November 9, 2011 by abbyo
One of the great things a documentary film can do is shed some light on a part of the world’s population that doesn’t always get that much attention. Sometimes it’s a third-world country. Sometimes, it’s right in your own backyard. I’m going to show a teensy preference here—while I admire and appreciate films like this that have an international focus, films like “Please Vote for Me” or the brilliant “Family Instinct,” I often find myself more thoroughly intrigued and educated by docs that show me a part of my own culture that I don’t know anything about. Nathan Clarke’s “Wrestling for Jesus,” about an upstart amateur wrestling federation in South Carolina, is one of these. Clarke’s film introduces us to some interesting characters and, while it may not excel at letting audiences into the lives of its subjects, at least depicts an interesting universe in which those subjects live.
The film’s main subject is Tim Blackmon, who wrestles under the name T-Money. Tim is the creator of the titular WFJ, a group of amateur wrestlers in rural South Carolina that serves as a ministry in addition to its initial purpose of good old-fashioned violent entertainment. “Wrestling for Jesus’” other main focus is Greg, a young guy who wrestles under the moniker of Matt Cruz. He’s had a history of losing his temper, and wrestling is the outlet he uses to control himself. We also get a look at a rival backyard wrestling group, the Throne of Anguish wrestling federation, whose leaders are a couple of bitter ex-WFJ fighters who wrestle for pure entertainment.
In tone and style, “Wrestling for Jesus” is a good companion piece to George Ratliff’s documentary “Hell House.” It’s basically a more uplifting perspective of a similar community. As with the church in “Hell House,” the WFJ is a charismatic Christian group, full of men who have come to faith via the school of hard knocks. Tim’s story involves his difficult relationship with his father, who committed suicide not long after Tim founded the WFJ. Tim has a wife and three kids, and it’s hinted that their relationship may not be very healthy. The other members of the WFJ are made up of men with similar difficult backgrounds, bikers and blue-collar working guys who, in one way or another, have found acceptance and fulfillment through the group. The typical WFJ wrestling match takes place in a church hall, and is followed by an impassioned sermon and altar call. Again, the theology is similar to the kind expressed in “Hell House,” a straightforward, pull-no-punches conservative approach that galvanizes and guilts spectators into accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
I’ve made no secret of my religious views on this blog—you know how I feel about this kind of Christianity; the kind that will condemn you to Hell while maintaining that it has only the best intentions at heart. To put it briefly, it doesn’t work for me. But you know what? It works for these guys, and I actually found myself understanding that difference in a way I never thought I would. The best example of the WFJ’s ministry at work is halfway through the film, when two first-time attendees respond to the altar call at a match and, one year later, are not only still practicing Christians, but have been inspired to become amateur wrestlers, too. Despite appearances, the ministry does actually have an effect on people. It makes a point that’s worth thinking on: faith is colored by experience. I don’t approve of tough-love Christianity, because I come from an open-minded background. That means that I’m naturally more attracted to a form of faith that’s inclusive and accepting. But, for people who have only ever experienced tough-love relationships, a pull-no-punches system of belief may be the only kind that will get through.
But “Wrestling for Jesus” isn’t a story of success. It’s a story of struggle. The federation (and, by extension, Tim) suffers from serious financial issues. Things at the Blackmon home are difficult. Wrestlers suffer injuries and major illnesses. The stakes are high, and there’s plenty of potential for emotional investment. But where Ratliff’s documentary explored the lives of “Hell House’s” volunteers and church members, Clarke’s film never quite drives that connection home. As you might expect, the film spends a lot of time in and around the ring, but not as much time out of it, and that’s where the problem lies. Clarke often uses extended action montages rather than straight-up verite, and I think less of one and more of the other might have resulted in a doc with a story that was as compelling as its message was intriguing.
“Wrestling for Jesus” is one of those documentaries where the appeal becomes more apparent after you’ve watched it. Like its subjects, it’s not exactly flashy or important. But that’s not the purpose. It’s meant to be a thoughtful look into the lives of people who are generally overlooked, and what makes them the way they are. In this respect, it’s more moderately successful than fully successful (a near-fall vs. a pinfall? Wrestling terms! Yay!). It has the potential to be a bit better than it is. But, as it is, it still manages to be thoughtful and creative.