A visually impressive docu-fiction hybrid from Slovak multihypenate Ivan Ostrochovsky, “Koza” offers a raw look at a retired Romany boxer who goes back into the ring in hopes of keeping his family together. The helmer employs non-pro actors in authentic settings on the fringes of professional boxing, but refrains from exploiting the pathos of their circumstances. Instead, in this made-up tale inspired by real-life situations, Ostrochovsky and talented cinematographer Martin Kollar use a coolly artful style (long shots, static camera) that provides the audience with a bit of psychological distance and emotional freedom. Further fest play is in the cards.
Koza, which translates as “goat,” is the nickname of Peter Balaz, a flyweight boxer who was 23 when he competed for Slovakia at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games — the apex of a career that has long since gone south. Although he has a cherished team jacket and a VHS tape to remember the Games by, this simple man now lives in poverty with his girlfriend, Misa (Stanislava Bongilajova), and her bright young daughter, Nikolka (Nikola Bongilajova), on the outskirts of a rundown housing estate.
When Misa learns that she is pregnant, she asks Koza to pay for an abortion. Even though Koza desires a child of his own and hopes to change Misa’s mind, his only option to earn enough money is to return to the ring. With the grudging help of his not-entirely-honest manager, Zvonko (Zvonko Lakcevic), who runs the scrap-metal enterprise where he occasionally earns a few crowns, Koza embarks on a long, melancholy road trip through several countries and endless matches, even as he sustains severe injuries that should keep him from competing. Perhaps the most memorable interlude is a whimsically entertaining period spent training with Jan Franek, a retired Czech boxer who won a bronze medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but is now a homeless alcoholic.
Koza comes off as a kind-hearted, naive, perhaps brain-damaged man who is too trusting of those around him. His life story — abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother — is gradually revealed in scraps of conversation. Meanwhile, Slovakia’s prickly relationship with its Roma population is barely acknowledged here; nor is the exceptional fact of a Roma Olympian celebrated or explained.
There is bruising boxing footage aplenty, but Ostrochovsky and d.p. Kollar primarily focus on the space outside the ring; they avoid stereotyping their subjects and capture welcome moments of gentle humor. Kollar, who is also renowned as a still photographer, beautifully frames the dark, wintry landscape in HD.
Per the press notes, the helmer grew up in the same southern Slovak town (Zilina) that Koza did and made a short documentary about him, during which they became friends; the feature was set in motion when Koza contacted Ostrochovsky for financial help some years ago. By hiring the man to appear in the film and paying him throughout the four years of pre-production and shooting, the helmer was not only able to supplement his leading man’s low disability pension but also put him in touch with a reality that helped move his life in a different direction.