Sunday, June 10, 2012
Ultimate Christian Wrestling: The Interview (KAFFNY 2012)
Ultimate Christian Wrestling (reviewed here by DB) may sound like the title of a fantastical journey, but is in fact a well told, grounded documentary. At its core are the passions and struggles of a few very decent and upstanding guys. On Friday, directors Jae-Ho Chang and Tara Autovino shared their film with an audience for the first time at its world premiere as part of the 2012 Korean American Film Festival in NY, where it hopefully turned a good amount of heads and garnered some much deserved attention. What follows is a conversation I had with both Jae-Ho and Tara about the time they spent in Georgia making the film, the process of making the documentary, and their ideas about integrity filmmaking, as well as shedding some additional light on the unique phenomena that they came to know as Ultimate Christian Wrestling.
MondoCurry: How did you discover UCW?
Jae-Ho: It was on the radio. I heard it one morning. During the sports section they were talking about what happened that night, and then at the very end, as a joke they mentioned, ‘oh also there is this group that wrestles for Jesus.’ I thought that was a pretty bizarre concept. At that time we were both going to grad school. We worked on projects together and we had similar interests. So I ran it by Tara and she did some more research, found a couple of places, what was it, South Carolina….?
Tara: There’s one in North Carolina, one in Texas, and one in Georgia that we ended up following. I think we wanted to follow them for a couple of reasons. They weren’t too slick but they weren’t amateurs. They were definitely pro wrestlers. That was a nice place to be and then also when I called Rob who is the founder of UCW, he was so friendly and he was like ‘sure come on down’ and he had no idea who we were. We just told him we were grad students at NYU and interested in finding out more. He invited us down there and we went and we ended up spending 3 years of our lives off and on, shooting.
MC: What got you most interested in the subject? Have either of you ever been fans of wrestling or was it the religious aspect of what they were doing?
Jae-Ho: It was just this bizarre concept. We were both into that sort of subculture. That was kind of our initial attraction. Let’s try to capture this. Then after spending 3 years with them it became something different.
MC: The title of the film suggests something that could be very outlandish but the story you presented is a pretty subdued one. Did your plan of approaching the subject change along the way?
Jae-Ho: We as filmmakers felt that it’s such a shallow film if you just focus on the bizarre concept, and you can’t really make a feature film just based on that. We wanted to make a film that people can relate to...Or even people like us coming from the metropolitan area having a preconceived notion of who these people are … And then when we got to know them we changed our perspective on who they are. We felt that as responsible filmmakers, that is the kind of film we want to make. It’s too easy to make fun of these people. It becomes like a reality show. We tried to present our experience of realizing wow, these people are not who we think they are. Let’s try to create a film where people have these expectations and then they would change their perspective. It’s almost like our personal journey of how we experienced hanging out with them for 3 years. It’s what we wanted to show on the big screen.
Tara: That’s pretty much why we kept the title of the film the way we kept it: Because when you hear that title, you have all sorts of notions of what kind of film that could be. Most of them are probably over the top or negative, and when we reveal the world slowly, it’s exactly how we experienced it. So there’s that title and the shows and then it starts getting into the details of how much we are actually like them.
Jae-Ho: People wanted us to change the title because they were like ‘we expected one thing and it wasn’t about that. Maybe call it Ultimate Christian Wrestlers…’ But we felt like the title sort of serves the same function as the film, as in people have these expectations of what it is going to be and then it’s something else.
Tara: And it’s very symbolic of people judging other people based on superficial observations, what they look like, where they’re from, how they sound, the title of something…It’s a very don’t judge a book by its cover sort of thing. I can judge people based on what they look like and this was very much a practice of learning to find the similarities between us and them. Instead of it being an us and them thing, it’s about what we have in common.
MC: Do you have any religious experiences or beliefs that you were reminded of? Were any of them challenged by what you experienced when making the film?
Tara: I think one of the strengths of working on this project together is that we both come from very different religious backgrounds, both Christian based but very different. I had a very negative experience growing up and was mainly dismissive as a teenager. I wanted to study philosophy and I was really anti-religion when I was in my early 20’s.
Jae-Ho: For me, growing up being Korean I was pretty much born into Christianity. I had a good experience growing up being Christian. It was not a choice so it was a natural thing for me to go to Church on Sundays with my family. When I was in college, I felt like I could make a choice now if I want to go or believe these things. So it was a good thing when we were filming that we had these opposite points of view. That helped to balance the context of what we have in the film.
MC: When you saw the live events did anything strike you as offensive or go against your sensibilities on Christianity?
Jae Ho: In the beginning it was really bizarre because of the fact that it’s a very violent sport and with Christianity, you don’t think of that. Once I got over that, it was pretty inspiring. I think they do a really smart thing because when you watch these wrestling shows, you get really revved up when you’re watching, and that continues with the whole religious aspect of it. And they use the people’s emotions to channel that into Christianity and try to convert people. I can see why people get so into it because they’re really passionate about wrestling in the South and then also Christianity and just combining those two and taking advantage of those emotions people are feeling at a wrestling show…I can see the direction that they’re going. And Rob is such a cult of personality and very convincing when he talks. To me it was very inspiring in a way.
MC: Both Billy Jack and Justin always appear very positive in dealing with their struggles. Did they always have such a strong optimism when you were around them?
Tara: Throughout the film they did. They attribute it to their faith and I attribute it to their faith. No matter what we agree or disagree on in terms of belief systems, they have something that gets them up in the morning and motivates them to make positive changes in their lives and for other people. All they want to do is help other people and so you can’t really judge people if they’re trying to do good. Who am I to say what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s really moving to me when people are able to go through hardship and have faith that it’s going to change and that it’s going to get better. It’s really inspiring.
Jae-Ho: Because I used to live in Korea, and then in high school I came here and moved in with my aunt, I could relate to what Justin was going through living with another family and you kind of have to watch your behavior, tiptoe around because they’re doing you a favor. Also what I’d like to talk about is the theme of what I have discovered through the film is people who take chances to better their lives, which is something we all strive to do. For me that is the biggest fear of trying something out: Watching it fail. For them to do that is very inspirational to me. That for me was the personal journey I went through when I watch the film. I’m exorcising my demons through them as they’re taking these chances.
Tara: And it’s not like these chances all turned out so great. It’s not like they necessarily knew where they were going to end up by this point in the film. Justin had different or higher hopes. They all had higher hopes. I think Jae-Ho’s pointing to the most important thing, which is that they took the chance, that they’re trying and they’ll continue to try. Dreams don’t always look the way you think they’re going to when you arrive at them. Once you achieve them, usually they don’t feel the way you think they’re going to feel.
Jae-Ho: Like you said, because they’re religious they can put a positive spin on these situations.
Tara: Right, like Rob when he says ‘I guess this is not what we’re supposed to be doing anymore.’ That’s such a great way to look at things instead of wallowing in the negative. He’s just living his life to the fullest, which is inspiring.
MC: Were there aspects of their personal stories that you wanted to show more of but were, for whatever reason, prevented from doing?
Tara: That’s hard to answer because, since this was a documentary, we don’t really know what we’re following when we’re following it. In the end we look at all this footage and it is what it is. That’s just how life went. And I could probably think of things where it’s like “wouldn’t it be cool if this happened,” but I think we did a pretty good job. There’s plenty of other stuff we chose to omit based on privacy out of respect for the wrestlers, so I think what we have I’m pretty satisfied with.
Jae-Ho: Yeah some stuff we were like, it’s great, and it’s controversial and people are gonna like it or be interested in it, but we didn’t want to exploit these characters. I don’t think that’s the kind of film we want to make.
Tara: There are certain things that, as documentary filmmakers following people’s very personal moments, we feel like we’re crossing a boundary. Even though that boundary has been signed away in writing, it’s our personal belief that everyone deserves the right to privacy…Even if they are participating in a documentary.
Jae-Ho: We didn’t want to sensationalize some of that stuff. It’s the easy way to go if you go that way but we chose not to.
Tara: and it’s definitely the harder way to go. Which we’re very happy with, but it’s a very subtle film. It’s kind of intentionally subtle.
MC: You met and filmed a lot of different wrestlers who probably weren’t used to being in front of a camera. What were their various reactions to being filmed?
Jae-Ho: We knew that coming from NY, they were going to be very guarded because they’re doing such a bizarre thing. And they were in the beginning. But Tara and I knew it was going to be a process if you want to make a great film about these people’s lives. So we would go there, not always with a camera, and hang out with them, spend holidays with them, eat with them, and that’s how you slowly build the trust. That we knew going into this project. It was hard. There were moments where they didn’t owe us anything so they would completely not even call us back. So, we would have to wait around. We would have to convince them: Hey we’re doing this thing, please let us in to what you’re doing. There were struggles. We lucked out that they were into it and eventually felt natural in front of the camera.
Tara: That process took nine months of interacting with them and having the camera in front of them until they really started to let down their guard.
Jae-Ho: Thank God we had the wrestling to shoot because we were focusing on that in the beginning and then we had the behind the scenes stuff. And that’s a gradual process and they get used to that. And then we go ‘can we come to your home and shoot some of that?’ It’s kind of apparent in the film where we talk to Cody, when he talks about his mom.
MC: The film makes it clear that the shows were all done for free and not for any kind of profit. How did they manage to fund things?
Jae-Ho: Was it donations? They had a concession stand…
Tara: There were donations. They had a concession stand. For a time they were getting some funding from various churches in the area who thought what they were doing was interesting so they got some support from that. But ultimately, that’s why they had to stop: Because financially, they couldn’t keep it together.
MC: Over the course of three years, do you know how many of the live events you went to?
Jae-Ho: We were all over Georgia, then Alabama…ten.
MC: Was that all of the live events that they had during that time?
Jae-Ho: They had more. They had one every weekend.
Tara: We followed their shows and then, when some of them went on the indie circuit, we would follow that. If there was nothing going on some of them would go to the indie circuit.
Jae-Ho: Secular shows. That’s what surprised us because they would go to these shows that would take about 2 hours to drive to and they would be in this match for about ten minutes and that’s it. And they would still love doing it. They were really passionate about wrestling.
MC: This is a question more for you, Jae-Ho. As you watch the film it seems like it’s not an ethnically diverse area you are shooting in. Did your being Korean American cause any guarded or otherwise challenging reactions at first?
Jae-Ho: I think I would get more racial comments here than there. Because people are very polite there…Well, one kid called me ‘Jap’ there. But not like in an offensive way. I think that’s just what he had heard at home. But being a minority, it was OK. I feel like Asians are nonthreatening to people, right? Asians as a race are like perceived as nonthreatening, docile people.
MC: Did you set some rules for yourselves, being away from the usual comforts of home? Did you want to force yourselves to stick certain parts of the experience out?
Tara: We spent the summer of 2007 there completely living out of extended stay hotels.
Jae: It was more budgetary reasons that forced us to do that. Remember we got that cabin in the mountains?
Tara: We got this cabin in the mountains which was a little bit too remote for us. We had to do things like…We had to get a gym membership because you don’t walk at all. You drive everywhere. Especially in the more suburban areas, it’s not set up for walking so we had to get exercise…
Jae-Ho: Because of the food you eat. And all the iced tea...
Tara: Yeah, so we had to make some lifestyle adjustments while we were there. Although we were thoroughly enjoying the cuisine while we were there.
Jae-Ho: They don’t drink water there. It’s iced tea.
Tara: And it’s sweetened ice tea. So much sugar. The eating part was pretty shocking and the lack of mobility was kind of hard to adjust to.
MC: Have you kept in touch with the guys in the film and do you know what any of them are up to now?
Jae-Ho: On and off. Facebook helps. Cody is in high school. He’s still wrestling. Billy Jack retired and he became a nurse. He’s always changing his occupation. He studied to become a nurse and he became a nurse. Then he went back to wrestling. And now he’s into car racing. Justin is overseas a lot. He’s on a boat a lot because he’s in the Navy. Rob, I believe he’s still teaching. He’s a special ed teacher.
MC: Did having this experience affect your future plans? Do you feel like there is more to this story, or some theme from this story, you’d like to explore further or are you ready to close the chapter on Ultimate Christian Wrestling?
Tara: I’m ready to do something else and my tendency is always to go towards more rural areas and Christian related themes. But before I do that, I’m going to try and challenge myself with something else.
Jae-Ho: To me I like Asian American stories and this is more outside of what I usually do. I would never go down to Georgia and film in rural areas, but it was a great experience. But it’s been 7 years so it’s probably time to do something else.
MC: Did doing this film leave you wanting to do more documentary work?
Jae-Ho: This is our first feature and we’re both trained narrative fiction film makers. Since this is our first feature, we’re kind of perceived as documentary filmmakers. I realize it’s the same thing. You’re still telling stories. I like docs because writing is really painful for me and lonely. Documentaries are great because you go and you start shooting and you’re part of the environment. Like I said, you get to go to new places. I’d like to continue to do both…And it’s all about creating compassionate characters… and docs are great. It’s almost like you do research when you shoot docs. You get to go live in places and hang out with people that you don’t know and you get to see how they behave. And that all feeds into if you’re going to write for a character. Those experiences all help. I’m afraid to be pigeonholed as a documentary filmmaker but I want to pursue both.
MC: As far as topics for another documentary, do any jump to your mind?
Jae-Ho: There are so many. When I read the newspaper I like to save certain articles that seem like they will be great stories. The one I want…I don’t know if I have the guts to do it yet…is about the hazing in the army. I think there were two Korean Americans, or they were Asian American soldiers who got hazed, and ended up committing suicide. It happened twice. If they were not Asian Americans, would I have done it? Probably not. Something about a person being Asian American, being bullied, there is a kind of emotional attachment that I feel when I hear that story. So that is something I’m kind of toying with…If I am going to do something next for documentary.
Click here to read an unedited version of the transcript.
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