Against the ropes Victor Vroegindeweij
Filmmaker Victor Vroegindeweij is in Dutch Competition at IDFA 2017 with The Last Fight, a dramatic portrait of Dutch mixed martial arts (MMA) star Marloes Coenen. The director talks to Nick Cunningham. For director Vroegindeweij, there is an absurd paradox at the heart of his latest film. Marloes Coenen was, for many years, the queen of international kick boxing and cage fighting. What’s more, the Dutch have bossed the intensely violent K1 fighting code for the past 15 years. “But The Netherlands is a country that is built on consensus and that grey area in the middle,” the director opines. “In Holland we always debate and then we find a way where everybody loses a little bit, in politics and business, and we are quite successful at it. That we are the best at this extremely violent sport is strange. In MMA there is no middle ground. No consensus. Winner takes all.” As a subject, Coenen has it all. She is clever, highly articulate and beautiful. She knows that her powers are waning and also that
her biological clock is ticking – she wants to have a child with her gentle boyfriend Roemer, also a fighter. She is therefore contemplating her last fight. She wants to retire as world champion. “This is basically what I am looking for as a filmmaker – everything is there,” agrees Vroegindeweij. “A great person and a great subject to engage with the viewer. And her story is amazing. When I first met her I saw that sense of obsession and panic in her eyes, and then I thought ok, this is a film.” Of course there is conflict at the heart of the story, and not just within the mind of Coenen. The training set-up has a three-way orientation. Head trainer Martijn is tough and no-nonsense. Boyfriend Roemer is kind and supportive and a little too compliant. Meanwhile her mind-coach Leon consults tarot cards to help determine her prefight preparation strategies. Even though the antagonists don’t articulate their differences, the strain is continually evident, especially after Coenen loses one elimination contest and another is cancelled due to an opponent’s inability to make the fight weight. Eventually Coenen must decide which path to take. The strain was also felt by the director. “We filmed for three years. We wanted to film the last fight and that didn’t happen, it was just waiting and waiting – then,
shit she lost, and now it was another five months until the next fight...” A very satisfying dimension of the film is the gnarled, hard-bitten commentary delivered in English by veteran US actor Bruce Dern which helps to elevate Coenen’s existential dilemma into the realm of the universal. “I wanted to add a layer of philosophical depth that can hang above the story and can comment from a place of experience. This film talks to many cultures.
“When I first met her I saw that sense of obsession and panic in her eyes” The voice-over emphasises that and makes it more accessible to an Anglo-Saxon audience as well.” Dern was immediately interested in the film and the voice-over gig, but Vroegindeweij had no money left in the budget to pay for the 90 minutes recording time the actor was prepared to give. The director ended up paying out of his own pocket. “Fighters feel that their last fight is their only fight,” Vroegindeweij adds. “You can win throughout your entire career but if you lose the last one, you feel like a loser forever. Which is not what life is about. Life is not about the last fight, life is about everything you do in its entirety.”