DOCUMENTARY The Last Fight gives incredible access into the life and psychological state of pioneer Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Maroles Coenen as her 17-year career draws to a close. Capturing Marloes in some of her most vulnerable moments, the film offers an unflinching and unique study of her final few months as a professional fighter.
The Last Fight director Victor Vroegindeweij joins us on Close-up Culture to give fascinating insight into his documentary ahead of its UK premiere at Raindance Film Festival (3 and 4 October).
Q: The Last Fight begins when Marloes joins Bellator MMA in August 2014. What led you, as a filmmaker, to the world of MMA and to Marloes?
A: I learned of Marloes in 2012 through the media and was immediately gripped by her personality and her story. So I, rather cheekely, just sent her an email to ask if we could meet. We met in her trainer Martijn’s Dojo and I saw in her eyes a deep focus, concentration and obsession.
It’s my opinion that for a great film one needs a great lead character and I felt that her obsession to win every fight and deep conviction to the fight game would make for a strong lead character. She really wants to win. The audience feels that urgency.
In the years after this meeting I went with her and Martijn to fights and fight camps in Thailand, Japan, Belgium, Italy and a lot of middle-of-nowhere small town America just to get to know her and her world.
The MMA world obviously fascinated me also, so I now I know everything there is to know about this world.
Q: It looks as though you have incredible access to Marloes training routine and life. Was Marloes comfortable letting you in straight away or did your relationship evolve over time?
A: MARLOES really understood that this was my film. She often said that I would unveil her ‘weak spot’ if she would not interfere in the artistic process. Her brother is a major artist in The Netherlands so she knew what the artistic process entails.
Q: I often hear that it is hard for anyone who has never fought or stepped in an Octagon to truly understand the mentality of a fighter. Did you ever find it was a struggle to tap into Marloes’ mentality?
A: WE were really lucky with her eyes and her gaze. She has this unforgivingly serious, focused gaze that gives you this deep sense of her soul. I was able to tap into that fighter mentality through those eyes. Not through interview. Explaining these deep things are not possible.
Q: The life of a fighter is always gruelling, but you followed Marloes through a particularly emotionally intensive time. How was your journey making this film? Did you ever feel emotionally drained?
A: I got very emotionally drained when times got rough for her. When things happened that you don’t wish on someone you have come to love. But also these events were narrative gifts for the film. So it is a difficult mix of emotions: you are happy, but you also want to go to bed and sleep for a week.
Q: Was it difficult to keep your focus as a filmmaker when Marloes did fight?
A: YES, but my absolutely fantastic team of DOP Mick van Dantzig and sound man Eric Leek kept me and us on track. Their focus saved us often.
Q: In the trailer, Marloes says: ‘Fighting is so pure. So vulnerable.’ How did your perspective of MMA change over the period of making this film?
A: I completely understand this. There’s nothing between you as a fighter and the other fighter. You’re almost naked, there’s a fence around you and the door to this shrine called the Octagon is closed. There’s nothing else. Nothing. Just you and the other. I can completely understand that’s an addictive feeling.
Also, there are very few moments or places in our society where one can legally beat up another until the point of the brain shutting down or an arm breaking.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the other figure’s from Marloes life that appear in the documentary?
A: MARLOES is basically surrounded by three men.
Her boyfriend Roemer is this fantastic guy who used to be a fighter as well. He is quiet, kind and sweet, but also strong. Their love is deep and pure.
Her trainer Martijn has been on Marloes’ side since she was like 14. He was the trainer of – amongst others – the great Dutch MMA fighter Alistair Overeem and he made both of them into great champions in the American Strikeforce MMA promotion, that is now part of the UFC. He’s a brash, dominant man that is in many ways the opposite of Roemer.
And then there’s Leon, a mental coach with healing powers through Energy Therapy. He’s very important to Marloes and she takes him on all her trips. He has a soothing quality.
Q: Bruce Dern lends his voice to the film as the narrator. Why did you want Bruce and what did you feel his voice brought to Marloes story?
A: I wanted to give the story more depth and in documentary you are limited to interview or conversation. I wanted a narrator that could give us snippets of meaning, without explaining the story. He provides an extra narrative layer and philosophical depth. He is not an explaining narrator like the great Nick Broomfield.
Q: The Gladiatorial nature of fighting always lends itself to cinema. Can you talk about the imagery and visual style of the film?
A: I wanted to suck you into Marloes’ world. That’s why I in the end threw out 90% of the interviews with her as I don’t like a protagonist to know more about herself then the audience. I didn’t want to explain much. Just sit and watch. Discover the world as she discovers it. I approached this documentary film like I was making a feature film.
Q: Were you inspired by any other sports documentaries? And, how did you try to differ from the rest?
A: I do not consider this a sports doc. I’m in general mostly inspired by Nick Broomfield, Errol Morris, Coco Schrijber, Alex Gibney and Ira Glass.
For this film I think most inspiration comes from Salesmen by The Maysles. That film inspires a lot of my work when it comes to narrative structure, lead characters and the build up of anticipation. And I learn so much from This American Life, those guys are masters in dosing information and storytelling.
Q: Lastly, what do you hope UK audiences at Raindance take away from the film?
A: MARLOES lost the biggest fight of her life, but now she’s a mother and has never been happier. Please think about that when Britain sails off, lonely, into the Atlantic Ocean. There will be a new Britain. It may not be world champion Britain, but this crisis lends good leaders so many opportunities to create a new, better country.