Puerto Rican Filmmaker's Tribeca Screening Shows Island's Grit

'El Pugil' ('The Boxer') Documentary Clip
  • El Pugil (The Boxer) highlights youth's fight against poverty
  • Short Puerto Rican documentary screens Thursday at festival

At dawn, a young Puerto Rican boxer gets out of bed, puts on his running shoes and hits the streets in one of San Juan’s poorest neighborhoods -- Barrio Obrero, or “working-class district.”

Running through the empty avenues, past shuttered storefronts and pastel-colored buildings, Angel ‘Tito’ Acosta clocks in his three miles before a two to three-hour training session in the afternoon. When he competes, the 22-year-old glides his 105-pound frame through the ring, pummeling his rival. His sweat running down large cheekbones on a lean face.

Angel Manuel Soto’s short documentary, El Pugil (The Boxer), takes the audience into a little-known sector of Puerto Rico: young men training and sparring their way to a better life on an island where almost half of the residents live in poverty. Soto’s close-ups on boxers’ faces, punching bags, trophies and gloves offers an intimate portrait of the sport. Slow-motion shots highlight Tito’s graceful and elegant moves.

The 16-minute film will screen Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival after first premiering three years ago in San Juan. The mainland debut comes as Congressional lawmakers spar over a stalled bill to help Puerto Rico cut its $70 billion debt load, repair its finances and avoid defaulting on debt.

Contrasting View

Tito’s story is one of resilience amid poverty. A 7th-grade dropout raised without a father, his goal is to someday return to school and box his way out of poverty.

“He really represents Puerto Rico,” Soto said in an interview at Bloomberg LP’s offices in Manhattan. “He’s proved to be an example of what you can do with nothing, if you have the willingness to do it. You don’t need means, you need the willingness to do things.”

The life depicted in the film contrasts with the dominant story these days about the island, one where residents are leaving, the economy’s contracting and the government’s going broke from years of runaway borrowing.

Puerto Rico’s debt piled up as the self-governing U.S. territory borrowed for years to cover operating expenses as the island’s economy contracted. Commonwealth officials are negotiating with creditors to lower the debt obligations. Puerto Rico’s unable to use bankruptcy protection to ease its debt, as Detroit did.

People Affected

Soto, a 33-year-old Puerto Rican who moved to Los Angeles for work almost two years ago, could film the island’s sunny white-sand beaches, but the filmmaker prefers to place the camera on “the unheard voices,” he said.

“These are the people that are being affected by the debt,” Soto said. “These are the people that are going to have the weight of the debt on their shoulders and it’s obvious that that’s not going to work.”

Tito, now 25, is undefeated with 12 wins, all of them knock-outs. He will miss the screening Thursday in Manhattan because he’s training for his next fight on April 23 in Puerto Rico, where he will defend his Latin Champion of the World title.

“Little by little, I’m moving forward because if you get stuck and you keep looking back, you’ll never get to where you want to go next,” Tito says in the film while walking the streets of Barrio Obrero.

Three years after its San Juan premiere, El Pugil is showing again after Soto’s employer, RYOT, which creates virtual reality journalism, asked to see the filmmaker’s earlier work. The company decided to subtitle the short documentary and submit it to Tribeca.

It’s frustrating for Puerto Rican’s to see inaction when they are struggling. Tito, a superlightweight, is an example for island officials and lawmakers of determination, hard work and focus, Soto said. Surrounded by poverty, crime, violence and drugs, the young boxer has risen above his challenges.

“He doesn’t fit this type of outcome,” Soto said. “Look at him, there’s no excuse. There’s no excuse.”

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