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How Keeth Smart Became the Best Fencer in the World

Jan 22, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan

“I didn’t even think fencing was in my future,” says Keeth Smart in the short documentary Stay Close. “I was just holding my breath for [my sister] to make the Olympic team.”

As children, Keeth and his sister, Erinn, trained at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a scholarship program named after the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal. Based in Manhattan, the foundation teaches the sport to inner-city kids. While Erinn showed promise as a fencing prodigy, Keeth was nowhere near a natural. He was the only fencer on his team who did not qualify for the World Championships. But that was fine with him—fencing was Keeth’s ticket to a scholarship at Columbia University, where he would pursue an MBA.

At least, that was the plan. Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan’s Oscar-shortlisted film tells the story of how Keeth rose to prominence in fencing despite nearly every obstacle imaginable thrown his way. In 2003, he became the first American to be named the top-ranked fencer internationally. A few years later, on the very day he learned he’d scored a spot on the Olympic fencing team, Keeth contracted terminal leukemia and given just weeks to live. Despite the prognosis, Keeth survived, but he had to start from ground zero to train for the Olympics. In 2008, he was awarded a silver medal in Beijing.

What drew the co-directors to Keeth’s story, Fan told me, was not just his formidable athletic success. “Keeth’s story is one of parental love,” she said. “Fencing and Keeth’s success in the sport is beside the point. He is a loving and committed parent in the model of his own parents, and that cycle of parental love was the core [of the story] that we uncovered.”

That familial love is writ large in the archive of home videos that Keeth and Erinn gave to Fan and Clement for Stay Close. The co-directors built out the rest of the film’s aesthetic to complement the intimate feel of the videos. Hand-drawn animation brings Keeth’s stories to life, with “rough sketches and mistakes and smudges in every few frames,” Clement told me. To keep things consistent, “the music also needed to sound improvised and minimalistic.” To top things off, the filmmakers frame Keeth’s story as if he were telling it while showing images on an analog slide projector. “Our idea was that the technology cues the audience to feel that they are in an intimate interaction, because you only show a slide projector or VHS to family or close friends,” Clement said.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.