Orthodox boxer wins rounds, fans in new documentary

Dmitriy Salita, a young Orthodox Jewish welterweight from Brooklyn by way of Odessa, has excellent footwork, an outstanding jab and a terrific personality. How far they can carry him remains to be seen.

The same might be said of “Orthodox Stance,” Jason Hutt’s appealing but superficial documentary that follows Salita through the first few years of his professional boxing career. A well made, perfectly likable yet ultimately minor piece, the film determinedly skates the surface of Salita’s life, and rarely scratches it.

It’s not as if the agile fighter, who’s in his early 20s, isn’t a compelling, charismatic figure. But his formative experiences and unique circumstances are presented as bits of anecdotal color rather than melded into a potent modern portrait of immigration, assimilation, religious faith, ambition and identity.

“Orthodox Stance” has its West Coast premiere in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and is co-presented by Kritzer/Ross Émigré Program, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Club NooN and 79ers programs at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

The film is the centerpiece of the festival’s five-film spotlight on Jewish boxers, and the San Francisco screening will be followed by a panel with director Jason Hutt, Dmitriy Salita and boxing writer and historian Mike Silver.

Salita and his family came to New York in 1991, when he was 9. They had a tough go — they lived in poverty, Salita’s mother was stricken with cancer — and he discovered that the ring was a perfect place to take out his frustrations.

“Boxing helped me block out the pain, and gave me a purpose,” he says.

There was a time, of course, when boxing was one of the most popular routes out of squalor for a Jewish kid. But “Orthodox Stance” doesn’t give us much of a sense of the family’s current financial status, and doesn’t provide clues to the 140-pound fighter’s motivation other than generic ambition and talent.

The religious angle is unique, but likewise underexplored. Some years ago Salita became friends with a Chabad rabbi, and became Orthodox. Admittedly, there’s something inspiring about watching Salita laying tefillin and sharing a prayer in the locker room before coming out and beating his opponent.

The moral and ethical complexities of a devout Jew perpetrating a form of violence are fascinating, but shallowly addressed. Salita’s rabbi expresses his reluctant admiration, and a few members of the Orthodox community tell the boxer outright that he should stop fighting.

At the same time, Salita is a symbol of Jewish pride in Crown Heights, especially on the rare occasion that he gets to box in New York. But his true significance and the function he serves in the community are difficult to determine.

For that matter, we get barely a glimpse of what surely must be Salita’s mass appeal to observant young women. Yes, boxers are supposed to avoid beer and babes — bad for the training regimen, don’t you know — but it’s hard to believe that nice Jewish women aren’t trying to get an introduction, and that he’s not even a little bit interested.

What does come through is his poise, focus, commitment to good sportsmanship and fabulous smile. In those brief moments when he flashes an unfettered grin, we glimpse the warm, friendly fellow behind the businesslike facade.

“Orthodox Stance” is OK as a sports movie. As a character study, however, it’s overly reluctant to probe and push Salita. It scores a few insights, but mostly it just bobs and weaves.

“Orthodox Stance” screens 7 p.m. July 22 at the Castro Theatre; 6:30 p.m. July 30 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Aquarius in Palo Alto; and 12:15 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

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.