[This week, we will be covering the the First Annual Korean American Film Festival Los Angeles, which will be taking place at the Korean Cultural Center LA from August 9th through the 11th. For all of our coverage, head here. Special thanks goes out to Mr C of Planet Chocko/Unseen Films for providing the photo in the header image. Poster art after the cut by Matt Leines.]
I really enjoyed Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino’s documentary Ultimate Christian Wrestling. The film chronicles a Georgia-based independent wrestling promotion that also preaches the Word. It’s the kind of story that surprises you with its deep humanity. Rather than a culture war documentary, it plays like a fanfare for the common man, showing the audience how people struggle and find the dignity to endure. It’s the closing film at the First Annual Korean American Film Festival Los Angeles this Saturday night.
I had the pleasure of talking to Chang and Autovino the other day online. After a few technical snafus (I am inept at video conferencing), we had a great conversation about their film, wrestling, music, the current state of documentary filmmaking, and persistence in the face of rejection. And though they didn’t go into details, they noted that Ultimate Christian Wrestling will be headed to other festivals in the future. Be sure to keep and eye out for this film.
[Editor’s note: A few questions and responses were altered to avoid spoilers.]
One of the things I noticed about Ultimate Christian Wrestling is that it would be easy to take an initially condescending or mocking look at the people involved in this independent wrestling promotion, but there’s a lot of sympathy given to everyone in the movie.
Tara Autovino: Yeah, that was our intention once we got down there to meet them. We set up time with them and their families. For us it was about finding the connections between us (who are seemingly unlike them) and them (who do this crazy thing), as opposed to finding the differences, because [finding the differences] seems to be done a lot in documentary film. We were more interested in finding the points of connection.
Jae-Ho Chang: Yeah, we definitely didn’t want to make the movie into a reality show. It’s too easy of a subject to make fun of and go that direction. And us trying to be serious filmmakers, we wanted to make a film that tried to change people’s perception. It changed our perceptions too. We basically had the same reaction to [UCW] in the beginning, and throughout filming we realized that there’s more to what we see to them. That was kind of the strategy we used as well when we put the film together. We sort of start out that way, and then slowly, almost like peeling an onion, see what’s inside these people.
How did you first find out about Ultimate Christian Wrestling?
JC: Yeah. [laughs] It’s just– It was on the radio, pretty much. It was like a joke. It was the sports section and they mentioned there was this group that wrestled for Jesus, and that was pretty much all they said. I thought that was pretty bizarre concept because it was a violent sport with Christianity. This was when Tara and I were in grad school at NYU. I mentioned it to her because we both have this fascination with Americana culture. And then Tara did a little more research on it.
TA: Oh yeah! There’s a few groups that wrestle with a Christian theme in the country. They’re all in the south, or in the Bible Belt. There’s one that’s sort of slick looking, and there’s one that’s very amateurish. These Ultimate Christian Wrestling guys are somewhere in the middle. When I called Rob [Adonis], who is the founder of UCW, we was just like, “Yeah, come down, see what we do.”
TA: And so we went down there and were very surprised with what we found, and how welcoming they were. They’re not really interested in pushing their agenda on anybody. They’re just interested in expressing their faith in the way that they do. They never once asked us if we were religious or Christian or anything like that, which was really refreshing.
Yeah, that’s one of those things that was really striking about the film: they just seemed like normal guys who were just expressing something that was meaningful, which is beautiful.
JC: I think it’s a pretty smart concept, what they’re trying to do. Because they’re trying to attract people — the younger crowd, or people who think church is really boring. So they use wrestling as a vehicle, because wrestling is really big in the south. They kind of use that to attract people, and when you go to their shows, it’s like a sporting event. It’s very high intensity, there’s a lot of emotions involved. It’s almost like they use that to kind of convert and spread the message of Christianity.
Were either of you wrestling fans growing up, or even now?
TA: I wasn’t. My brother and my sister were really into it when I was a kid, like when WWF was still WWF. I watched it a lot because it was on, and I couldn’t really understand what was going on. I definitely appreciate now the theatrics of it. It’s so much more theater than sports, and that’s what I couldn’t understand when I was a kid.
JC: For me, I was a huge wrestling fan in the 80s — the WWF with Koko B. Ware and Ultimate Warrior and Andre the Giant. I was so in to it. I would get so upset when people said it was fake!
[laughs] How many of the UCW events did you go to? You have a lot of fascinating footage, especially when they’re cutting promos and everything.
TA: Wow… What would you say, Jae-Ho? Would you say like 10? I don’t even–
TA: Because sometimes they were doing them once a week, but then there were other long stretches [without events], and then we were at some indie wrestling shows with them that weren’t related to UCW.
JC: Alabama. Athens. It was all over Georgia. So about 10.
TA: Yeah, I’d say probably about 10.
How did you decide what wrestling footage to include in the film? Because the film’s about the lives these men lead, but there’s also some great moments that give you a feel of what a UCW event is like.
TA: Well, you know, some of it had to do with what cut best together. And then there were other issues of using really recognizable music, that filtered some of it out. Jae-Ho?
JC: Yeah, for instance there was a great skit that they incorporated “Eye of the Tiger” into.
TA: Oh man, that was so good!
JC: [It was something that we] really wanted to use. We felt like that kind of represented who they were, and how they incorporated pop culture into their skits. But we figured if we ended up using that, it was going to cost a lot for the rights to the music.
What happened in “Eye of the Tiger” skit?
TA: Oh man. I think it centered around Billy Jack and his son Kody, if I recall correctly. I haven’t seen that footage in a couple years. But it was Billy Jack and his son. The theme of the skits are generally about making choices; choices that sort of follow, for lack of a better description, a non-Christian set of morals. Something that emphasizes greed or acting out of fear versus making choices that are sort of moving straight into fear and trusting their faith — that their understanding of God will take them through it. And just everybody in the ring, it was so great! I’m a dancer, so there’s a lot of choreography in there that really moved me. And the song was great.
JC: Yeah, just having the choreography to the music, to the beat.
TA: Yeah, they’re so good with the rhythm and stuff.
On the note of music, are you guys going to keep the Godspeed You! Black Emperor song in the film?
JC: Nice! You recognized it!
That’s from one of my favorite Godspeed songs!
JC: [laughs] Nice.
TA: The music stuff is really tricky with documentaries. People have used stuff in the past and it hasn’t been an issue, and especially with Godspeed, they’re very non-commercial.
TA: But I don’t know. Film is very– We’re both very into music, and it’s hard to make the kind of movies we want to make without using the music that moves the scene the way that we think it should. So that’s still up in the air.
JC: Yeah, it’s unfortunate because we have such a personal relationship with music, as corny as that sounds. And I think because this film is a personal film, I think using this music that we have an emotional attachment to kind of adds to the scene in our eyes.
JC: It would be great if we could use that piece because it’s so patriotic and hopeful. But…
TA: For now it’s in. [laughs]
JC: Yeah, for now.
I hope it stays in. When that song crescendos, it’s everything hopeful about these people.
JC: We had something else initially by a different artist, and it was such a downer! [laughs]
JC: The music is amazing how it can portray a scene that way.
You know, there was that feeling that this moment could be really depressing with different music. But again, that choice to put that song there really underlies who these people are.
JC: I think also including Kody kind of foreshadows the next generation of Ultimate Christian Wrestler.
TA: Yeah, and Kody’s actually wrestling a lot these days! He’s doing the indie circuit.
TA: Billy’s still wrestling too, but Kody is moving up.
How old is he now? And when did you start filming and how much time has elapsed since?
TA: Let’s see. We started shooting in 2006, and we shot all between 2006 and 2009. So at that time, Kody was a year older than my daughter. So he must be like 16 or 17 now.
TA: But I think that’s his path.
Have you kept in touch with Rob and Justin and Billy Jack?
JC: I’m Facebook friends with Billy Jack and Kody, and Todd, the director who does all the skits. Yes, it’s not like direct contact, but you get to see their updates and what they’re doing. For instance, Justin is married now.
Oh, that’s great.
JC: He lives in San Diego. He travels a lot now, and it’s great. I think when we were filming him, he never left the state of Georgia. So he met his wife [since shooting], and she’s a British lady. Billy Jack — he retired at one point, and then became a nurse, and then he started dirt car racing, and I think he’s back wrestling again.
TA: Yeah, I saw some stuff on Facebook the other day. I think he had a show.
JC: Do they wrestle together, Kody and Billy?
TA: Well, I’m not sure if they do at times, but Kody is definitely doing his own thing. I didn’t look too closely on what the show was about, so I’m not entirely sure.
I read somewhere that this film had to cross a couple of hurdles to get into the festival circuit. Could you talk about what the process was like?[a pause]
TA: Jae-Ho, you wanna…?
JC: Uhh, why don’t you go ahead! [laughs]
TA: You know, it’s tricky. I think we’ve gone from hopeful to bitter to accepting. Sort of all over the place. I’m very proud of this film, and we’ve both been to a number of festivals with other things. I think this is the best work I’ve done to date. The people who’ve seen it really like it, and yet the response from a lot of the festival programmers is– You know, I’ve gotten emails from bigger festivals saying, “Your film almost made it. We really love it, we know it’s going to have a great run on the festivals circuit, it’s just that we can’t fit it into our programming.” And we’ve gotten that email from a number of programmers. You get enough of those and it’s like, “What the hell.”
JC: Yeah. It’s like, “Good, but not good enough,” I guess.
TA: You know, but the thing is in terms of festival programming, a lot of times (not all festivals) festivals are looking for a topic that hasn’t been done in documentary film. When we were in the middle of shooting ours, there was a trend of religious documentaries that had come out, and I think when you get thousands of submissions, people think, “Oh, it’s another documentary about Christianity — we’ve done that.” Or about some sort of extreme fighting or whatever. “We’ve done that.” And then they pass. Because there are a lot of good films out there, so if there are two films that are equally good and one is of a subject matter that they haven’t covered before, it tends to be… So, we’ve been rejected a lot.
JC: Yeah, and also, I think that the landscape of documentaries has changed a lot. And with people watching a lot of reality shows, I think they need to be stimulated much more. I feel like our film is a very subtle character piece, while a lot of documentaries nowadays are very extreme, pushing the envelope, there has to be a political agenda. It kind of gets lost in the shuffle when you go head to head with those kinds of films.
It is a much quieter movie. Both of you as filmmakers do stand back and allow these people to be people.
TA: Yeah, we didn’t make any decisions about who they were. We tried to stay away from editorializing their lives in any way, because they’re not our lives. And we’re very grateful that they allowed us such a close look, and that we were able to establish trust between them. I think the last thing Jae-Ho and I wanted to do is destroy that bond that took a long time to build.
TA: And so representing them– I mean, this is not fiction filmmaking. We’re following people’s lives. However they turn out, that’s how thy turn out. We tried to stay as true to that as we could.
JC: Yeah, and I think because of that approach, it took us three-plus years to film it. You’ve got to wait for things to unfold throughout people’s lives. Just being observant and shooting a cinema verite-type documentary, I think in order to get a story or a story arc, it just takes that long.
How much access did you have into their lives? It seems like you were just hanging out with everyone at key moments. Like Thanksgiving at Billy Jack’s place. That’s such a heartbreaking glimpse at what’s going on with his family.
TA: We had a lot of access. At first we were kind of guarded, they were kind of guarded. We didn’t know each other very well. And just over time, we just proved to them that we were there for them. That they were helping us and the film wasn’t to make any kind of point about them other than trying to understand what they do. By that point, we had talked to them and had gotten to know them really well. We spent a lot of holidays with them — we spent multiple Thanksgivings with them, we spent Christmases with them. They were very welcoming. And we know a lot of their families. It was really nice to be part of that.
JC: Yeah, and I think that’s the key. Showing up without the camera and just hanging out with them as friends and talking. Eating together. I think that’s key to getting access to people’s lives, and I think once that was established, they no longer saw us as people with cameras. They just sort of see us as their friends.
Have any of them seen the documentary?
Both: Not yet.
TA: We’re trying to give them a proper screening. I wonder if maybe we can… Well, I can’t say that yet, Jae-Ho.
TA: About the– We are going to a festival, but I don’t think it’s been announced yet.
JC: Oh yeah. But I don’t think they’re going to make it–
TA: It’s too far. Yeah.
JC: But I did look into some places and some screening rooms there that are reasonably priced. So I think we should have a private screening.
That’d be cool.
TA: It would be nice for them to see it on the big screen as opposed to us just mailing them a DVD.
JC: Yeah. And during the festival when it showed in New York, I think someone said it’d be nice to have a camera of their reaction.
[laughs] I’m really bummed that I missed this when it played at the Korean American Film Festival New York. How did it go over at that festival?
JC: It went really well. Really, really well. We were very surprised how much people really connected to he characters. And I think by hearing compliments like that, I feel like we achieved what we wanted to. For instance, people would say that at first they weren’t sure who these people were, they were kind of judging them inside. And then, slowly, towards the end of the film, they started rooting for them. Just by hearing comments like that we’ve achieved what we wanted to do.
You both met at NYU. Can you talk about what you studied and how you started working together?
JC: We both went to NYU Tisch film grad school together. So we’re the same year, so what they do is pair you up alphabetically by last name.
JC: Out of like five or six people.
JC: “Autovino” starts with “A” and I’m “C,” so we were in the same groups since day one. And what they have you do is collaborate on each other’s projects, so through that process we got close and then we started leaning that we share the same interests and aesthetics. That’s why when I heard about the whole Christian wrestling idea, I knew that Autovino would be the right person to run it by because of the similar interests and similar background, and I knew that we worked well together.
You mentioned earlier about music being really big with both of you. Have you ever considered doing a music documentary?
TA: I haven’t. I’m in a band right now, and I do music stuff. And dance is the same thing — music is the place that I start and I sort of branch out creatively from that. I haven’t really thought about doing a documentary on music — I’d rather just make it. [laughs]
JC: I don’t know. I’m not going to say no to it. I guess if there’s a different angle to that music documentary, yeah possibly.
TA: And I think the other thing with documentary is I don’t think either one of us set out to be a documentary filmmaker. If the topic or the person or the group sort of presents itself to me, that’s when I would grab the opportunity. I’m not sitting around thinking, “What can I make a new documentary about?”
Were both of you working on narrative film at grad school?
JC: Yes. We studied narrative filmmaking. This just happened to come about as a side project while we were in film school making narrative films. It’s our first feature, and it kind of tends to lean us toward documentary filmmaking. But to me it’s all storytelling, in a way.
JC: And I think what Autovino and I want to do is tell good stories. This just happened to come along and took this long.
TA: And I think for me, I always had– The NYU grad film program is a narrative-based program. I don’t know if it [still] is, we’ve been out for a little bit, but when we were there it was narrative based. I hated working with actors. There was just something about… I just could connect to their humanity. It was difficult for me. So when I was doing narrative stuff, I was using my daughter and my sister — just non-actors when I was making stuff. I shoot in a documentary-style to begin with, so it wasn’t a huge crossover for me.
JC: That’s a good point. I feel like when I make narrative films too I don’t want to use actors who are really good looking. It kind of takes me out of them film when I use actors like that.
JC: Yeah, I totally agree with you, Autovino. It’s just that realism approach that I think we both want to achieve in our narrative filmmaking.
Are there are filmmaking influences that were big for you in grad school, or just growing up, that still influence your work today?
TA: Umm. I always never have an answer for that.
It’s like the favorite book question.
TA: I mean, I have my stock movies that I say are my favorite movies. I really love How to Get Ahead in Advertising, I love True Stories. I really like the work of Errol Morris. I mean, I was really into him before I was into documentary filmmaking at all. He just does stuff that is just about people for the most part, and the people are amazing — their quirks and stuff. I love that kind of stuff.
JC: I really liked Lars von Trier at one point, and then… kind of… I think he changed in his style now. [laughs]
JC: I really like The Thin Red Line, it’s always been my favorite film. And then Michael Haneke films or Bruno Dumont films, where they’re kind of minimalist, not much happens, it’s like a slow burn — almost boring films — is what I lean towards. [Editor’s note: I resisted the urge of bringing up my love of Bela Tarr. In retrospect, maybe I should have brought him up.]
What are you both working on right now?
TA: [laughs and then sighs] Actually, I’m taking a break from film for at least a little bit. I’m in a dance company and I’m in a band, so I’m kind of focusing on that for right now. And I’m telling myself I’ll never go back to film, but I’ve said that before. So I think I’m just taking a break for right now.
JC: You’re keeping on being creative still.
TA: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
JC: I did a short film and am in post-production at the moment.
Is there are chance that it’ll hit the festival circuit pretty soon?
JC: Yeah, I think that’s the goal — to get to festivals.
[Ultimate Christian Wrestling will be playing at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles at 7:30 PM on Saturday, August 11th.]