Interview: Jemma van Loenen

Jemma van Loenen.

Australian Flyweight champion, Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir aims to be the first Australian to win a World Amateur Boxing Championship. A Lebanese Muslim from suburban Australia, ‘Bam Bam’ smashes the stereotypes of her family, society and her sport, to prove she is the best in the world. In the wake of a twelve month drug ban, a series of critical misses, and a rocky relationship with her governing sports federation, ‘Bam Bam’ has a point to prove. The World Amateur Boxing Championships are on the horizon, and she is back to win gold.

Director Jemma van Loenen discusses her new documentary Bam Bam which focuses on the dynamic boxer Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir.

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“She loves attention, she loves performing, she loves being involved in many things from sport to politics, to social action, to art, to philosophy, but her soul needs to retreat and be alone to regenerate.”

Interview by
Matthew Eeles

When did you first hear of Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir?
The Age did a piece on Bianca, I think it was in 2014. She was in Melbourne training Muslim women in self defense. I happened to see the article, and was at the time writing a fictional story on a female Muslim boxer, so I contacted her as research.

Tell us about Bianca as a person.
Bianca is a bundle of contradictions. She is very high energy and outgoing, also somewhat high maintenance, yet she needs alone time to refuel and centre. She has a great deal of heart and compassion for people and coupled with this, a lot of ego. She is very self absorbed, but really needs to be in order to be an elite athlete and put on that show, as well as focus solely on her own goal. Any distraction takes her away from her goal. And she is easily distracted and impulsive. She is always juggling these opposing elements in her life. She loves attention, she loves performing, she loves being involved in many things from sport to politics, to social action, to art, to philosophy, but her soul needs to retreat and be alone to regenerate. This tension is an ongoing internal battle for her. She has a great deal of insight into her own self and is incredibly open and articulate about that and so she makes an incredible character study for a documentary.

How did Bianca react when you told her you wanted to make a documentary about her?
‘Yes!’ Honestly she was totally up for it. She loves attention, she loves the camera and for her being able to tell her story is very important. She says that when she was young there was no one who told of their experiences that she could relate to and she felt very alone and isolated. She wants for her story to maybe help a young person growing up that feels that same isolation and difference from their community and for them to hear that it’s OK and you can survive that.

Bianca’s family are very candid in the documentary. Did it take much to get them to open up for the documentary, or were they this straightforward from the get go?
I think her mum, Diana, was always pretty straightforward. I had met her mum, and stayed at her house with Bianca in Canberra, a couple of times before we even got to the point of deciding to make the documentary, so probably we already had some level of connection there once the filming started.
Bianca’s extended family were more cautious initially. The first interview I did with her aunt actually doesn’t even end up in the documentary, and I think she was very guarded with me and what my agenda was. And this is completely fair – I’m some Anglo-Saxon woman non-Muslim and I want to make a film about them. It’s justified to be concerned about the angle I was going to take. I think it took me obviously being around for the long haul, and being invested in this film, for them to feel more comfortable and willing to talk. Once they got to know me a bit and realise that I was prepared to document this story more fully, rather than just come in meet them once and disappear, they warmed up.

Bianca and her coach, Garry, have a very tight bond. Can you describe their relationship from an outsider’s point of view.
Garry is pseudo-family. Garry as a person is incredibly passionate and has come from his own difficulties and he vehemently supports his people. Bianca is part of that. There is definitely a ‘father-figure’ dynamic there, though he tries to brush it off. Though I think that is somewhat inherent in the coach-athlete dynamic regardless. But especially for Bianca, without her own father around, I think Garry has filled that role for her to a degree. She relates to him as a father, she asks him for personal advice, she borrows money off him, he drives her around. It’s definitely part of that relationship. But also he’s her coach and that means stepping back at times and laying down the line. But then so does being a parent, so maybe you never get away from that.

Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir.

Have you been contacted by Boxing Australia regarding the allegations made against them in the documentary?
Boxing Australia haven’t seen the documentary as yet. I contacted them at the beginning for an interview, and as you see we have a few comments from the previous CEO, Kable Kelleway. A new CEO was brought on whilst we were still in production, and I also contacted him about an interview. He declined. I also approached the Head Coach of the Australian team for interview, he also declined. In all honesty I think Boxing Australia hoped that I would fizzle out and not finish the film. They were not interested in working with me at all. They actually at times actively sought to block my access. Having said that there were a couple of their members that were helpful and assisted my access, but predominantly they resisted me being there and actively tried to block it.

Was ASADA’s treatment of Bianca fair in your eyes?
I completely get why ASADA would want to focus greater attention on Bianca upon her return to competition from a drug ban. That makes sense. However I do think the levels that they went to were extreme. They would wait outside her house late at night, 10 or 11pm, they would come very early in the morning, she was tested four times in a ten day period. As Bianca says they have a specific window every day for testing, but then they would come outside of those times. The realities of substance use is that it will still be in her system in a 24 hour period, it’s not like she can evade detection by them coming outside of the designated times. But I guess the bigger issue for boxing and all weight governed sports, is that the requirement to take on liquid to provide the test sample to ASADA does impact a boxer’s ability to make weight, and in the midst of competition where you’re having to ‘weigh in’ every day and if you don’t make weight you are disqualified, it has a huge impact. And this is something that Garry directly tried to approach with ASADA to manage this so that Bianca wasn’t getting down to weight and then having to put it all back on again just to provide a test sample. Because you are talking 100s of grams for the weigh in – and a litre of water can put you over your weight. But unfortunately ASADA were not willing to engage on it. 

There’s a scene in the documentary where Bianca struggles to answer what she’d be doing if she wasn’t boxing. Personally, what do you think Bianco would be doing?
I have no idea. She would still be doing something physical and aggressive. She definitely expresses herself in a physical manner, but also she is very intellectual and social, so those elements would still be important to her as well. Maybe she’d be leading a revolution – I could see that!

This is the first time you’ve directed a long-form documentary. How was the experience?
Every emotion that you can experience I think I have experienced it in making this film, and all films, but this was such an extended process. Some people say filmmaking is like a rollercoaster, which I agree in parts, but then sometimes I’d think rollercoasters are supposed to be fun, why am I not having fun right now? It is probably for me still too close to even have any real perspective. At times it was incredibly grueling, at other times it was incredibly elating. There was a lot of learning, a lot of finding my feet and a lot of losing my feet. In the filming there was a wonderful sense of wonder and just being with the process and your subject and finding them in that space. I experienced some incredible places and met amazing people. Having other people to work with on the film is a rewarding process because you have all that they bring to it which I think only enhances anything that you bring to it. That symbiosis with other creatives where you just sync in with each other and let each other roll with the moment – there’s nothing else like that. And at the same time you experience so much self-doubt and continually question why you’re e\ven doing this. It’s a lonely and solitary process, and especially so for documentary compared to fiction. I think in fiction it’s a concentrated, time controlled production process, so that time with other creative is more saturated throughout the whole production, but documentary is drawn out, you’re not always shooting and there’s a lot of time in between where it’s just you pushing your thing on your own and that’s hard. But for some reason there is some inner gnawing that tells you you’ll do it all over again!

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m taking some time out to write again. Focusing so much on the documentary space for such an extended time in some respects meant writing fiction became harder to make space for. So I have a few fictional stories that I’m playing around with. But documentary is by no means dead. I have several options rolling around in various embryonic stages and discussions. I’m very curious about stories from the fringe and edgy stories, so they’re all around that dynamic, but also I’m very curious about individual stories, so that biopic style works well for me.

Bam Bam is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 14. Details here. You can discover more about the film here.

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