The Zambian welterweight’s rise from vegetable-seller to seven-time world champion is true Hollywood material, the inspiring story of a woman who literally fought for a dream at odds with what society expected of her.
Phiri has overcome even more obstacles than Hilary Swank’s character in Clint Eastwood’s multiple Oscar winner, from the death of her father when she was six and subsequent poverty and lack of education, to falling pregnant at 16 and the death of her sister, who left her with four more children to care and provide for.
In the documentary, Phiri recalls being the only female at her first boxing gym. “Most of the guys thought I was there just looking for a guy,” she says. “But I just went and trained. Some people looked at me strangely and some guys didn’t even talk to me. They thought I might be a prostitute. Can you imagine this situation? It was a tough time, but I wanted to prove a point to those who said negative things.”
She’s more than proven her point, but the documentary shows that success has come at a price, notably a loss of privacy and a sense of loneliness. “I gave up marriage for my career,” she says. “I thought marriage was a good thing but with a career I could achieve more…I built my own house through boxing. Had I married fast, I’d never have achieved all this.”
The documentary won a Diploma of Merit at Tampere Film Festival in Finland and was nominated for the Nordic Dox Award at CPH:Dox, one of Europe’s largest documentary festivals.
Describing Zambia’s Boxing Star, CPH: Dox said, “In the wrong hands, this film could have been a predictable and sentimental story, but the Finnish/Zambian directors Salla Sorri and Jessie Chisi have created an exceptionally realistic film, which avoids politically correct clichés in favour of a portrait that makes space for the contrasts, conflicts and inner tensions that are also a part of Esther Phiri’s story.”
Chisi, who is Phiri’s cousin, is founder and director of the Zambia Short Film Festival.
Zambia’s Boxing Star premieres on Al Jazeera English on Wednesday, 17 August 2016 at 2000GMT / 2100 WAT / 2200 CAT / 2300 EAT on Witness, Al Jazeera English’s inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. For more information, visit http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/.