‘Fencing for the Edge’ takes viewers into the world of high school fencing

fencing documentary

High school fencers in the documentary, “Fencing for the Edge.”

“Fencing is life in microcosm,” says fencing coach Vince Paragano in the documentary “Fencing for the Edge,” which will be shown at the current edition of the annual New Jersey International Film Festival, June 8, and be available on that day, online.

“It is life in three-minute intervals,” Paragano continues. “It is life, five touches at a time.”

Paragano was the head coach of the fencing team at Bernards High School in Bernardsville, whose 2013-14 season “Fencing for the Edge” director Holly Buechel focuses on. (The team also included boys, who trained with the girls but competed separately; Buechel keeps the focus on the girls, throughout.)

Fencing may not be the most natural subject for a high school sports documentary. But Buechel does manage to build a substantial amount of drama into this 75-minute film, which culminates with Bernards High School facing archrival Columbia High School, of Maplewood, in the state finals. By that time, I was rooting for them, hard.

Buechel’s first challenge is that most people don’t know a lot about fencing (though she does establish that The United States Fencing Association’s New Jersey division is its largest in the country, and that the sport is growing in popularity). She overcomes this by giving an overview of fencing basics: The different kinds of weapons that are used (and why different athletes gravitate to different ones), the way matches are structured, etc.

Fencing is also a tough sell, I think, as a spectator sport, in general. Most of the individual bouts that make up a team’s collective match are over very quickly. And to the untrained eye, it is often difficult to make out what is going on with the fast and furious swordplay. (Indeed, electronic equipment is needed to determine if bout-ending contact has been made.) It is a good move for Buechel, when showing the intense state-finals bouts, to use slow-motion; I think more of that, earlier on, might have worked well, too.

Fencing is also, in many ways, just as much a mental exercise as a physical one. One former coach whom Buechel interviews describes it as “physical chess,” and Paragano emphasizes the importance of tuning out the outside world and focusing, when competing. Again, not the easiest thing to illustrate, on film.

Coach Vince Paragano with some of his fencers.

Yet as we get to know the fencers, we are increasingly able to read what is going on with them, internally. And some storylines develop organically, as you would expect. One team member fights to overcome an injury. Another is given a dreaded black card from a referee — signifying a major penalty, because she lost her cool and threw down her weapon in frustration — and is suspended from the finals as a result of it. To fill her place, another teammate has to switch to a weapon she is not used to dueling with.

While the focus is more on the team members, Paragano is also a fascinating person to watch. Though generally calm and soft-spoken, he can be a fierce taskmaster, and is a bit of a guru, dispensing words of wisdom like “This sport rewards controlled aggression,” or summing it all up this way:

“When an opponent is approaching, there’s that little voice in your head saying, ‘Okay, this is what they’re doing, watch what you’re doing,’ and you’re doing the mental inventory of everything that could happen. … This is the easiest sport in the world, until you actually have to do it.”

Although Buechel doesn’t devote much time to the athletes’ lives outside of fencing, she does make it clear that fencing is just one thing going on for them — that they are balancing the sports’ demands with the other pressures that come along with modern high school life. And she does catch up with some of them, post-graduation, to show how they are doing, and have them reflect on their fencing experiences.

And by the way … Columbia High School, like Bernards, is a perennial girls-fencing power in the state. And saying I was rooting for Bernards doesn’t mean I have anything against Columbia. That’s just the way movies like this work.

“Fencing for the Edge” will be shown at the New Jersey International Film Festival at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, June 8 at 7 p.m., and also will be available online that day. Visit njfilmfest.com.

For more on the film, visit fencingfortheedge.com.


Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter