SXSW Online 2021 review: “Luchadoras”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 1 hour 33 minutes
Directors: Paola Calvo, Patrick Jasim
Stars: Baby Star, Little Star, Mini Sirenita, Lady Candy, Miss Kath

By Valerie Kalfrin

Death and danger surround Lady Candy. At night, the female wrestler from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, takes to the ring, earning scrapes and bruises, title belts, and adoring fans.

By day, the young mom cleans and delivers caskets, a job that pays her $75 a week. Candy has other reminders of loss. Her grandmother spoke of bus drivers veering from their routes to rape or kill their female passengers. Remains of women found outside town scream forever, Candy says, because no one helped them.

The documentary “Luchadoras,” which premiered at SWSW Online 2021, immerses us in the hardscrabble lives of a handful of women who carve out respect and confidence one match at a time. There’s no journey toward a championship match. Rather, each match plays out like a victory, the prize a growing reputation, the chance to move to Mexico City — or for Candy, money for a visa to visit her young daughters in the United States. Her ex-husband took them to El Paso, Texas, without her consent.

Wrestling is a way for the luchadoras to have power and authority they otherwise lack. There’s no journey in this film toward a championship match. Rather, each match plays out like a victory, the prize a growing reputation or a move to Mexico City.

Directors Paola Calvo (“Violently Happy”) and Patrick Jasim, in his feature debut, craft portraits of these wrestlers’ lives between missing persons’ posters and memorials around the city, tallying women’s deaths: 92 in 2019, by one count. (One NPR story notes that hundreds of women have brutally died in Ciudad Juárez over three decades because of the drug trade or human trafficking, with more than 60 in January 2020 alone.) Some women in “Luchadoras” march in protest or speak at the wrestling matches, urging authorities to value women’s lives and bring the killers to justice.

Ciudad Juárez offers plenty of factory work — it’s “the place where global capitalism makes money in the Mexican desert,” Candy says — but commuting to these jobs can be harrowing, too. The film doesn’t state it outright, but wrestling is a way for the luchadoras to have power and authority they otherwise lack.

Lucha helps expedite Candy’s passport application, but applying for the visa takes a while. She explains to one official that she and her ex divorced because he beat her. “What else?” the worker asks.

Director Paola Calvo / Photo by Phillip Kaminiak / Courtesy of SXSW Online 2021

“Isn’t that enough?” Candy says.

Elsewhere, the twentysomething Baby Star enters her eleventh year of a wrestling career, thanks to a dad active in the sport who trained her because he had no sons. She trains her teenage sister, Little Star, the two of them appearing in masks and costumes to promote their matches.

Baby Star likes wearing a mask because she would feel “very ashamed” if she were to lose. When one male opponent yanks it off, forcing her to hide behind her hands and hair, the crowd heckles him until she gets it back: “Is that how you touch your wife?”

To her young daughter, Baby Star is like a superhero. The little girl bounces off the ropes in the ring and climbs on the playground, saying she’s a star, too. Baby Star hopes to return to Mexico City, where she had a wrestling career before her daughter’s birth. The child’s father, another masked wrestler, says if she committed to lucha, he’d be the main caregiver, and “nothing can replace a mother’s love.”

Meanwhile, Mini Sirenita, a little person and factory worker, trains with Candy and admires her commitment. She, too, aims to reach Mexico City through lucha, largely so she can be with her now adult daughter. Lucha has other rewards, though. When people ask if she likes getting beat up, she slyly says that if someone wants to beat her, they have to pay her first.

Only two of the luchadoras has a complete narrative arc, but they inspire admiration. They pose for promotional photos in their wrestling gear around the city and near the border wall, watchful of dealers guarding their territory. They also teach other women self-defense, how to break out of someone’s grip or gouge their eyes.

One senses that if they were to leave wrestling behind, these warriors would never stop fighting.

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