Only the Wrestling is Fake

A documentary about real people playing fake characters in scripted matches bleeding genuine blood. It can be hard at first to take seriously the subjects of Fake It So Real. After all, these guys literally exaggerate and fabricate live events for a living. But it doesn’t take long watching this documentary to believe in what these men say and do.

Fake It So Real is one of the films making its world premier at the Sarasota Film Festival, and one of the documentaries which Programming Director Holly Herrick promised would be “very important this year” beyond the local event. It is also one of the films which we got to see in advance of its debut, and we can attest, it is phenomenal.

This is not an MTV wrestling documentary, and it isn’t the story of the rise of the next famous wrestler. No, this is about amateur wrestlers attacking each other for small-town crowds, charging $5 a ticket to a watch an evening of insanity.

Director Robert Greene follows the wrestlers in The Millenium Wrestling Federation. These guys are less like Hulk Hogan and John Cena, and more like the backyard rednecks selling DVDs in after-midnight infomercials. And while watching pain in a WWE ring doled out on primetime may be balanced by the knowledge those wrestlers are pulling in significant paychecks, the Z-list wrestlers in this league don’t seem to make any money at all.

The group is headquartered in Lincolnton, North Carolina, a community known for wrestling back in the days of live matches between carnival fighters. Today, so little happens here it seems good family entertainment to watch these guys beat the snot out of one another in a venue which clearly doubles for high school theater productions.

A fighter named Gabriel tries to define an angel persona that isn’t too homoerotic. One named Solar drapes himself in sequins and gets fired up when the audience accuses him of being gay. A wrestler named Zane diabolically double-crosses his black tag team partner mid-match. The premises of the matches are at times as offensive as they are far-fetched.

But the true investment in characters comes for the audience during the moments outside the ring. Gabriel laments moving to the small town for a fiancee only for her to cheat on him and end the relationship. Zane learns the grizzly-bear beard on his face is stopping him from getting job interviews. Solar promotes the matches by photo-copying flyers and passing them around town like a local punk band trying to drum up support for the show.

And despite some of the undertones in the wrestling scripts, family-friendly charecters manage to win in the end. Zane gets him come-uppance when partner Hojo befriends a new partner, who helps defeat him in the ring, then shave that hair colony off Zane’s face. One wrestler recalls his days in hardcore wrestling, where genuine racists ran the show, and where it was acceptable for wrestlers to beat one another with trash can lids and nail boards.

The most compelling story may be that of Outlaw, a 10-year veteran of the league who has never missed a match, but gets hospitalized with cysts in his belt-line which have become infected because of the constant trauma. While doctors encourage bedrest, he still manages a dramatic entrance at the climax of the film and wrestles through obvious pain.

Which brings up the ultimate question of the film – What is fake? Certainly, the bruises that decorate the bodies of the wrestlers are real. So is the sweat dripping from their brows, and the pain that seers from their eyes. The matches are all rigged, set around a narrative far less compelling than the men’s actual lives, but the twist of the knee when a wrestler misses the ropes is very much real.

“If it’s fake, why have I got a separated shoulder?,” asks J-Prep, a wrestler plagued by health issues since childhood. “Why do I have a bad left knee? Why have I got no feeling in my left hand?… It is not fake. It is very much real.”

The wrestlers compare their craft to staged drama. “Would you go to a play and say ‘This is fake,’ ” Solar asks. And like a good theater production, the wrestling matches entertain.

So does the film, but it does so because what is shown is so vividly and relentlessly real. These men train like Olympians and attack one another like gladiators, all to hear the coots and caws of an audience cheering for physical pain. This hurts to watch, but you cannot turn away anymore than these men can be stopped by simple bodily harm.

Fake It So Real premieres April 15 at 7:45pm, then screens again at April 17 at 12:45pm. It is one of six films competing for the Documentary feature jury award. Until then, a trailer:

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