El Tigre / The Tiger
In his first short film, entitled El Tigre—which he directed and shot in Dominican Republic—John Urbano tells one of the many stories that legendary two-time world champion Panamanian boxer Ismael Laguna shared with him during their now over ten-year friendship: the tale of his mischievous childhood and how it led to boxing trainer Chino Amon’s discovery of the young fighter as he toppled tough-man Carlos Watson in impromptu match on the beach.
When Urbano met Laguna in a boxing gym in Barraza, Panama, in 2005, they became instant friends, bonding through the countless boxing stories and old photographs Laguna shared with him. When Urbano noticed that Laguna wasn’t wearing his boxing hall of fame ring and asked where it was, Laguna told him he was broke and had pawned it for a few hundred U.S. dollars to feed his grandchildren. Urbano went to the pawnshop, purchased the ring back, and placed it on Laguna’s finger. With tear-filled eyes, Laguna asked Urbano if he’d make the movie of his life. Honored and gratified, Urbano began the work that has led to this inspiring fifteen-minute film.
El Tigre not only demonstrates the skill that festival goers and critics appreciated in Urbano’s earlier filmmaking feat, Beauty of the Fight, which was screened in nine different countries, but this little gem also pushes the cinematographic and storytelling envelope further. He deftly intertwines three stories at once: Laguna, in the present, harking back to his boxing past; Chino Amon trying to convince the young Laguna’s mother to allow him to train him; and the young Laguna running from the police for fighting in the streets and coming upon and toppling his Goliath on the beach.
Flexible pacing ranges from the long slow shot of Laguna buttoning up his shirt to the humorous ground-covering chase scene through a rustic village to the life-changing boxing match on the beach. In the long slow shirt-buttoning shot, the viewer can’t help but feel a kind of love for the aging Champ while, in the boxing scene, the cutting is dizzyingly fast, suggestive of Laguna’s almost mythical speed as a boxer. Urbano melds his objective style with the action-packed re-enactments of the chase through the village and the sensational boxing match.
The film is a veritable intensive course in filmmaking styles and techniques, with both long and intimate takes, rack focus, a variety of camera angles, artistic composition, use of natural light, slow and fast editing, juxtaposition and montage, complex layering, objective style footage and action scenes, and a seasoned understanding of the human figure, for a successful mix of humor and pathos.
The seamlessness of the film makes it a thriller, a tear-jerker, and an inspirational piece—all in a single deft gesture of love for a nearly forgotten world champion whom John Urbano strives to lift above the crowds for the clamor “El Tigre” still deserves for the role he’s played, in the decades since his reign, in the lives of so many aspiring boxers, including Roberto Durán.
The film has screened at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, Athens International Film + Video Festival, Ashland Independent Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest, Gig Harbor Film Festival, Brussels Belgium's Festival Peliculatina, and Wandering Reel Traveling Film Festival. El Tigre has won Honorable Mention for Best Short Film at Ashland Independent Film Festival. This is the only short narrative to win a prize this year other than the winner of Best Short.
El Tigre was picked up for distribution by the Shorts International Limited company as part of a seven year deal. El Tigre received Oscar qualification making it one of 150 films reviewed by the Academy in 2017.