Wrestle may be the feature directing debut of the team of Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer, but after working for industry heavyweights like Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore, they hit the ground running and their award-winning, critically acclaimed film that has already been compared to Hoop Dreams and Friday Night Lights.
The story of four members of the high school wrestling team at Huntsville’s J.O. Johnson High School–a longstanding entry on Alabama’s list of failing schools–and their tough-love coach coming to terms with his own past, Wrestle is “superb,” wrote Kenneth Turan in the LA Times. “Just as sports mirror society, so do the best sports films not only take us inside games and those who play them but also provide insight into our world and how it works.” He rightly adds, “One reason Wrestle is so effective is that [the directors] and cinematographer Sinisa Kukic made the decision to move to Huntsville for the duration of the shoot. What resulted was not only 650 hours of footage but the benefit of countless additional time spent just hanging out with the protagonists.”
Herbert and co-director Belfer spoke to us about how they came to make this film and that decision to move to Alabama for a long while, as well as how the kids are doing today.
What led you to want to make a film about high school wrestlers?
Our film examines big questions about equality and injustice through the narrow lens of a wrestling team at a failing high school in Alabama. Immediately upon meeting the team, and witnessing these young men from disadvantaged circumstances literally wrestling to succeed and to be seen, we saw a powerful metaphor through which to examine the struggle of growing up when the world keeps pushing you down.
And what led you to this particular school and team in Huntsville? Were you casting a wider search before you found them or did you already know that was the place and kids for your film?
Suzannah first heard about the Johnson wrestling team through her southern circle of friends. The wrestling team at J.O. Johnson High School had gotten some local coverage because the wrestlers were new to the sport, yet they were defeating kids who had been wrestling since they were five. Plus, Johnson had been on Alabama’s list of failing schools for years and was slated to close at the end of the school year. So, from the beginning, we knew that the young wrestlers were fighting against a lot of odds and that their efforts to make it to the Alabama State Championships would make a really compelling story. That said, it was really when Suzannah first met the wrestlers in person that it really clicked that, hey, this needs to be a film.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
For viewers who come from more comfortable circumstances, our goal is to compel them to confront the inequities that still exist in our society and are presented in the film. And for viewers who see glimpses of their own experiences depicted in the film, we hope they feel empowered by seeing their stories on screen. More than anything, it’s been our goal from the beginning to further the still urgent and necessary conversation that’s finally starting to take place in a more mainstream way in our country.
Discussions about race and injustice aren’t the only urgent conversations; we’re also compelled as filmmakers – specifically as female filmmakers – by masculinity and the evolving idea of what it means to be a man. In making this film we witnessed firsthand how boys are pushed to be hard, to suppress their feelings, to stifle their tears. While their female peers are permitted this “luxury,” boys are prohibited from exploring outlets for their feelings and fears. Interestingly, most of the young men in our film unwittingly fought against those expectations. Perhaps the process of being filmed and interviewed encouraged self-expression.
But the societal pressures to be aggressively “male” were always at the forefront, and we hope to engage audiences about the limitations of such a restrictive view of masculinity.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Initially, finding support as new filmmakers was challenging. Though we believed strongly in the wrestling team’s story and put together a compelling sizzle reel to help pitch it, it was hard to convince people to believe in first-time filmmakers. We were so lucky to have executive producer Micheline Levine by our side, who connected us Steven Klein of Firefly Theater & Films and Seth Gordon of Exhibit A, both of whom saw the promise in the film and really believed in us as new filmmakers.
Could you talk about the decision to live in Huntsville full time while filming?
Parachuting in and out of their lives wasn’t an option if we were asking the team for their trust. It was essential to our process that we were there for every tournament, every achievement, every heartbreak. For us, it was also about investing our own time, not just as filmmakers, but as individuals. Getting to know each of the wrestlers, seeing them every day, and spending time together off-camera allowed us all to build relationships that are real and will be long-lasting. But the film’s intimacy is really a testament to the wrestlers, their families, and their coaches, who courageously let us into their lives and trusted that telling their stories could have wide-reaching significance.
You both reside in New York, so Alabama is a very different world in many ways. You mention wanting to live there so you weren’t just dropping in and out — what was that adjustment like? What were some universal things you found in common with local people you met?
It was important for us to live in Alabama during the whole season, which meant finding a furnished sublet, borrowing Suzannah’s parents’ car, and saying bye to our normal lives for six months. In Huntsville, we were somewhat isolated from any life outside of the wrestling team and the lives of the wrestlers and their families. The general adjustment was hard and we’re not sure we ever really adjusted, but that part of the experience wasn’t necessarily unique to Alabama.
Suzannah is from the South, so to her, it did feel somewhat like home, especially in the people we met and the relationships we built. People in Alabama (especially in the wrestling community) were excited we were there documenting J.O. Johnson’s last season and were hopeful about the prospect of their stories getting seen and heard.
Any favorite moments or discoveries from life in Alabama?
A favorite moment from life in Alabama was going on the road each weekend with the team, families, and coaches. It was always an adventure to pack up the cars and travel hours south to go wrestle in a tournament. It was exhausting, and we averaged 16 hour days, but those intense times altogether, driving, eating, losing weight, wrestling, and cheering really made us grateful to be a witness to such a beautiful group of people.
What would be one discussion topic you’d love to see people have after they watch?
So many sports movies focus primarily on the coach first, athletes second, but for us, it was always a priority to focus on the wrestlers’ stories over everything else and frame the film through their perspectives. Our main goal in doing this was to highlight these amazing young men, but secondarily we also wanted to subvert the all-too-familiar notion of the “white savior.” It’s just a trope we feel is dishonest. Films like The Blind Side tell a good story, but real life is much more complicated, and the whole community in North Huntsville really came together to support the wrestlers on the team.
As filmmakers, we’re also fortunate that Coach Scribner was very candid in sharing his own vulnerability. The fact that he comes from such a different life experience and such a different place of privilege does factor into how he interacts with the team, and you see him figuring out where the boundaries are for him to relate to and motivate these kids. Sometimes you see him push too hard, but then you see him also triangulate and figure out the ways that best meet their needs.
He has an epiphany about how lucky he is, and how much more room he had to make mistakes growing up. We hope that the audience’s takeaway is similar to his and that they can put their privilege into perspective and realize that unfortunately, for some kids, no matter how hard they try, and how hard they fight and how good they are, opportunities don’t exist in equal measure.
There are some updates on everyone seen at the end of the film, but is there anything new on any of your characters you’d especially like to share here?
The updates at the end of the film are pretty recent, but there are a few new updates that we’re excited to share with viewers! Jaquan just finished Boot Camp for the Navy in Chicago, and Teague has enrolled in classes to help prepare him for the GED test. Jamario is busy working in Huntsville. Jailen just finished his sophomore year at Berea College and is interning at an accounting firm in Huntsville this summer.
While this “failing school” was ultimately closed, what do you think other struggling schools or all schools/school districts in general–and kids!–could learn from watching Wrestle, or how do you think this film could be used in schools and school administrations? What can parents learn from seeing the film?
We hope everyone sees that there’s more to a “failing school” than just that tough designation. Johnson was slated to close down permanently before we ever picked up a camera in Alabama, yet the dedicated teachers and coaches, the hard-working mothers and family members, and all of the students still worked hard every day to make the most of their circumstances. Johnson wasn’t “failing” because of any of them; there are larger, systemic issues at play, and the Johnson community did its best with what limited resources they had.
We really hope audiences walk away with a newfound empathy for the students whose only options are schools that are underfunded and unequal. The film profiles just four kids, but there are hundreds of thousands in similar situations across the country. We really hope people walk away inspired by the students in the film, but angry at the realities they’re forced to face. We need to make education — and by that we mean, free, well-funded public schools with well-supported teachers — a priority in the US, or else as a society we will continue to fail our children.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
More than one of the wrestlers were stopped by police while our cameras were rolling, and our takeaways from those experiences were more sobering than surprising. Intellectually, we know that African Americans and minorities have confrontations with police at a much higher rate than whites, but to witness and film racial profiling in real-time brought their reality to a new level for us. Our hope is that audiences will experience these injustices from the point of view of our protagonists and come away with a firmer and deeper empathy for just how terrifying and precarious it is to grow up young and black in America today.
One of our favorite scenes in the film is the horse farm scene. We don’t explain it, just present a tranquil moment with the wrestlers and these beautiful animals. The scene provides a much needed mental and emotional break before the State Championships, a moving and cathartic moment after the wrestlers’ intense journey.
What was the most surprising or shocking revelation to you as you made this film?
One of the hardest things to stomach is that the struggles for Jaquan, Jamario, Teague, and Jailen won’t, or didn’t, just stop because high school ended, or because they made it to the State Championships. It’s not shocking, per se, just a hard truth to swallow that their circumstances won’t drastically change and, in fact, leaving high school and the team means they’re also losing a space and a community that is deeply invested in their well-being and provides them with a lot of support. Once that comes to an end, a huge safety net is suddenly gone.
It was important to us to communicate this concern in the film, so we didn’t want to end with the false hope that everything in their lives was going to be fixed because they made it to the State Championship. We very intentionally wanted the film to end on a question and leave the audience with the somewhat uncomfortable realization that their adult lives are just now beginning, and even though they are amazing young men, their lives may not work out in ways we hope for them. It’s an especially rough blow because, though the film is small in scope, the questions it poses are overwhelming. And we don’t endeavor to suggest solutions. More than anything, our goal has always been to help people see that the conversation itself is urgent and necessary.
What did the guys in the film think of it, assuming they’ve seen it?
We were so nervous before showing it to them, but honestly, we couldn’t have asked for a better response from them: they all love it. Jamario was speechless when he first saw it at our premiere in San Francisco, and after a few moments told the packed house, “It’s just beautiful.” It means so much to us to know they’re proud of the film.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentary or feature films?
Suzannah: One of the first documentaries I really connected with was Paradise Lost. I spent a lot of my childhood in West Memphis, Arkansas where most of my extended family lived. While watching the film as a teenager, after having absorbed the fear and tragedy of the murders as a five-year-old, I understood how powerful film is in capturing and revealing the truth. Since I was able to see part of my own life in that film, I knew then I wanted to make films and specifically films that documented the south and its people.
Lauren: Harlan County, USA had such a huge impact on me. I was so affected by its empathy and its guts, but also for Barbara Kopple’s willingness to take such a clear moral stand without any obligation for hearing from “the other side.” It must have been one of the first documentaries I’d seen without experts and talking heads, so I was struck that a doc could be so thrilling and make such a strong impact. I loved it, but more so I wanted to do it.