Raging Dove

Professional athletes aren’t known for their political sophistication, but the welterweight boxing champ Johar Abu Lashin has a definite worldview.

Born in Nazareth, Abu Lashin has Arab parents, an Israeli passport, an American wife and a Tennessee horse farm. Well, once upon a time he had all that.

An engaging though superficial 2002 Israeli documentary, “Raging Dove” introduces Abu Lashin as a successful boxer and ambitious entrepreneur. He has it all clicking — until he entangles himself in the quicksand of the Middle East.

“Raging Dove” receives its U.S. television premiere Monday evening, Oct. 18, on the Sundance Channel.

The friendly, trilingual Abu Lashin seemingly has no problem adjusting to any culture or setting. Trained as a boxer, the Christian Arab came to the States more than a decade ago as a teenager to fight professionally.

He accepted the nickname “The Israeli Kid” as a way of building a fan base. But since most Americans think “Israeli” means “Jew,” Abu Lashin frequently had to correct misperceptions.

There were other setbacks. The boxer asserts that ESPN reneged on a lucrative promise to sign him for a televised fight after the network realized that he wasn’t Jewish.

(“Raging Dove” was shot before 9/11, and one can only imagine what sort of hurdles or anti-Arab hostility Abu Lashin encountered afterward.)

Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror milks the culture-clash angle, contrasting the dark, rangy boxer with the sharp accent with his Southern wife, his moon-faced manager, down-home neighbors and mid-America fight fans.

A living contradiction, Abu Lashin has his home gym adorned with Palestinian and Israeli flags. “I feel like a hero without a home,” he says.

“Raging Dove” moves into deeper waters when Abu Lashin wins a pair of welterweight world championships and uses his clout to stage his next bout in Nazareth.

He’s motivated by a mixture of pride — at returning to his birthplace a champion — and guilt, for the freedom and luxury experienced in America. He also has the urge to show Palestinian youths a positive role model.

But the Jewish filmmaker (who attended college in the States but then returned to his homeland) doesn’t probe Abu Lashin on this point, or why the fighter didn’t bring his American wife along. She was opposed to the whole venture, but her absence seems particularly glaring when Abu Lashin reunites with his parents.

The Nazareth bout comes off with few hitches. After the boxer dispatches his opponent — flown in from Indianapolis — before an enthusiastic crowd, he sets a new challenge: His next bout will be fought in Gaza.

A successful title match would provide the Palestinians with an enormous shot of confidence and momentum. But Abu Lashin is betting the farm, because he must defend his title every six months, or risk having it taken away.

The fighter lobbies Arab representatives at the Knesset for their help in pulling off the Gaza match, and his celebrity leads to a face-to-face meeting in Gaza where Yasser Arafat promises the Palestinian Authority’s help.

Perhaps scarce resources can’t be allotted to a boxing match. Maybe Arafat is an inept figurehead with no power. Or perhaps Abu Lashin’s request was a no-go from the start, but proper etiquette in Arab culture is never to say no to someone’s face. Whatever the reason, the Palestinians don’t deliver.

Whether Abu Lashin is naive or has an inflated sense of his own power is open to interpretation. What’s clear is that his inability to make things happen in Gaza, despite his persistence, marks him as another well-meaning casualty of the Middle East.

Alas, “Raging Dove” (a riff on Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”) squanders the drama by failing to provide a countdown as Abu Lashin’s six-month window evaporates.

Though “Raging Dove” coulda been a contender, as it stands it’s merely an entertaining and curious diversion.

“Raging Dove” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, on the Sundance Channel, and also airs at noon Monday, Oct. 25, 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30 and 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 31.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.