[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.]
The premise of Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino’s documentary Ultimate Christian Wrestling made me think it was going to be a certain kind of film. Ultimate Christian Wrestling is an independent, donation-based wrestling promotion in Georgia that joins rumbles in the ring with preaching of the gospel. It’s such a strange combination of extremes that it made me think I was in for a culture war documentary, something part Beyond the Mat and part Hell House, Jesus Camp, or Friends of God.
I think I would have been content with that combination if that was what the film was, but Ultimate Christian Wrestling is not a culture war movie. In fact, the people involved in UCW seem to keep politics out of their public events. Outside of the ring, their only real concern is the day-to-day struggle of getting by and being good people.
So instead, Ultimate Christian Wrestling plays like a combination of Beyond the Mat and one of my favorite movies, American Movie: it’s a sympathetic character study about interesting lives.
Ultimate Christian Wresting
Directors: Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino
Release Date: TBD
So what does a combination of wrestling and the Word look like? At the end of one match, a wrestler in the ring gets bum rushed by a couple other guys who hold him down to get whipped in the corner. One wrestler raises the whipping arm to ready position and then the lights go down. The lights comes up and the man held in the corner is now kneeling alone in the center of the ring; in his place about to get whipped is a person dressed as Jesus. As Jesus gets lashed, the wrestler who was going to get whipped shouts, “That’s supposed to be me!” But there’s a bit more to it than than. Essentially, it’s the same storytelling sensibility of a cutting a promo or performing the in-ring drama, but with a religious angle to it. (In case you were wondering, Jesus does not wrestle himself, but he figures prominently in many of the shows.)
UCW is the brainchild of Rob Adonis. He’s a married man who loves wrestling and the Lord, and he seems like the sort of guy you wouldn’t mind having as a neighbor. Ideally he’d like to find a permanent venue for UCW so he can continue to praise and entertain. Rob rents out a room in his house to Justin Dirt, who also wrestles for UCW. We first meet Justin working at a Waffle House and not especially engaged or happy about it. He’s the only person in his family to graduate from high school, but he’s stuck in a rut and trying to figure out what to do in life. Rounding out the subjects of Ultimate Christian Wrestling is Billy Jack. (I wonder if he took his name after the wrestler Billy Jack Haynes, the Tom Laughlin movie character Billy Jack, or both.) Billy’s divorced and trying to raise his son Kody right while dealing with the difficulties of child custody. He’s also facing lots of money woes.
Ultimate Christian Wrestling unfolds over the course of three years. During that time, we stick close to Rob, Justin, and Billy as their lives change, and not always for the better. We see a few more scenes of wrestling during the film, but the main point of interest becomes these men outside of the ring rather than in it. There are some powerfully quiet sections of the film that feel so honest. Of the many, there’s one that involves Thanksgiving with Billy, and there’s another that involves Rob and Justin at the dinner table. Each shows a certain kind of tenderness and frailty that’s extremely human, and maybe moments like these seem especially heartfelt because they occur in a film with the name Ultimate Christian Wrestling.
There’s sometimes a risk of condescension or ridicule in character study documentaries or documentaries about odd subcultures. As much as I enjoy watching Louis Theroux’s work on TV, for example, there’s sometimes that uncomfortable, patronizing quality to what he does, and it rubs me the wrong way when it happens. Admittedly, some documentary subjects invite ridicule when they take themselves too seriously or don’t have any outside perspective of what they’re doing. And, I mean, here I am right now, writing about an intersection of wrestling and religion. It would be so easy (and cruel) to pre-judge or look down on people who are located at that particular crossroads.
One way to avoid the possibility of condescension is for documentarians to stand back and just observe, which is part of the approach that Chang and Autovino take. They’re not looking to provoke responses or trigger emotions, and they never try to create artificial situations or opposition with their presence. As filmmakers, they’re just letting these lives unfold and giving everyone room to be themselves. The only sense of opposition in the film comes from Justin’s agnostic brother. He’s more of a young skeptic than an atheist crusader, though, so there’s never anything argumentative or unnecessarily provocative about his views or with Justin’s response to his brother’s views. It’s just a difference of a opinion, and neither of the brothers are trying to convert the other; it’s nothing that undermines their love for each other or negatively affects their interactions together.
But more than that, I don’t think it’s reasonable to be condescending to Rob, Justin, or Billy because none of the guys involved in UCW invite ridicule. They’re all grounded and realistic about what they’re doing and who they are. Even Rob admits at one point that the combination of wrestling and preaching seems strange and he gets that. But he’s sincere about doing it anyway. It’s endearing that everyone’s got their head on their shoulders about what they’re doing. They’re just trying to do things right and get through the day, and maybe do a ladder match in the evening. No one’s self-important or self-aggrandizing about their lives, and that honest self-assessment may be what’s necessary to help them get through a long day (and there are many).
There’s a really memorable scene in American Movie that shares some DNA with Ultimate Christian Wrestling. (There’s also some shared tenderness in American Movie‘s Thanksgiving scene, but the one in Ultimate Christian Wrestling is much darker and even heartbreaking.) In that particular scene from American Movie, filmmaker Mark Borchardt tries to record his uncle saying the lines, “It’s all right, it’s okay! There’s something to live for — Jesus told me so!” Mark’s uncle keeps flubbing the line because he doesn’t really believe there’s much to live for anymore. But Mark keeps trying to record it, take after take after take. I think deep inside, Mark believes in that line himself. It’s meaningful not just for what he’s making, but it’s got meaning in his own life.
Watching Rob and Justin and Billy struggle, that American Movie moment kept repeating in my head. It’s about persistence and hard work, and that there’s something to live for that gives life meaning. For these guys, no matter what, it’ll be UCW, but that’s a pretext to the more essential need for human togetherness, community, friendship, love, respect, and mutual understanding. There’s that old Somerset Maughm line that in every shave lies a philosophy — essentially that if done enough, one finds meaning in an action that goes beyond the mere performance of that action. Maybe in every spinebuster and suplex lies the path to the grace of God, or at least the dignity of doing something you care about.
I always like being surprised by documentaries, especially when the surprise comes in the subjects and subject matter which reveal something new, or even something familiar which feels new simply because it’s a surprise. Sometimes I need to be surprised by humanity because humanity lets me down so often and so much. It’s nice to find unexpected heroism in UCW — something strange and yet compelling because it is so strange, and the people doing it are, regardless of your religious beliefs, just like you and me. That’s an admirable quality that’s quintessentially American.
[Ultimate Christian Wrestling will be playing at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles at 7:30 PM on Saturday, August 11th.]