‘Klitschko: More Than a Fight’ Director Kevin Macdonald on Capturing Ukraine’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion Turned Wartime Mayor — and His Beef With Zelenskyy

While he may be best known for features such as “The King of Scotland” and “The Mauritanian,” Kevin Macdonald has directed a number of documentaries about well-known figures, including 2012’s Bob Marley doc “Marley,” 2018’s revelatory “Whitney” about Whitney Houston and last year’s “High & Low: John Galliano.” His latest film, “Klitschko: More Than a Fight” — which opens the 2024 Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday (and lands on Sky Documentaries in August) — is a little different.

At its center is Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian heavyweight boxing legend who, alongside his brother Wladimir, dominated the sport for a decade starting in the mid-2000s. But unlike Macdonald’s other documentaries, “More Than a Fight” follows its subject in the present day and in an entirely different role, as mayor of Kyiv, the capital city at the epicenter of the deadly ongoing war with Russia. Klitschko is seen visiting destroyed homes, giving medals to the families of fallen soldiers, inspecting bomb shelters and, in a perhaps surprising move for most viewers, fending off attacks from his own president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While they may be on the same side of the war, it would seem that the two celebrities-turned-politicians are no fans of each other (stemming from when Zelenskyy would mock Klitschko on one of his TV shows).

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Speaking to Variety before its world premiere in Sheffield, Macdonald explains why he thinks Klitschko managed to become one of very few boxers to have successfully enter politics, why he might threaten Zelenskyy and whatever happened to the espionage thriller the director was going to make with Paul Mescal.

Vitali Klitschko is a fascinating guy in his own right as a boxer who has moved into politics as mayor of Kyiv, but this film has an added layer of fascination in that it has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the backdrop. Were you thinking of making a documentary before the war started or did that spark the idea?

Somebody actually came to me with the idea. But I had wanted to do something in Ukraine, just because I felt very strongly about the war — and still do — as being this very clear-cut moral case. So I wanted to do something, as a filmmaker, that could communicate something about this really important story. I’d considered a couple of things, but thought I didn’t have the expertise. But then the producer Lawrence Elman said he had a connection to the Klitschko brothers and I immediately thought, here’s a way to tell a story about the war that is accessible to a much wider audience.

You’re obviously following and filming Klitschko in the middle of a war. How easy was it to get access?

It took a while to get his trust. And he is very, very busy, but he realized the importance of getting the message out so made some time for us. But it did take several months. I went about six or seven times and my co-director Edgar Dubrovskiy went a few times. It took a long time to really garner his trust. For instance, for him to allow us to film his ex-wife and kids, and to go to the front line and meet his mother, it did take some time. I think partly he had to understand the difference between a documentary and a news report. But actually, as you get the sense of the end of it all, he’s a guy who’s given his life over to politics and to doing this job. He sacrificed an awful lot. And in a way, that makes it easier for him to make the film, because it’s kind of like, well, this is my life.

I think there are a lot of people out there who might be surprised that he’s the mayor of Kyiv and has been during the war. He’s obviously a well-known figure from the world of boxing, but doesn’t seem to be someone who seeks the limelight or looks to promote himself. 

No, I don’t think he is. But he’s incredibly confident and calm. And I think that’s why I always used to say to him, “If I want to be with anyone in a war zone, I want to be with you.” Because he’s so reassuring and unflappable. He’s a great wartime leader. Not to say Zelenskyy isn’t. But there’s something about the calmness and the sheer bulk and size of this man and his incredible strength that you find quite reassuring. But yeah, I think people are surprised that in Ukraine the president is an ex-comedy star and the mayor of the capital and probably second most powerful political figure is an ex-boxing star. I think there is something odd about having these celebrities in these positions of power, and also that they don’t like each other!

I actually had no idea there was any beef between Klitschko and Zelenskyy before watching the film. Did you know anything about that going into it, and did it make the story more interesting?

We didn’t know about that at all and we did think long and hard about how much we wanted to include of that, because obviously I want this to be a positive representation. I wanted it to make people realize what people are sacrificing over there and how determined and resilient they are about winning. I still don’t want it to be seen as a film about division in the government. But having said that, it became obvious while we were shooting that that is an important part of his day-to-day story. He’s fielding attacks from Zelenskyy and Zelenskyy’s people. Because politics hasn’t gone away, Zelenskyy sees him as some sort of threat. And they’ve got beef from the past, because Zelenskyy took the piss out of him so much on a TV show. So it’s surprising and a bit disappointing in a way. But I guess that’s real life. They’re on the same page, but they also have egos.

Watching the film, it felt strange because over the last few years we’ve seen Zelenskyy pitch himself as the strong man, but in Klitschko you’ve literally got a heavyweight boxing champion.

Maybe that’s what Zelenskyy finds threatening about Klitschko, in that he really is the tough guy. And he literally fought his way to the top. Some of my favorite material in the film is Vitali early in his career and the amazing home videos as he was training as a kickboxer back in the Soviet era, when it was illegal to practice martial arts. And you really realize what an incredible athlete he is. You would not want to be on the receiving the end of a punch from that man.

It’s also very rare for a boxer to go into politics. What do you think makes Vitali — and his brother Wladimir — so different?

I think they’re very smart. And I think people underestimate them and think they’re not smart, because anyone who’s a sports person — particularly a boxer who’s been bashed around the head — isn’t smart. But they’re very clever and very sensitive. And I think particularly Vitali is an incredible psychologist, and really understands people and judges people. It took me a while to realize, but he was always evaluating me and the team. But with a great warmth, and not celeb-y at all. His brother likes the high life a bit more and flies around in his helicopter, but Vitali is a serious individual with a great brain.

You’ve obviously made a few documentaries about well-known figures. Where does Klitschko fit into the mix?

I don’t think it fits into it, it’s a very different sort of film. It’s a portrait of somebody, but as much about the present tense and what he’s doing now. At the risk of sounding boring, I think it’s a history lesson. We’re telling his personal story, about how he got to where he got to and why he became a politician, which I think is one of the things people will find surprising. But it’s part of the bigger story of the nation and of understanding why this war has happened and why it’s so important that they win it. It’s not a celebrity portrait as such.

Do you have anything else in the pipeline?

I’m doing a documentary about John Lennon’s One-to-One benefit concert, which was his only stage performance after leaving the Beatles. So I’m fortunate to have access to a lot of home movies and recordings from the Lennons, so I’ve had a lot of fun with that. Which couldn’t be a bigger contrast to the Klitschko story.

Whatever happened to “A Spy by Nature” starring Paul Mescal, which was announced a couple of years ago? Is that still being developed?

Not at the moment, sadly. It sort of stalled. As you know, it’s a tricky time to raise money for independent movies, so we’re still trying to put it together. It’s a really great project. And I think if the industry was in a slightly healthier state, we would be making it.

I just wondered if Paul Mescal had become too much of a big star?

Probably, now that he’s the new Russell Crowe! But yeah, he’s a hard man to pin down. But as I said, it’s a tough, tough time. So I feel very grateful that I’ve got my love of documentaries to go alongside my love of features, so I can be creatively satisfied by doing that.

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