Producer/Director/Cinematographer Diane Zander discusses positive role models, the impact of Title IX on girls’ sports and the allure of her favorite superhero.
What motivated you to make this film?
Tara and other girls in wrestling can be incredibly positive role models for anyone pursuing an unconventional path. They are competing in a contact sport where there are still taboos and questions around their participation, particularly when the girls are wrestling against boys. Tara is a brave young woman and I wanted to document her strength and courage to go against the grain.
How did you meet Tara and her family?
After some searching for a girl who wrestles boys, I finally found Tara through her coach. I quickly realized that there was a reason that I had a hard time finding such a girl. In the United States, only Texas and Hawaii prohibit girls from wrestling boys in high school, making it difficult for girls to have opportunities to compete if there aren’t any other girls on the team. This became an essential part of the story—documenting the moment before her wrestling career essentially is shut down.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing girls and women in sports today?
Even though the number of girls participating in high school sports has increased 847 percent since the passage of Title IX in 1972 and we now have many professional sports for women, female athletes receive millions of dollars less in scholarship support at the collegiate level. Likewise, media attention is not proportional either; even though women make up 38 to 42 percent of all sport participants, sportswomen receive only 8.7 percent of total sports coverage. This poses a challenge for young girls searching for athletic heroes and role models in the world. They have to actively search out athletes like Sheryl Swoopes (basketball), or Mia Hamm (soccer), or Tricia Saunders (wrestling), while we know Shaq and Tiger simply by their first names.
Girls in middle and high schools also continue to experience discrimination and inequality in terms of opportunities and facilities. While Title IX compliance data is reported at the collegiate level, there is no reporting mechanism at the middle and high school levels. In fact, the Department of Education says that the number of complaints involving gender discrimination in high school and even middle school athletics has outnumbered those involving colleges by five to one since 2001. This means that across America, girls’ softball teams are playing on old city fields with no locker rooms, while boys’ baseball teams at the same school play on brand new, state-of-the-art fields with all the amenities. This means that coaches get fired for speaking up about the disparity in resources between boys’ and girls’ teams. And this means if they cannot find other girls to join the team that are the same weight, girl wrestlers in Texas and Hawaii are often stuck on the sidelines; even if there are boys the same weight class on the team, these girls have no one to practice with or wrestle, simply because they are not allowed to wrestle boys.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
Change is made when people can see the world from someone else’s perspective. Identification is a revelatory and transformational act that can have great power. What I hope is that people can see this experience from Tara’s point of view, and that filters down to how they live. Perhaps it will cause a mother to support her daughter if she decides to compete in a traditionally male sport, or a father to petition his school board for better girls’ sports facilities. Or maybe a young girl or boy won’t make fun of their female friend when she wants to wrestle.
The best result would be that more girls were interested in wrestling. Additionally, if Texas and Hawaii could re-consider their policies on co-ed wrestling, or at the very least allow girls to practice against boys, that would be tremendous.
Were there moments that you were not able to capture on camera that you would have liked to include in your film?
The tricky part about any type of discrimination is the invisibility of it. There were often slight comments, things said under the breath, a little snickering from the crowd when Tara wrestled, that were never caught on tape. There were boys who wanted to forfeit their match but then grudgingly wrestled her, and referees that denied points to her here and there. But those subtle moments are hard to capture and even harder to edit in a way that makes sense. More than that, there were also situations that I am sure would have been different had there not been a camera there, because people behave differently for the camera. For example, Tara tells a story about a referee taking away a first place medal from her because her opponent was male and therefore “he should get first.” That likely would not have happened if a camera crew had been there. Discrimination often occurs in private, without documentation, and so we rely on anecdotes like this to recognize that it continues to exist.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
For me, making documentaries offers a way to learn about something new. With the making of each documentary, it’s a fresh education for me on a different topic.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Even in this digital cable world, public television is still the best avenue for thought-provoking and timely documentary work that resists the lowest common denominator in television.
What are your three favorite films?
My favorite documentary of all time is Salesman, by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. I am also a big fan of Jennifer Fox’s An American Family documentaries and Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Paul Stekler and Jay Shefsky have most directly influenced the approach I take with documentary. I also admire the work of Don Howard, Alan Berliner, Ross McElwee, Elisabeth Subrin, Jem Cohen and Frederick Wiseman.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I would be Wonder Woman. No one can resist the golden lasso!
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Actually, while we were finishing up the PBS version of GIRL WRESTLER, we were quoting (cheesily, I know) from Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own: “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” That’s a darned good motto.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Create and persevere. Open yourself up to criticism, because that’s how you improve. Experiment and find a style and a content area of your own. Most importantly, love what you do, because you probably will not make much, if any, money doing it, and you will be working on one project for years.