A somewhat eccentric division of America’s inexplicable religious fervour is covered in this interesting and frustrating documentary, which details six years in the life of the Christian Wrestling Federation (CWF) – a somewhat high falutin’ name for what is (or was) a part time, makeshift organisation that mixed in-ring grappling with Christian preaching for audiences of trailer park residents across the American South. Led by Rob Vaughn, aka Jesus Freak – a man who never has the same hairstyle from interview to interview – and his wife, this band of religious fanatics use wrestling as a way to get their message of good vs evil over to slack-jawed fans for $20 a week.
I don’t use the word ‘fanatic’ lightly. Throughout this film, the wrestlers talk of pretty much nothing but the word of God, be they in the ring, being interviewed, training or whatever. God is responsible for everything positive that happens, and Satan is to blame for everything that goes wrong. It’s good to know that God and Satan spend their time worrying about a small potatoes wrestling organisation rather than famine, earthquakes, poverty, crime etc.
For the first half of the film, we get a somewhat uncritical look at the CWF. So uncritical is it, in fact, that I’m going to guess that the filmmakers themselves are Christians themselves. It almost feels like a promotional piece for the ministry, and for those of us less sympathetic to the message being pumped out – and pumped out to kids who are not old enough to make informed decisions about such things – it starts to feel like hard work. Documentaries should not be propaganda.
However, the narrative becomes more interesting over time. We see that these Christian warriors are not exactly without sin. Ego and ambition leads to split, with two of the biggest names splitting to join a local secular rival that has a TV deal; Jesus Freak alienates many of his colleagues (the film constantly hints at him and the missus not being the perfect Christians that they portray themselves as, and that could’ve been the interesting story that the film could develop; instead, it’s left pretty much unexplored) and the company struggles to survive, despite the fixed-grin coverage on a truly ghastly Christian TV network talk show. Big name wrestlers AJ Styles (before he was a TNA star) and Dr Death (at the end of his career) are brought in but don’t seem to stick around for long – they certainly don’t have much presence in the film. Star wrestler Apocalypse suffers a severe in-ring injury and his wife leaves him because she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic (very Christian of her, I’m sure you’ll agree), another wrestler is fired for ‘living in sin’ and things start to fall apart.
But frustratingly for those of us on the outside looking for a story arc, they don’t fall apart that much. After six years, the CWF is left still going, albeit with a new stable of wrestlers. Given that the story ends in 2006 and the film is only now seeing release, you kinda wish there had been an update on events. But perhaps there was nothing dramatically new to say.
The CWF are an odd bunch. One or two seem like regular enough guys when not on the Jesus trip, a couple appear to be borderline autistic and several are pretty arrogant and intolerant. As you might expect, there’s a lot of ‘USA! We’re Number One’ mentality at play here and we’re told how non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists and the rest will all end up in Hell because they haven’t unquestioningly given themselves to Christ. There’s talk of The Rapture, which these guys seem to think is actually a thing, and quite frankly very little tolerance for any beliefs but their own. As with evangelical preachers, you do wonder what lapse in judgement makes God choose people like this as his mouthpieces of Earth, and also wonder what the Jesus Christ they profess to love would make of their intolerance and damnation of others. Interestingly and predictably, while they like to quote scripture constantly, several of the wrestlers seem happy to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they believe. A number are inked, and lest we think this is a hangover from pre-born again days, we see Jesus Freak heading to his local tattoo parlour. Yet what does Leviticus say? “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” That seems pretty unambiguous.
In truth, I have nothing against Christians as long as they don’t try to force their views on others. The CWF is all about pushing the Christian message though, and so it’s hard to find them at all sympathetic – and I suspect filmmakers Paul Aldridge and Tom Borden want us to do just that. The result is a film that is fascinating stuff, and certainly does what all documentaries should do – namely, inform us about something we were previously uninformed about. But it feels very much like being preached at for 78 minutes, and as such can also be quite hard work. It’s worth seeing, definitely, but it might leave you as angry as you are entertained.
The DVD features seven matches by the CWF in their entirety, thankfully lacking the preaching. Fans of indie wrestling will probably find this more entertaining than the main film, and it’s perhaps the tipping point for anyone considering a purchase.