Raw, unflinching, and defiant “Luchadoras” follows the reclamation of personhood in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. [SXSW Film Festival]

If you were to presume that co-directors Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim’s documentary Luchadoras (Female Fighters) is about female wrestlers in Mexico, you’d only be about a quarter correct. While their film does follow four wrestlers — Lady Candy, Baby Star, Little Star, and Mini Sirenita — Luchadoras is a layered story exploring what it means to exist in a community which preys upon women, what it means to be a fighter, and the difficulty of creating something for yourself. It is raw, it is unflinching, and it is defiant, all of which resonates from the fighters from whom Luchadoras creates its narrative. More often than not, this is enough to put you on the edge of your seat and fills you with trepidation as there is no script which can be altered or edited to guarantee a happy end. What eventually undercuts that tension and deflates much of the triumph is a narrative which interweaves so much content in order to balance the central storylines and undercurrent themes that resolution is all but absent.

A scene from LUCHADORAS. © TUMULT FILM 2020.

For the unaware, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has a reputation for being the most dangerous city in the world. To make this clear from the start, a formless voice tells a story about a woman riding the bus to work in one of the factories in the industrial part of the city who was abducted, beaten, and assaulted by the driver. She survived the encounter and, soon after, many bodies of presumed lost women were found in the desert lands. This story could apply to any of the four women at the heart of Calvo and Jasim’s Luchadoras, who each have their own varying stories of abuse and how they reclaim their agency through the combat of the squared circle. While the film begins in this anecdotal darkness juxtaposed against a group of women riding a bus (any of whom this story could be about), it slowly grows to a lightness. It does this by exploring the dual lives of four specific Luchadoras, whose individual stories create a collective that’s undoubtedly inspiring, even as their stories are absolutely disparate. Lady Candy uses the funds from wrestling to afford a visa so she can see her two daughters in the United States and Mini Sirenita returns to action in the ring after a hiatus working in a factory so that she can afford to help her adult daughter living in Mexico City. In a completely different vein, Baby Star and Little Star are sisters in the family business, figuring out the best way to honor their family legacy and set an example for Baby’s young daughter. Luchadoras begins in the past so that it can look to the future, hopeful in the way that the present can change, just enough, to bring about something new for the next generation. Through fighting, through wrestling, these women find liberation.

L-R: Baby Star and her daughter in LUCHADORAS. © TUMULT FILM 2020.

The approach taken by Calvo and Jaism is, for the most part, fairly delicate. They are intimate with their perspectives outside of the ring, generating a sense that we’re being given audience to moments only those in the closest circles would come to know: as in when Baby and Little Star lie on either side of Baby’s daughter, telling stories and then tucking her into bed; or when Lady Candy is introduced at the start by way of her day job at a funeral home, moving a casket from one room to another. Each of these scenes highlight the normalcy of their lives outside of the ring, providing a glimpse at their personas, their fears, and their dreams. Jasim, who also served as cinematographer, captures these moments in crystal clarity by shooting in 2K and 4K, ensuring that we see each flint of concern, each moment of flared anger, each point of interpersonal contention. When the story pulls wide, taking moments to highlight the city at large, this clarity never dims, so that the audience understands exactly what daily threats each of the four women face, the specter of that violence lingering outside of the frame, cutting into the story by way of the aftermath of a drive-by shooting, a strange car trailing a photoshoot, or the unrest of the local women’s movement. As structured, Luchadoras always feels as though something terrible is going to happen, as though a spontaneous fight might break out at any moment, even in the peacefulness of their respective homes.

Mini Sirenita in LUCHADORAS. © TUMULT FILM 2020.

One thing worth noting for those less familiar with Luchadores and Lucadoras is that the style of wrestling is called “Lucha Libre,” which basically means “freestyle wrestling.” This isn’t anything like traditional freestyle wrestling born of the Greeks and Romans, but something entirely different, something infused with Mexican culture. It’s unpredictable, consisting of throws, elaborate holds, and high-flying maneuvers that have become a stable of modern wrestling in the United States. There are plenty of Lucha Libre who go maskless, like Lady Candy and Mini Sirenita, but those who wear masks, like Baby and Little Star, almost always wear them, maintaining their anonymity and the culture of the community. This is not explained in the slightest, so audience members may not understand why Baby and Little Star never remove their masks or why it’s such a big deal when, in competition, a mask is ripped off. It’s also not explored whether or not the matches are scripted, as they are in the United States, so that the action can be exciting but the outcome predetermined. A lot of Luchadoras is spent showing the women in the ring, but very little time is spent making sure that audiences understand why what happens in the ring matters. Being in the ring, training, exploring what each must give up to be in the ring, or what being in the ring affords them is the primary focus against a backdrop of misogyny. This is both powerful and important, yet without understanding the ties between Lucha Libre and the community, without understanding the rules, scenes often lose the intended impact, such as when one of the four is shown being carried from the ring on a stretcher in one scene and is literally lifting weights in the next. Did the two events shown happen close together? If yes, was it all for show? The fights shown with Lady Candy and Mini Sirenita imply a certain rawness, a dubiousness resulting in incredible tension as they throws (and is thrown) around the ring. With Baby Star’s fights, this is absent. Even when an opponent commits the greatest sin of ripping her mask off, it’s difficult to tell if it’s staged or not.

Lady Candy in LUCHADORAS. © TUMULT FILM 2020.

This general sense of staging, real or artificial, pervades a great deal of Luchadoras, which only serves to hurt the overall reception of the story. This isn’t to call into question their physicality or athleticism, that is all plainly real. It’s that the magic of wrestling is part show and sometimes it’s hard to tell within the documentary if Calvo and Jasim extend that finely-lined blend of authenticity and pretense to the rest of the film. Part of this is due to timing of certain events surrounding Lady Candy and their presentation, while others are due to the lack of clear ending in the respective stories for each of the central individuals. In real life, stories don’t end when the camera stops, but to end without any kind of sign or indication of what happens elicits frustration. Each of these luchadoras take part in storylines with each match and each one has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Calvo and Jasim don’t so much end the film with an answer of the future for their luchadoras as they do a message that the collective who remain in Ciudad Juárez will keep fighting, no longer interested in being a victim. This is unquestionably optimistic and a rousing declaration that the fight to end female subjugation and victimhood is not over. But to focus on these four luchadoras and not offer some sense of where their stories go, even with this beautiful message, even as it ends in a reclamation of the very dessert women of the past have been buried, it’s hard not to ignore that the women we’ve followed for the duration have stories left unfinished. As contemplative a documentary as Luchadoras is, one which should not be missed, it’s hard to not wonder about what’s missing, about what’s been left unsaid.

Screening at the 2021 SXSW Festival March 17th, 2021.

For more information, head to the official Tumult Film Luchadoras website.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Categories: Reviews, streaming

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