(Fake It So Real is being distributed by Factory 25 and opens theatrically in New York City at the reRun Gastropub on Friday, January 13, 2011. It has screened at True/False, the Sarasota Film Festival, and the Maryland Film Festival and had its New York City premiere at Rooftop Films on Thursday, July 26, 2011, featuring real live wrestling! Visit the film’s official website to learn more, and go here to watch several raucous promos for the theatrical release.)
Before the rise of Vince McMahon and the WWF in the 1980s, professional wrestling in the United States had a long, proud tradition as a regional entertainment, with performers going town to town, setting up in various civic arenas and halls, putting on a show and pulling up stakes, often in a single day. At the dawn of wrestling’s popularity, small, independent wrestling promotions dotted the American landscape, with nationally recognized names hopping between promotions and cities, creating story lines with popular regional and local talents before moving on to the next match. Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan and the WWF changed all that. McMahon’s visionary approach to the “business” saw him create exclusive contracts with top talent, establish coverage of matches on national television (replacing regional broadcasts of local promotions), buy out regional promotions and fold them into the WWF and ultimately launch the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, Wrestlemania, as a pay-per-view event that changed the economics of the sport forever.
In the intervening years, The WWF has become the WWE and it remains one of the highest rated cable television content providers around. Working in the shadows of the WWE monolith, small, regional and independent wrestling promotions soldier on, providing a sort of counter programming (and historic connection) for local fans while allowing performers who dream of a chance at the big time the opportunity to work on their moves, characters and microphone skills in relative isolation. The internet has proven a fertile resource of information for local fans, wrestlers and promoters, allowing them behind the curtain of the sport at every level, from insider looks into the business of wrestling through to access to leaked results and story lines, all of it debated on message boards and websites in a vocabulary that hops in and out of “Kayfabe*,” the agreement among professional wrestlers that the sport always be presented as “real.” With access to more information than ever before, regional wrestling promotions are better equipped to create engaging stories and characters for fans of the sport but, without the resources of the major promotions, they remain strictly low-budget, DIY affairs.
Fake It So Real, Robert Greene’s documentary about the men who make up the Millennium Wrestling Federation (MWF), a (very) small wrestling promotion in Lincolnton, North Carolina, is a love letter to the sport in its purest form. At once a testament to the power of wrestling’s dream world and the harsh economic realities of life outside of the spotlight, Fake It follows this troupe of unpaid, generally underemployed working-class heroes as they work together to put on a weekly show for the handful of fans who come to see their performances. The narrative of Fake It mirrors the current state of wrestling fandom, at once honoring the performers for their hard work and dedication to their sport while at the same time pulling back the curtain on their planning, storytelling and character development outside of the ring. Most importantly, Greene uses all of this information to its ultimate (and best) purpose, using his subject’s lives to illuminate the stories they try to tell in the ring.
Any student of the sport will know that for all of the yelling and screaming into microphones and all of the outside of the ring soap operas that are mainstays of wrestling’s unique style of dramatic fiction, none of it would make a difference if it didn’t serve to create meaningful matches between wrestlers. The complex intertwining of storytelling in and out of the ring to create masterful narrative arcs (or “angles”) in wrestling is ultimately resolved by the wrestlers during the matches themselves; the ebb and flow of advantage between the combatants providing the thrills required to ultimately end the rivalry so a new story can begin. Greene, clearly a student of the sport, has structured Fake It So Real to mirror the narrative tropes of wrestling itself, bringing the audience into sympathy with his subject’s desires and dreams so that we might care deeply for what happens when they climb in the ring.
And when they do get in the ring, the film takes off with them. Capturing the high flying moves, thunderous collisions and bloody confrontations between the wrestlers, Greene and his trusted cinematographer Sean Price Williams eschew the wide shots of the ring that typify conventional wrestling broadcasts on TV, instead pulling in close on the faces of the wrestlers, using their expressions to tell the story of the matches. Those close-ups harken back to the traditional wrestling photography of the past, when black-and-white stills graced the smudged newsprint pages of devoted fanzines; the style of the film only reenforces a sense of nostalgia for the sport’s past.
It doesn’t hurt that Greene has been blessed with some very compelling characters; from J-Prep, a philosophical wrestler who, through treatment for disease, has developed a preternaturally large derrière (which he uses to his competitive advantage), to Gabriel, the young and athletic newcomer who wants to fit in with the group despite the constant hazing to which they subject him, it is the collective effort of the performers that makes the MWF a compelling subject. The group’s collaborative work to realize their dreams brings a deep sense of empathy to the film. At this level of the sport, the money and celebrity are non-existent, but the pain, glory and sense of accomplishment are palpable on very human terms. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Gabriel stuns his colleagues by creating a very polished story in the ring; the reaction of his fellow performers to his success is perhaps the film’s signature moment, all of the group’s machismo tossed aside in recognition of a job well done.
It is that sense of goodwill, of creating something for the pleasure of it, that makes Fake It So Real more than just a movie about small town wrestling. Greene is not an ironist and takes no interest in offering a critique of his subject’s choices; if you’re looking for a film to take the piss out of wrestling and laugh at the aspirations of working class dreamers, look elsewhere. Instead, Fake It So Real provides something far more vital and moving; an examination of the fantasy lives of men whose experiences and aspirations are rarely articulated in the cinema.
— Tom Hall
*Think of Kayfabe as wrestling’s equivalent of improvisational comedy’s “yes… and” rule; you never undermine the presentational reality of the situations in which your character participates. Kayfabe has its own special terminology as well, a shorthand that describes the typical interactions between participants in the sport.