A Love Letter to East Boston

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

“This is like an unfolding love letter to our neighborhood and to the history of this neighborhood.” Those are the words of ZUMIX Co-founder and Executive Director Madeleine Steczynski describing Naomi Yang’s award-winning film titled “Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody,” which was screened to a packed house at ZUMIX on Saturday night.

Yang’s film, which won Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the International Film Festival Boston, is just how Steczynski described it — a love letter — in which Yang masterfully tells the story of three subjects, herself, Sal Bartolo Jr. and East Boston.

Naomi Yang, Sal Bartolo Jr., and Joyce Linehan during the question and answer session following the screening of “Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody.”

Over 65 minutes, Yang tells the story of how she found herself at Bartolo’s Boxing Club, a Winthrop boxing gym owned by Bartolo Jr., a World Champion Trainer and Champion fighter who eventually began training Yang up to five nights a week.

Throughout the film, Yang draws parallels between what she had been learning about herself in her boxing training and the East Boston neighborhood in what it had dealt with in the 1960s with the expansion of Logan Airport.

Whether you are a staunch expert on East Boston history or someone who is looking to learn a little more about the neighborhood, this film is undoubtedly for you.

During the film, viewers learn about several historical aspects of East Boston, such as what happened to Wood Island Park and The Maverick Street Mothers protest, all with footage and interviews from notable figures of the time, such as the late Mary Ellen Welch.

Not only do viewers learn about East Boston and the life of Bartolo Jr., but they also learn about the struggles Yang faced earlier in her life with her parents, which all ties to the major theme of the film — fighting back.

While the story alone is worth the watch, Yang employs beautiful shots of Bartolo’s Boxing Club, the airport, the neighborhood, and more mixed with a combination of historical footage that is surely eye-opening for those who have never seen it.

Following the screening, those in attendance had the opportunity to ask Yang and Bartolo Jr. questions during a question and answer session hosted by Joyce Linehan, a friend of both Yang and Steczynski.

One remarkable thing that you learned in the film and that was reinforced during the question and answer session is that Yang did not even set out to make the movie.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to make. I just had these things that started interesting me, and as I found out more and more about the history of the neighborhood, it just all started feeling like it needed to come together,” said Yang.

“I really did not set out to make this,” she added.

Throughout the session, resident after resident asked about certain artistic elements of the film and her process, along with other aspects of the film, and it seemed to be a great hit.

“I’m so happy to be showing this film in East Boston finally after spending all this time lurking about your neighborhoods, and everyone was so generous with talking to me and letting me film in their backyards and all sorts of places,” said Yang.

“It’s a love letter to East Boston,” she added.

For those that are interested in seeing the film, you can visit https://vimeo.com/ondemand/punchingbag and rent “Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody” for 48 hours for just $15.

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