The documentary “Luchadoras” takes us to Ciudad Juárez to learn the stories of three female wrestlers who live under the shadow of violence and use Mexican lucha libre as a tool of empowerment. Their names are Lady Candy, Baby Star and Mini Sirenita.
“The film is a monument to these three women in particular and to all of them in general. It was made as a cry for justice,” said co-director Paola Calvo, who I got a chance to interview during the “Luchadoras” World Premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. We talk about her discovery of lucha libre, the perils of the shooting process and the intimate approach to the three lucha stars.
How did the project start? Where did the idea of talking about Ciudad Juárez luchadoras come from?
We knew about Ciudad Juárez because it’s a place strongly related to femicide and violence against women. It’s pretty sad to know that there’s a place known to the world because of this. We have friends who live there and love lucha libre. We also knew wrestling is beloved in Juárez and women have a very important role in the ring.
We thought that these topics were very interesting and would help create an image of the city completely different from what is known so far. We wanted to present the women of Juárez as fighters and superheroes, as strong women who stand up and fight for justice. The idea of the documentary was born when bringing these worlds together.
Why did you decide to specifically follow Baby Star, Mini Sirenita and Lady Candy as the main subjects of the documentary? What drew you to them?
We spent a lot of time on the arenas talking to people and we finally decided to portray women with stories that universally represented something more than just living in Juárez.
We have Lady Candy and the struggle to reunite with her kids who live on the other side of the border. We have the case of Mini Sirenita, who has been working all her life in the maquilas. She wanted to get out of that life and follow her dream of wrestling in Mexico City. Within this figure there were so many values. She represented so many interesting things.
Baby Star fully represents the idea of lucha libre: She’s masked and doesn’t show her face. It was also interesting to experiment with Baby’s story. At first we asked ourselves: ‘Are we going to be able to make a documentary with a character whose face you never see? Will the viewer find it strange? Is it a figure that the viewer can identify with?’ And that’s the magic of the cinema. Thankfully, Baby Star is one of the protagonists that people most admire and love.
We spent a lot of time together. It was very intimate. Our filmmaking process involved being close to people and spending a lot of time with them. The “Luchadoras” shooting was a five-month intense process, but thanks to the fact that we did it that way, we forged a very close relationship.
Baby Star is a masked luchadora. How was the process of filming her? Was it uncomfortable?
When we met the Ciudad Juárez luchadores, our idea was always to have a film about women superheroes. In the world of wrestling, having a mask is super sacred. If you have a mask, you try to never lose it so that no one knows what your true identity is. There’s a number of rules about showing or not showing your face. We spoke to Baby Star and it became clear that if we wanted to portray her as a luchadora, we couldn’t show her face in the movie. When we were shooting, the mask was always on. It worked very well. Sometimes it was a bit difficult because, in the middle of intimate situations, we had to ask her to put the mask on to start shooting. As time went by, things became much more natural and we had no problem, even with her family or friends.
Sadly, Ciudad Juárez is a very dangerous place and that is seen in the documentary through the constant dangerous atmosphere and the ever-present sound of sirens. What was your experience filming in this city?
We had friends there, so we reached a community of trustworthy people who told us exactly what to do, what not to do and where not to go. It was important to know the places in the city and the rules of being in a place like Ciudad Juárez.
The danger is real. Things happen in Juárez and you have to know how to get around the city. What I learned the most from being there was the idea of how to deal with fear because one thing is danger, another is being in a dangerous situation and another is the fear you have before reaching that situation. Fear is something that has no logic, that you feel and it may be because something has happened or because something has clicked in your body.
It was interesting to see how to deal with fear and to what extent that fear that you have is paranoia or based on something real. It was a very interesting process. In the end what fear does is paralyze you or drive you crazy, and the question is: How do you deal with it? How do you let it affect you?
In the middle of the documentary there is a moment where you film near the border, but you are being closely watched by a mysterious car. As a director, how did you handle this situation? What did you say to the wrestlers? What did the wrestlers say to you? What was going through your mind at the time?
That place is always empty. There is no one there. It’s a two-way road and we parked in the middle, where the fence is. We wanted to go at 6 in the afternoon, right when the sun is low, in order to have interesting shots. But that is also the moment when it starts to get dark, and everyone had told us that at night you should never go to that area. We wanted to do the photoshoot and come back before the sun went down.
We started shooting; we were giving instructions behind the camera and suddenly a car appeared. Because I wanted to make the shots interesting and beautiful, at first I got angry: ‘Don’t you see that we are doing something? Why does a car have to stop there?’ Then the mother of one of the luchadoras warned us: “Pao, this does not look good.” Since they were waiting in the cars, they realized that this car was constantly going and passing by. They told me: “We don’t feel comfortable, we have to go.” And I immediately agreed. I never questioned it. We picked up and left.
But, if they are following you, where do you go? We went to an arena, we waited and went somewhere else. We made different stops to make sure that when we got home no one was following us. You start to distrust everything that may be around you. It was quite difficult.
How was your approach to lucha libre? How did you get introduced to it?
Lucha is brand-new for me. I didn’t know about it and wasn’t very interested in it. For me, it was just about people jumping around and I couldn’t see anything else. But once I was there, watching everything they do, they became like superheroes in flesh and blood. When the match is over, people come up to touch them, kiss them, take selfies and ask for autographs. And with the costumes and masks, it really feels like they are real-life superheroes.
In Ciudad Juárez, there’s a little bit of everything in lucha. You see very small arenas that are just four poles, a tarp and no chairs, but there are also huge arenas with sound and everything. It doesn’t matter what kind of lucha show you go to because there is always passion and energy. People go crazy. It’s a cathartic moment to be there. I loved it. It’s an awesome energy rush.
What was your perception of the wrestling scene in Juárez in terms of gender equality?
It is not easy. They wrestle because they want to fight and they know how to find their way. There is a lot of women’s wrestling and intergender wrestling. There are certain roles that are a bit basic and full of clichés, but there are also moments when women are strong, direct and do these impressive actions. It is a 50/50. They step into the ring and show an image of what it means to be a woman, different from what one is used to seeing. However, there are times when lucha seems stagnant because of these basic roles.
In the film we see Baby Star wrestling an intergender match (against men). As a brand-new wrestling fan, what did you think about those?
I hated it. I saw this role play of stereotypes that are honestly boring, but at the same time — and that’s the interesting thing about wrestling — it wasn’t just that. The match ended with Baby Star getting up and facing the men. She got up and said: “I’m the boss.” The dramaturgy of everything that happened in the match culminated in having a super strong Baby Star, and for me, that’s what counts.
As a filmmaker, what lessons did you learn from lucha libre?
When you tell a story, you have to think about all the details. Wrestling is storytelling, and everything that happens in the ring is important. That is something that also applies to filmmaking, whether it is a 90- or three-minute film. Everything you are showing is going to be perceived in one way or another, and you have to know exactly how, when, where and what you want to tell.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”