It’s also a great documentary about professional wrestling.
Women’s wrestling has been experiencing a revolution. After many years of portraying them as sex objects and valets to male wrestlers, WWE finally got with the times and started promoting women as athletes rather than eye candy. Elsewhere, on the independent circuit, it’s not uncommon to see intergender competition with the “entertainment” aspect downplayed in favor of equal opportunity ass-kicking. Overseas, Japanese women’s wrestling is as hard-hitting as anything on the planet right now, regardless of gender, and often showcases the “sport” at its most physical and legitimate. It’s a good time for women’s wrestling, but it’s been a long journey getting to this point.
The reason for women’s wrestling finally getting the respect it deserves comes down to the perseverance of women athletes pursuing their dream. Such as the subjects of Francesca Zappitelli’s Ballerina I’m Not, an incredible documentary chronicling what it’s like to be a woman pursuing a dream in a testosterone-filled, male-dominated business. Women’s wrestling has been showcased on the grandest stage in recent years to much acclaim, but this is the story of the types of under-appreciated, underground talents whose blood, sweat and tears paved the way for this new thriving era to be catapulted into the big time in the first place. Wrestling might not be as “real” as other sports, but the fight to survive and make it in the business is endlessly testing.
Hardship is part and parcel of any wrestler’s journey. The industry is renowned for unfair politics and behind-the-scenes hazing even in the best of times. It’s a cutthroat game often built on favoritism, a place where upsetting the wrong privileged ego can halt or kill a career right in its tracks. This film explores how difficult it is for women to break through the glass ceiling on top of paying their dues and contending with the bullshit that comes with it all. Almost every wrestling doc you see has at least one chapter detailing the struggle of its subjects, but not since The Wrestling Road Diaries has one captured the feeling of being an underdog in the industry so effectively.
Zappitelli herself is the film’s main subject, and her story is pretty amazing. As a kid, her parents wanted her to learn ballet, but she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her hero, the Fabulous Moolah, and become a star in the World Wrestling Federation. You could say that she’s succeeded, as she’s managed to sustain a career outside the mainstream and travel the world, perfecting her wrestling craft.
But wrestling itself doesn’t always pay the bills. We also meet women who’ve had to balance their wrestling careers with catfighting, mud wrestling and mixed martial arts to keep their dream alive. However, the film doesn’t just present stories of the underdogs. There are also interviews from bona fide superstars like Stacy Keibler, Gail Kim and Maria Kanellis, all of them recalling their own struggles on the way to the top. The variety of perspectives lends Ballerina I’m Not some gravitas, but the women’s shared experience says a lot about just how patriarchal their industry is.
Yet there is a constant air of positivity throughout the doc to make it a very uplifting viewing experience that serves primarily to motivate and encourage people to keep fighting the good fight. Zappitelli takes numerous tales of hardship and turns them into an 80-minute feature that’s easy to digest and should appeal to audiences beyond niche indie wrestling circles. In doing so, she may have also found another vocation as a documentary filmmaker.