Despite how serious much of Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer’s gripping new film “Wrestle” is, it’s hard not to laugh when in the run-up to the Alabama State Wrestling Championship for the Jay O. Johnson High Jaguars, a title card reads “14 Weeks Until Tournament” after what feels like an entire lifetime has passed since week 15 for the teenagers on the squad.
“Every week was that,” says Herbert, a talented editor and producer who made her feature directorial debut on the film that covers a tumultuous season for the Jaguars in which the school itself, located in a particularly financially depressed part of Huntsville, is on the verge of being eliminated.
“It was a very stressful for all of them and just crazy to think about how much would happen in a really short span of time,” adds Belfer. “There’s also so much more than what you see on screen but we didn’t include.”
Of course, it’s Herbert and Belfer’s ability to skillfully distill the experience of four young men at Jay O. Johnson who wind up grappling with far more than anything they have to face on the mat that makes “Wrestle” so compelling. The filmmakers dutifully attend practices and matches where the Jaguars can often be seen exceeding expectations against schools with considerably more resources, given ample motivation by their coach Chris Scribner, and illustrate how the sport brings out their natural talent – not only strength, but the wits to outsmart their opponents.
However, in putting in real time with the quartet, Herbert and Belfer sensitively depict how the young men largely lack a support system outside of the team, all bereft of fathers and most with mothers who are busy keeping a roof over their head, and have plenty of untapped potential that may never be cultivated as it would in more equitable circumstances, creating alternately endearing and heartbreaking profiles of Jailen, who is inhibited by his shyness, Jaquan, who lacks ambition thanks to a preternatural ability to get by, Teague, a rare white kid at the predominantly African-American school who struggles to keep focus, and the fragile Jamario, who is about to become a father at 18.
While none have an easy path to the state tournament, “Wrestle” avoids the obvious route by choice, perhaps employing a familiar chronological framework to build towards a rousing close, but displaying an admirable commitment to capturing teenagers who are still figuring things out in a system that is so egregiously stacked against them with warts and all. Since premiering at the San Francisco Film Festival last summer, “Wrestle” has become a favorite on the circuit, racking up awards for Best Documentary at Denver, Hot Springs and Oxford, and culminating in a national release beginning this week in New York. To mark the occasion, Herbert and Belfer spoke about teaming up for the film, which proved as intense at times to make as what their subjects were experiencing, and the larger cultural issues that it touches on.
How did this project come about?
Suzannah Herbert: I am based in New York, but I’m from the South and I’m really interested in exploring people’s experiences and stories there. Lauren and I actually worked together on a Scorsese film for a couple years and when that was going on wrapping up, I heard of this wrestling team in Huntsville through a friend. Immediately, it struck me because they were new to the sport yet beating really well-funded teams and kids that have been wrestling since they were five, so I thought that in and of itself was an interesting story and it had a nice narrative arc that we thought would be a really great lens to explore broader issues.
Lauren Belfer: And you’re actually the first interviewer we’ve actually been able to be honest about where we’ve met because it’s finally been announced — we don’t have to be secretive of our years of work, but it’s a documentary that [Scorsese’s] done about Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and it’s going to come out on Netflix later this year.
Oh wow, an exclusive! So once you joined forces, did you lock into these four kids from the start or was there prep time beforehand to figure things out?
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, it was definitely a process. We went down the summer before the season started for training camp and got to meet everyone and do initial interviews, but it was really when we started filming in the season that we were able to focus more on the four wrestlers that you see that are our main characters. They were the ones we most connected with, that were extremely open, that wanted us to come over and explore their lives together with, so it was an organic process. We were living in Huntsville for six months along with the team, so we were there for most of everything.
Lauren Belfer: And they weren’t the original ones we were planning on focusing on. Originally, we had expected to follow all four seniors that were on the team that would be graduating, but once we were down there and really getting to know the kids, we found that these four were not just the most welcoming, but their individual stories really overlapped in interesting ways and let us tell the most complex story of what it is like to grow up in a place like North Huntsville.
It speaks volumes that you introduce them in the film individually first as a way of learning about the town and the team. Was that way of framing the film a strong idea from the start?
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, that was actually a big challenge for us and took a lot of time and process because there are four main characters and then the coach of course, so it was hard to balance. Our editor Pablo Proenza really came in and crafted the intro in a way that was really relatable [where] you could get a great sense of the wrestler and their family, [like for instance] if we introduced the mom in the intro.
Lauren Belfer: It was important for us, even in the very beginning [where] you hear the coach giving a very strong and effective pep talk that really lays out everything [these students] have against them — the stakes of what they’re up against — that [we] made sure that it’s always from the wrestlers’ perspective, which is why in that instance, it’s through Jamario’s journey of getting up and going to school and walking in to slowly introduce from his perspective to the town, to his home, to the school and then it just throws you into the wrestling room with all the kids and you get the sense of the team.
Was it interesting to figure out how much context you could get from the images? It’s a great strength of the film that besides Jailen outlining how wrestling is scored, there don’t appear to be too many formal interviews.
Lauren Belfer: Yeah, it was our goal to try and do as little of that as possible and in early cuts of the film, we forewent any efforts to explain wrestling, but realized that a basic primer helps people feel more grounded in the film and able to focus on the kids’ experiences, so that was something that was important for us to figure out how to get in and out really quickly. Fortunately Jailen does it with such eloquence and Pablo’s beautiful work cutting out of his perspective and throwing him into the world of being on the mat to really explain what it’s like to be out there on your own was really effective. Suzannah and I are really drawn to films that are emotional, intimate and based on experience, so [while] we certainly have many seated interviews with everybody in the film that informed our process and deepened our understanding of their feelings and experiences, it was important for us to move away from that in the film itself and really making it feel like a movie more than just a documentary.
As you were filming, were there any unexpected avenues or qualities?
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, we had no idea that Jaquan and Jailen were going to get stopped by the police. We happened to be there in the moment to be able to document it and we knew we had to include that in the movie because it was such a difficult moment in each of their lives. Then Jacquan, of course, had the consequences of being on probation and how precarious that is for a teenager. If he did anything wrong, he could go to jail and that’s a reality that millions of American teenagers are living with today.
I wanted to ask specifically about Jailen’s run-in with the cops since the officer actually acknowledges the camera. In that moment, was it interesting negotiating your presence as outsiders in this community?
Lauren Belfer: Yeah, Suzannah was filming and she was the only one of us present and [Jailen and his friends] were just doing a Target run. It wasn’t even expected that anything would happen and it was just by accident she happened to have one of her littler cameras stuffed in her bag.
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, I started filming and the cop immediately acknowledged me and asked me who I was and he was okay with me filming [because] in his mind he wanted me to show how Jailen was acting, so he wanted it to be in the documentary. And in the moment, I thought the camera is my best tool in this situation. [The cop is] not going to listen to me. From the way he was talking to me, he was not treating me like an adult and he was very adamant about Jailen calling Coach Scribner, and Scrib came, but I thought having the camera on was our best defense.
Lauren Belfer: And Jailen’s too. We’ve had many conversations with him subsequently that acknowledged how scary that was, but also how if there wasn’t a white woman with a camera filming that experience, what else could’ve happened and how wrong could that have gone. For very minor reasons. The infraction itself is minor and then Jailen’s response to [the cop] is overall very respectful, but the cop himself is quite aggressive and it does escalate. Jailen’s immediate takeaway in the moment is just thinking about all the other encounters between young black men and police he’s seen online that have gone viral, so he was definitely aware and we’ve discussed as much with him of our presence there, which put our own privilege for us as filmmakers and as white women into glaring perspective – that our presence could have such a profound impact on an encounter like that for someone like him.
Obviously, that turned into a strength, but was that something to overcome initially as far as gaining the trust of the subjects who are predominantly African-American men?
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, it was definitely a process. We decided to move to Alabama and we found that was very important to our filmmaking because we didn’t want to be in and out. We felt that trust could only be built if we showed up. We connected with them off-camera and listened and really got to know each other as people and it took a while to get the very emotional and vulnerable moments that you see in the film.
Lauren Belfer: Being there all the time to hang out, eat meals together, sometimes just observing — part of that dynamic was not just film, film, film all the time — though we did film frequently — but also just being people who get to know and care about each other was essential to the process.
How’d you get to film so close to the subjects at tournaments?
Suzannah Herbert: Our cinematographer Sinisa Kukic is an incredible documentary filmmaker in terms instinct and for the wrestling, we both watched as many wrestling docs [as we could] and we weren’t really feeling the sense of being there and the excitement. Sinisa thought if we got really low to the wrestling mat, which is where the wrestlers are and [where] all action happens then we would be able to connect onscreen to those intense moments. Once he figured that out and we set the look for the wrestling, we were really able to get those great moments. And he was shooting on his knees with his camera, or we would have another DP for State [Tournament] that would be on a high hat, really low to the ground, so that was how we figured out the wrestling.
What’s it been like traveling with the film? I know it’s not just you that have been honored around the circuit, but Jailen picked up the Spirit of Sidewalk Award at the Birmingham-based fest, so it must be nice to see your subjects acknowledged as well.
Lauren Belfer: Yeah, it’s been amazing to tour with the film and being with the different wrestlers and seeing them get to see people moved by their experiences.This is the 2015-16 season for them, so some time has passed where we were working in the edit and it was in our lives every day, but for them, life moves on — they’ve graduated and some have moved onto college — so to be able to experience and relive onscreen some of the more difficult things that they’ve ever had to go through, but do that from the perspective of sharing it with an audience who is so appreciative of their willingness to share their stories and also just be supportive has been really, really special.
We [always] wanted to make it accessible to people to empathize with people who come from different circumstances than they do and to build a general empathy for what it’s like for kids from rougher sides of town who lack resources, especially who are minorities. One of the things we were initially drawn to about the story is was looking at issues for bigger conversations about race and class and instances of injustice that we’re having in our country today, but through the lens of these four kids who are working their asses off just to try to succeed and seeing the obstacles that they face even when they’re being as good and responsible and trying as hard as they can. The whole team actually came out for our premiere in San Francisco, which was the first time they had seen the film. It was with an entirely packed house and everyone was cheering and laughing and clapping throughout the whole film and it was such a beautiful experience.
Suzannah Herbert: Yeah, after the wrestlers saw the film [in San Francisco], they told us and the whole audience of 250 people just how proud they were to see their stories onscreen and their hope that more kids like them will see their stories in this story. They feel it’s really important in that way, which we hope is the case as well.
“Wrestle” opens on February 22nd in New York at the Village East Cinemas and Los Angeles on March 1st at the Monica Film Center before expanding nationally.