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'Ultimate Christian Wrestling' directors discuss their documentary about the unusual sport

The new documentary will have its world premiere at the Korean American Film Festival New York.

By John DeCarliFilm Panel Notetaker / June 8, 2012



One wrestler picks up another by his spandex shorts, muscles bulging as he tosses him across the ring. Another dives from the top of the post. Kicks and clotheslines are exchanged until slowly the wrestlers realize their victim isn’t the enemy they thought but a long-haired man in a white robe.

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The man is Jesus, come to offer salvation, and the event is not WWF but Ultimate Christian Wrestling, a one-of-a-kind combination of religion and professional wrestling. In Ultimate Christian Wrestling, directors Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino follow the group’s leader Rob Adonis in his attempt to gain recognition from the mainstream Southern Baptists. Meanwhile, fellow wrestlers Billy Jack and Justin struggle with financial problems, divorce and finding a calling in life.

FilmCapsule.com’s John DeCarli sat down with Chang and Autovino for a guest post here on The Film Panel Notetaker to discuss the challenge of portraying these universal stories, these real, relatable characters that emerge in a very strange setting.

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 TFPN: How did the film begin? Did you conceive of it as a story about Ultimate Christian Wrestling, or about the lives of the characters outside the ring?

Autovino: When we were shooting, we were just shooting. We probably shot about 150 or more hours, but we had no idea if we had enough to make a movie. We started out with all of the wrestlers, meeting their families and doing interviews, but the important parts emerged as we taped more. Some of the stories became more interesting, and it was a very organic process. It’s called Ultimate Christian Wrestling, and in some ways I wish there was more wrestling, but the drama is in the stories outside of the ring. We don’t have control over that story, really, if we want to reflect honestly.

Chang: It started as the bizarre concept of wrestling and Christianity together. That’s what drew us into it initially. We didn’t think it was going to be a feature, we just wanted to film the events and go from there. But Tara and I talked about how it would be too easy to do a caricature piece about this event. So we decided to portray these people in a way you wouldn’t expect. Like how we first encountered them and slowly developed an understanding. We wanted to achieve that, to have people approach the film with preconceived notions and then change that over the film.
 
 TFPN: Sometimes filmmakers who create heavily character-based documentaries are accused of mocking their subjects, but I always find stories about eccentric people fascinating and very truthful. Did you struggle with this at all as you were shooting? How do you approach the responsibility of honestly capturing someone’s personality?

Autovino: We always have to think: what are these people going to think if this footage is in the film? What does this look like to them? There are some goofy moments in the film, but it depends on how you cut it. But this has always been about protecting our subjects for us, not giving a judgmental audience what they want. At the beginning we might give them a little bit so they can see where they’re wrong about these characters. But we always asked ourselves: is this going to hurt them? Because they know it’s ridiculous what they do, the definitely laugh at themselves and have a sense of humor.
 
 TFPN: That’s part of their characters too. The goofy things can still be truthful.

Autovino: Right. You can feel it in your gut when you’re editing the film if we’re making fun of them.  We don’t want that.

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