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He's Willing to Go to the Mat

September 12, 2002|MARK OLSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With little more than bootstrap determination and their own imagination, people across the country are taking to their own backyards to stage wrestling events not entirely dissimilar from those on network and cable TV nightly.

Some cling to hopes of achieving stardom, some exorcise inner demons and some are just looking for a little fun before settling into college and a career. In a way, it's not that different from being in a band or playing pickup baseball, except for the barbed wire, shattered lightbulbs and blood.

Screening on Saturday and Sunday as part of this year's Silver Lake Film Festival, director Paul Hough's documentary film "The Backyard" discovers there are as many motives to engage in these displays of amateur showmanship and theatrical bloodletting as there are participants.

These groups of spirited youngsters (mostly male, mostly under 25) put on the shows for each other and for the benefit of an informal network linked by public access TV and the Internet. Think of it as "Jackass" crossed with "Fight Club."

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A native of London, Hough, 29, came to the U.S. 10 years ago when he used the proceeds from a script sale to finance his film school education at NYU. Following graduation, he directed a short-lived chat show on the Fox Sports Network. A fan of pro wrestling since the heyday of "Wrestlemania," Hough moved on to direct some wrestlers' entrance videos and eventually landed at the show "Women of Wrestling." It was there he saw his first backyard wrestling tape after some kids sent it in as an audition.

Fascinated, he searched the Internet and uncovered hundreds of backyard "federations." Two brothers invited him to their home outside Reno to witness their "Three Stages of Hell" match.

Attending mostly out of curiosity, "I didn't really know what to expect," says Hough. "And I got great footage of their barbed-wire cage and a burning pit. Then their mum turns up. I expected her to yell at her sons--'How could you do this?'--but she was more concerned with whether they'd had a good match. At that point, I realized it was a world I didn't understand."

Traveling throughout Nevada, California, Arizona, New York and even to England, Hough found an underground of colorful characters with names that varied from the serious, such as Chaos, Scar and Heartless, to the satiric, such as ADD Dave, Big Mac and With Spork. A few of the wrestlers he encountered have since moved on to the regional professional circuits.

In compiling more than 50 hours of footage, it initially was tempting to strike a poise of ironic superiority, but he felt such sympathy for their dedication that he decided to maintain a more level-headed approach. He also wanted to avoid any accusatory finger-pointing, though he does include the anguished plea of one parent begging her child to stop mid-match.

One of the most surprising things in "The Backyard" is how supportive many wrestlers' parents are. Hough says he saw no one get "really, really" hurt during shooting, but concedes that there has been at least one reported death on the backyard circuit. Even in that case, he says, the parents accepted responsibility for what happened and did not blame the others involved.

Another surprise is the diverse opinions within the ranks of backyard wrestlers as to just how far is too far. "Extreme Death Match" is regarded by many as giving wrestling a bad name. Death Match wrestlers--as emblematized by the Arizona wrestler Chaos, whose signature move is stapling a calling card to the forehead of his defeated opponents--believe the more technical wrestlers just can't take it.

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So far the film has been a success on the festival circuit, including three recent screenings at the Edinburgh Film Festival, while gaining some interest from distributors both in the U.S. and abroad. At a sold-out screening at this year's South-by-Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, a viewer passed out from the sight of one particularly bloody match. Although he was there, Hough didn't hear about it until the next day, when the theater manager asked him if it was a publicity stunt.

Other reactions have run the gamut from support to shock.

"Everybody brings in their own opinions," says Hough. "Before a screening in Atlanta, someone sent me a death threat through the e-mail, claiming to be a professional wrestler and that he would kill me if he ever saw me. And after that screening I got another message from the same person apologizing and saying how much he liked the film."

Saturday's screening, the film's West Coast premiere, will be a full-on event, featuring a musical performance by Seth Jordan, who did the film's score, and an introduction by Barry Blaustein, director of the popular pro wrestling documentary "Beyond the Mat." A question-and-answer session with some of the film's wrestlers, including Scar and the Flying Lizard, will follow.

The world of backyard wrestling is not for the faint of heart, but there is something undeniably inspirational in the inventiveness and determination of its participants. As one of the Gates brothers, the amateur grapplers from Reno who first got Hough involved, puts it, "I would do just about anything to be a [wrestling] superstar. As long as it wasn't seriously illegal or didn't involve eating people."

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"The Backyard" will be shown Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Vista Theatre and Sunday and 11:15 a.m. at the Los Feliz Theater 3. (323) 993-7225.

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