Toronto
4 min

Wrestling truth

Reality fights dirty

TOO HOT TO HANDLE. Tenacious 13-year-old Tara Neal is profiled in Girl Wrestler at Hot Docs. Credit: Xtra files

Wrestling gender, wrestling girls and wrestling with addiction are just three subjects grappled with at this year’s Hot Docs festival running Fri, Apr 23 to May 2. Here are some flicks just to get you through round one; tag off and tackle some of the other 100-plus documentaries on your own.



What name would you choose if you could pick any one you wanted? Would gender define your choice?



In Calling Nate, 19-year-old Nadia Hluszko picks Nate because it’s “simple and cute” which is a good description for this video. First-time documentary director and local dyke about town Pamela Gawn follows Nate in her last year as a teenager as she wrestles with an Oprah season’s worth of issues.



Besides the usual angst of finishing school and girlfriend drama, Nate struggles with coming of age in the shadow of some traumatic family history – one mom left home when she was eight, her other mom transitioned from being her dad and a tragic event resulted in a terrible loss. Nate’s own gender identity is never made quite clear but the video suggests that it’s on the list of stuff she’s trying to sort out.



Gawn packs a lot of emotion into this short documentary and the video moves quickly between Nate’s various experiences, sometimes too quickly. The pace means that you get only snapshots of her life and watching the video feels a little like looking at a photo album; there’s a lot to look at but not much is offered in the way of context and understanding. Several convoluted issues including parental relationships and gender identity are explored ever so slightly, and the brief treatment keeps the viewer at arm’s length.



Even so, Nate is an engaging subject who is genuine in her confusion and her tenderness, and it’s not hard to be moved by her story. Dealing with such a complex situation can’t be easy, especially before you’ve even hit your 20s, and Nate moves through the documentary with an easy grace. But this story feels incomplete and it seems that slowing things down may have allowed a lot more to be told.



The world premiere of Calling Nate screens at Wed, Apr 28 at 6:45pm at the Royal (608 College St) with Being Dorothy, a doc on the Wizard Of Oz museum in Liberal, Kansas.



***

When most people think of wrestling, the WWE comes to mind first. You know, the bad lighting, the cheesy antics and the innocent claims of, “of course, it’s real.” But Girl Wrestler is not about Trish Stratus. This engaging hour-long documentary by director and producer Diane Zander is about a 13-year-old Texan girl named Tara Neal who wrestles whenever she can because she loves it. Think high school gyms, Lycra singlets and wrestling moms yelling on the sidelines.



Tara takes her sport very seriously and her roomful of trophies and medals serves as evidence of her talent and determination. She needs every bit of her resolve because, as there are very few girls like Tara, she ends up wrestling a lot of boys. Not everyone is thrilled about this and parents, coaches and boy wrestlers all weigh in on how wrong this is because of the inappropriate touching that may occur during moves like the “Saturday Night Ride” and the “Honeymooner.”



The documentary focusses on the last year that Tara is allowed to wrestle boys under state guidelines, and Zander documents tournament after tournament as Tara attempts to qualify for the National Championships for a second time. The journey involves navigating derision from her opponents and unfair treatment from referees. Meanwhile, off the mat Tara struggles with the family dynamics that come with divorce as well as pressure from her father who has high expectations for her success.



Girl Wrestler is a remarkable video that touches on a range of broader cultural issues including gender discrimination in sport, the social construction of masculinity and femininity, and perhaps most disturbingly, athleticism and eating disorders. Tara and the other wrestlers starve themselves, throw up and over-exercise so that they can compete in a more advantageous weight class. Zander does not investigate these matters in depth; rather she leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Other issues are almost completely ignored such as homoeroticism (c’mon, boys in tights), sexuality and dating.



Unlike several other documentaries examining females in sport, there are no experts interviewed to provide research findings or academic analysis, and many questions go unanswered. This video is less an exposé of the sport of wrestling, and more simply a personal story. But despite the critical shortfalls, Girl Wrestler remains an interesting portrait of Tara Neal, an articulate teenager who just happens to love pinning her opponents to the mat.



Girl Wrestler screens with Competition, a Polish doc on a youth beauty pageant, at 3pm on Sat, May 1 at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Ave). If you’re looking for more girl wrestling there’s a doc called Lipstick And Dynamite, Piss And Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling that examines the first wave of young women who got into professional wrestling in the 1950s; its world premiere screens at the Bloor (506 Bloor St W) on Thu, Apr 29 at 9:15pm.



* Other films to check out include The Origin Of AIDS, a riveting feature exploring the theory that a massive polio vaccination campaign in the 1950s in the Congo resulted in the migration of the monkey virus antecedent of HIV from chimps to humans, screening at 3pm on Sun, Apr 25 at the Royal; and Don’t You Worry, It’ll Probably Pass, a feature on teenage girls coming out in small-town Sweden screening at 3pm on Sun, May 2 at Innis Town Hall.



The Documentary Channel gets into the queer Hot Docs action with a feature on the most heart-warming freaks you’ll ever meet, the legendary San Fran drag troupe The Cockettes, broadcast at 10pm on Mon, Apr 19. Let It Come Down: The Life Of Paul Bowles screens at 8pm on Apr 20, followed by Grey Gardens. And the controversial trans doc Southern Comfort screens at 8pm on Thu, Apr 22.