Directed by Robert Greene
Toxic masculinity meets community theatre.
In a dark, deserted strip mall parking lot, a handful of men are grouped together around a man without a shirt. They take turns doing “chops” on him, a type of slap favored by WWE wrestlers, those fake-fighting types. The slap, though, sure sounds loud and real, and the red handprints that soon emerge on the topless man’s chest don’t seem all that fake either. The victim of all this chopping is named Gabe, and he’s the rookie among this group of men that together wrestle under the banner of MWF, one of many independent wrestling federations in the U.S.
The following Saturday he’ll duck out from behind a black curtain as his wrestling persona Gabriel, an angel-like character whose backstory and motivation he has poured his heart into, in order to go slam himself against floorboards, ropes and the flesh of his opponent as part of a choreographed performance he’s practiced again and again. It’s the apex summit meeting of ambition and talent. And it all happens under the fluorescent lights and pasty walls of a local community center to an audience that struggles to reach fifty people.
That is the world of independent wrestling and the subject Fake It So Real, Robert Greene’s unpretentious behind-the-scenes look at the fringe communities of violence-as-performance. Greene’s documentary follows the troupe of wrestlers as they prepare for the coming weekend’s show, and paints brief, but telling portraits of the individual fighters so that we may learn who they are, and why they work tirelessly and put their bodies on the line for “20 bucks, a hot dog, and a slap on the ass.”
It’s immediately clear they’re a colorful group, if not particularly racially diverse, as they offer a myriad of reasons for what wrestling means to them: an escape, a dream, a hobby, a cheaper alternative to therapy, an outlet. It’s through Gabe, the youngest among them and the only person who earnestly dreams of making it big, that Greene investigates the fantasy; it’s through the rest he lays bare the reality.
If epic moves, flying foldable chairs and epic cage matches are what you’re hoping for, I can save you some time: skip it. While admirable in their dedication, the wrestling on display won’t make you think of these men as underappreciated athletes or artists. Instead, the draw is a very unfiltered look at these men and their makeshift camaraderie built around a common passion.
I describe it as unfiltered, because Green doesn’t prune unsavory elements and present these men in any rose-colored light. Homophobia runs rampant through this circle of men who rub themselves all over each other, and some make disgusting racist comments with alarming ease given that there’s a camera crew right there. Some openly talk about past violent behaviour, and even Gabe, the group’s bright-eyed innocence, admits to the restraining order his ex-fiancé took out against him. Flawed men, at the very least.
But together as members of their wrestling federation, there’s redemption. It’s a place where every single member genuinely cares about the collective and each other, led by the example of X, “Outlaw” Y, who works tirelessly to keep the federation alive. There’s fraternity backstage, even if they’re sworn enemies on the mat, and to witness it makes you care about a group of men who on their own have little going for them and give us little reason to root for them. But taken together, they bring out the best in each other, and it’s hard not to be moved by the support and thankfulness on display in this cross section of age and experience.
Fake It So Real is exactly that – so real. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ camera adopts none of the smoke and mirrors the wrestlers cloak themselves in, staying close but stepping back to present them in all their flaws; he only gets real close when they’re fighting, as if their pretend-pained expression is where the mask falls away and they truly get to let go of the emotional, socio-economical, and physical hurt that plagues their personal lives.
It’s community theatre tripping on toxic masculinity that collides with the social dynamics of beer league sports. Hard to look at and listen to at times, but even harder to look away from.