest Joe, his family and friends were from the very beginning.

A year and a half into filming, I decided to apply for film grants. I had never applied for a grant so this was an entire new experience for me. I was a college baseball player, so I tend to obsess over numbers, and I looked at grant writing with a statistical mindset. Early on, I decided we were going to apply to 20 grants and/or film programs. I thought: “If we go 1-20 and get one grant, then we’ve succeeded and defied the odds. If we go 0-20, we’ll still have a better film because we went through the arduous exercise of putting our film on paper 20 different times. Either way, we win.”

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