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Sundance Futures: Zachary Heinzerling on the Challenges of Documenting an "Incredibly Complicated Relationship" in 'Cutie and the Boxer'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire January 20, 2013 at 11:41AM

Why He’s On Our Radar: Five years in the works, the Sundance U.S. Documentary competition contender, "Cutie and the Boxer," marks the directorial debut of promising New York-based documentary filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling. The intimate doc profiles Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married Japanese artists living in New York who have been together for 40 years. At the film's outset, Ushio and Noriko are in the midst of preparing a joint exhibit. Using the event as a springboard, Heinzerling delves into the couple's surprising back-story to reveal a piercing look at the sacrifices Noriko made to further Ushio's career.

Did Ushio ever express concern that you would take sides with Noriko in documenting their history together? The film is told from her point of view for the most part.

"Cutie and the Boxer."
"Cutie and the Boxer."

I think he was convinced that the film was more about him the entire time. Ushio, he doesn't really care. He's after any sort of promotion in a way. I think he understood that my film, because I had spent way more time with him than any other documentarian, he understood that there was greater depth to it. He was very willing to sort of go where I wanted to. He never was concerned that the movie was about one or the other. I think that he was a little bit shocked when he saw the movie, but not in a negative way; just more in a curious way.

What was the experience like, sharing the finished film with them?

Noriko loved the movie. And Ushio’s reaction… he tried to explain this to me yesterday, so I think I can speak for him. A lot of the documentaries that have been made about him, they focus in on his personality and the boldness of his performance. His whole mantra is you can't think when you're doing art, you just do it. So my film, which is slightly more contemplative, I think he was a little bit bored by it. His comment was he thought it should be shorter and it should have more of his art, which is sort of understandable.

The film showed a side of him, a vulnerability, that he wasn't used to. He's very open about his struggles; it's part of his art. But I think the film looks at that a little bit deeper, and I think that caught him off guard. But he thought the film was really well edited, which I thought was really funny.

Well edited, but overlong.

Yeah (laughs).

"Cutie and the Boxer"
"Cutie and the Boxer"

What did you learn about yourself after being embedded with this family for five or so years?

I think a lot about it. I think what I learned in the film, and this might sound clichéd, is that love is incredibly difficult to define and that relationships work or don't work for reasons you can't articulate. I was trying to portray an incredibly complicated relationship. I don't think when you come out of the film you have a concrete answer about why they love each other. In the film, not to give it away, but just the idea of "love is a roar." What is a roar? Roar is an explosion. It's good; it's bad. It's basically heaven and it's hell. It's a love-hate relationship.

I think that if you look at it objectively and you think of all the terrible things she's been through, you probably wonder why she stayed with the guy. But then you look at her life and you see how influential and inspirational he was to her. And what a pure and passionate artist and dedicated guy he is to self-expression. That can't be overlooked either.

For me personally, I think I try to analyze my own relationships and try to look to the future. I can be very analytical in a way. I think what you learn in the film is that you have to just sort of give in to the strength of the bond and stop trying to define it. It's a feel thing.

This article is related to: Futures, Interviews, Sundance Film Festival, Cutie and the Boxer, Documentary

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