SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Listen to Grit & Glitter’s interview with “Luchadoras” director Paola Calvo.
One element in striving to become a professional wrestler is the desire to become an idealized version of one’s self. As the past several decades have torn down walls of secrecy once obscuring this potentially rockstar-like path, training in the art of pro wrestling has been made more widely accessible to those with the passion to learn the craft and take the bumps. With beautifully place-setting photography Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim frame their feature documentary “Luchadoras” in a country rich with lucha libre history, just south of the El Paso border in Juárez, Mexico, though their subject is less influenced by tradition than self-preservation.
Once they’ve opened with the sounds of a passenger bus – a purgatorial transit between free aspirations and the limiting necessities of a capitalistic world – the filmmakers waste little time commencing their true journey to profile Baby Star, Lady Candy, and Mini Sirenita as each wrestles to overcome their city’s high rate of often fatal violence against women. The material is extremely heavy, though mercifully the spare representational tableau is as heavy-handed as its delivery gets. Untethered by conventions of clinical narration nor hand-holding talking heads are these very human stories told through the humans themselves, a subdued tone favoring immersion over sensationalism. We are not axe-handled over the head by weepy sermon, but rather exposed to how this brutality is so commonplace that it is literally peeling wallpaper. A billboard cycling with missing girls blends into the skyline. An observation of probable domestic abuse is casually folded into a friendly greeting between acquaintances. This, on top of suffocating cultural expectation and bureaucratic barricading, is shown to be the ceiling pressing down on these women, and so they fight.
As seen in the English language title card, the literal translation of “Luchadoras” is “female fighters,” effectively suggesting beyond the squared circle selling point that the three central women are but our brief window into issues that affect this entire community. Each woman has her own face, her own story. Since our specific subjects are wrestlers, though, it is of important note that no larger wrestling world plays into the proceedings. The glamour of WWE, for example, is not shown to be a motivating factor in these journeys. The choice to wrestle is grounded in being just that – a choice. And in these women’s chosen escape from their daily oppression, they can be champions.
Some unevenness does slick the road due to discrepancies in the intertwined vignettes’ respective emotional weights. With a funeral home day job as a constant reminder of mortality while inhumane border fence policies keep her from her children, Lady Candy’s narrative is strong enough that one wonders if the whole would flourish further for sticking more closely with it. Still, that consistent tone throughout allows each woman her own honest air, painting a thorough picture.
When the benefits of wrestling find themselves briefly focal, we see flashes of the cosmetic and health sacrifices, and even a hint that training can serve the dual purpose of teaching actual self defense. The core story is concerned with the conditions after the last bell rings, however, as the colorful costumes and cheering crowds crumble back to fraught reality. Even within the fantasy, multiple intergender matches are shown to conclude with men embarrassing the women in dubious suggestion these cooperative events are in fact portrayals of domestic violence.
Wisely, no resolutions are offered. In totality, the chosen escape shown through slow motion action sequences – even in the climax – is bittersweet, as we must hopelessly wonder what is really being fought for. Calvo and Jasim are not out to feign a grandstanding of simple solutions, as the circumstances they’ve brought to the screen cannot be tied up in a pretty bow. The fatal violence persists, permeating the everyday lives of people who want only for equal opportunity, and in “Luchadoras” that is the successfully illustrated point.