Being the only documentary playing this year at Fantastic Fest it was sure to be about something outside the mainstream. And it is. Knuckle is a fly on the wall story about feuding clans of traveler families in rural Ireland. Traveler families are basically the western european version of gypsies, with their own set of rules and laws, never staying at the same place for very long and staying on the fringe of "normal" society.
Director Ian Palmer started making the film by accident really when asked to film a Quinn family wedding he found out about James Quinn McDonagh, the undefeated champion of bare knuckle fighting within the Traveler community. Intrigued by this tradition he asked to film some of these fights and spent the next ten years documenting the victories and defeats of various clans.
The families settle their disputes by punching the crap out of each other in illegal fights but the feud between the Quinns and the Joyces, starting when a Joyce was killed in a bar brawl, has been going on for years and James Quinn, being that nobody has been able to beat him, is the one usually called out. We follow James over the course of ten years, reluctantly getting ready for fights that can last over more than two hours and getting on with his life and the life of his closest family members who are also trying to rise in the ranks of Quinn fighters. He personally sees little point in these fights but does them when called out to hold up his family name and because it can pay really well if victorious.
The most interesting thing about this documentary aren't exactly the fights themselves, which can be hard to watch because of their sheer brutality, but the life of the travelers. Officially living below the poverty line, but having hands in all sorts of schemes and money making ventures off the books, these families live in usually bad areas, marry inside their families and I'm sure that quite a few people will be shocked over how they raise their kids. For something that's seemingly chaotic and has a touch of anarchy to it they do follow an awful lot of strict rules and laws that everyone has to abide to. All the fights presided over by neutral referees from other clans and follow rules that if you break them you disqualified. And even after getting your ass handed to you in a fight you respect your opponent for being that hard and fair. It's quite astounding to see the fights, usually set up on a rural stretch of road, being watched by small children who then grow up to be fighters as well. In one particularly sad and pathetic scene we watch a pair of grandfathers feebly beating the crap out of each other. It's all about family pride and you can't touch it without feeling the consequences.
James Quinn McDonagh is a formidable looking bloke, 6 feet of pure power and with the battle scars to prove it but he is a gentle soul, never the one to call out a fighter and usually trying to talk his way out of them. it's only when large sums of money are on the line that he goes out in the field to deliver blows.
The film itself is raw and grimy, sort of like the surroundings it is documenting, using everything from VHS camcorders to modern tech. We get a good sense on how things work in these communities and some of the best footage are the call out videos made by each of the clans that usually play like some ridiculous low rent pay per view wrestling promos.
It's a way of life most people are glad they don't have to experience or know of but does exist in surprisingly many western countries and is constantly fighting for its existence.