Going to the mat: ‘Wrestle’ film features disadvantaged youth, victorious spirits

Published 6:04 pm Thursday, October 17, 2019

JOHNSON CITY — “It’s not equal for all kids growing up, and for some kids — no matter how hard they try, and how hard they fight and how good they are — the opportunities don’t necessarily exist in equal measure,” says Lauren Belfer, co-director of the new documentary “Wrestle.”

“Wrestle,” a New York Times Critic’s Pick, focuses on the complexities of coming of age when factors of race, poverty and drugs can drain young athletes’ motivation, as well as opportunities.

On Monday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall auditorium, the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts will present a screening of the award-winning 2018 documentary “Wrestle” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. The free public film screening will be followed by a Q&A and reception with the filmmakers Suzannah Herbert and Belfer.

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The film follows four members of an underdog high school wrestling team in Huntsville, Alabama, through one competitive season. Mental health, drugs, poverty and unstable home life all try to slam these young athletes to the mat, but they stand up to the test and get back on their feet.

“You think you’re just coming to see a film about sports, but it ends up being about so much more,” Belfer says in an interview with Woodstock Film Fest. “You get a lot of surprise reactions at the end, like ‘I didn’t expect to cry.’”

A crucial facet of the film is getting to know these teens. “Everyone really connects to the kids,” Belfer says. “It’s really amazing to see.”

Connecting with the wrestlers Jailen, Jamario, Teague and Jaquan is something Herbert and Belfer did a lot of, on and off camera. “We lived in Alabama for six months and filmed over 650 hours to create this 95-minute film,” says Herbert in a Johns Hopkins University Film interview.

The athletes’ school has one of the highest concentrations of poor students in Alabama.  It has been listed as failing for years, and resources for athletics are virtually nonexistent.

Director Herbert and co-director Belfer — both of whom have worked on projects with directors Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore and debut as feature directors of “Wrestle” — boiled down the hundreds of hours of vérité footage into a “moving and haunting portrait of four young men fighting to win a golden ticket,” says Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times. “What resulted was not only 650 hours of footage but the benefit of countless additional time spent just hanging out with the protagonists.”

But it’s not about the hours. It’s about the journey. “It’s really a journey of what it’s like to grow up in the South,” Belfer says. “And you know the kids on the team are fairly disadvantaged, so they have a lot of uphill battles and deal with — instances of racism and poverty and teenage pregnancy.”

Add to those the off-the-mat battles: splintered family lives, drug use, mental health issues and run-ins with the law.

Tough-love Coach Chris Scribner comes into focus, as well, as he struggles to come to terms with his own past conflicts while coming face to face with the complexities of race, class and privilege in the South.

As “a recovering addict, Scribner is hell-bent on driving these young men to realize the potential he sees in them,” The Playlist says. “This, though, requires him to come to terms with complex societal issues that he, a white man from New York, has never dealt with. This education, and the rage that it ignites in him, is one of ‘Wrestle’s’ most compelling and moving threads.”

Audiences and critics have responded not only to the personal journeys, but also the multi-faceted story it unflinchingly tells. “Wrestle” has garnered 11 awards on the festival circuit, including Best Alabama Film at Sidewalk Film Festival, Best Sports Documentary at Hot Springs and Best Documentary at Bahamas International Film Festival and Oxford Film Festival.

The honest societal close-up exposes the battles that children fight and how they can have lifelong effects, the constructive and uplifting aspects of fighting things out on the wrestling mat, and the importance of supportive coaches, parents and friends in young people’s lives.

While “Wrestle” is a beautiful film, says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts, “it has many layers of depth and insights that will no doubt spur much conversation after the screening.”

Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. For more about the film, visit http://www.wrestlefilm.com.

For more information, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.