The sleepy city of Charlottesville, Virginia, is like the Austin of folklore: A small college town with an offbeat sense of creativity. One day, local photographer and musician Billy Hunt was hanging out at the Blue Moon Diner when he got to chatting with one of the waitresses. "She said, 'There's going to be a women's arm-wrestling league in Charlottesville, and it's called CLAW.' I went, 'That's pretty badass. I think I want to be in that action.'"
That was 2008. Six years later, CLAW – short for the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers – is just the first of a small but growing arm-wrestling scene, mixing competition with bawdy exhibitionism, with leagues as far afield as New York, Austin, and even São Paulo, Brazil. Meanwhile, Hunt's passing interest in a fun night out has become a documentary. CLAW: The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers retells the birth pains of the collective, shares the shattered bones, and recognizes the joyous political empowerment that comes out of grabbing hands.
While Hunt was hanging out at the diner, his future co-director/co-producer, Brian Wimer, was chronicling the town's growing vaudeville, variety, and burlesque scenes. A key figure in this performance renaissance was producer/performer Jennifer Tidwell, who told him about her newest idea: women's arm wrestling, but with an added dash of spectacle. "I had filmed some of her previous performance art feminist extravaganzas," he said. "Each one had its moments and went away, but this was the one that took off." After the first night, it was clear to Wimer that this was a filmmaker's gift. He'd been working on narrative features, and they take time and effort, demanding characters and dramatic tension. The first CLAW event gave him all of that. "In one day, I had accomplished what usually takes months to accomplish. It's like taking your camera to India: Anywhere you point your camera, it's going to be beautiful."
Just like CLAW the movie isn't going to be confused with Sylvester Stallone's famous depiction of a trucker/devoted father/arm wrestler in Over the Top, CLAW the sports league won't easily be mistaken for the growing, more straitlaced realm of traditional arm wrestling. Unlike the male-dominated professional leagues, it's all female. It's also as much performance art as it is competition, with outlandish costumes, larger-than-life personas, and screaming entourages. On any given night, there could be a giant banana up against a living, breathing Raggedy Ann, or Susan B. Asskicker going wrist-to-wrist with the sacred and profane Madonna. But when the whistle blows, the spectacle gives way to brute force matchup. As Tidwell – now dubbed C-Ville Knievel – puts it, this style of women's arm wrestling is "one-third sport, one-third theatre, one-third philanthropy, and 150 percent fun."
The competition and the cavalcade are not mutually exclusive: Just ask Richard Sherman. When the Seattle Seahawks cornerback notoriously ran his mouth, wrestling-promo style, his postgame posing stood right on that blurry line between competition and theatricality. Wimer said, "One of the themes of our film is, is it real or not, is it theatre, is it sport, and watching their struggle to come through that."
Arguably, the film shows that there can't be one without the other. Tidwell's earlier work had the same exotic appeal of cabaret, but it was the immediacy of arm wrestling that caught Charlottesville by the throat. Wimer compared it to the epic live spectacle of WWE pro-wrestling. "You don't need to necessarily bring your brain or your attitude or your cultural background. You just come to see what happens. It's an arm-wrestling match with people in costume. When have you ever seen that before? The next time you come back ... it's a completely new cast of characters, and all of a sudden, you're part of a storyline that is continuing. Will Bridezilla retain her crown? Will Homewrecker come back?"
But it's not just glitz, pain, and sweat. CLAW also shows just how fast a community can spread – from a cramped room in the back of a restaurant in rural Virginia to leagues across the U.S. For Wimer, the appeal is in a raucous sense of belonging, of working together toward something bigger, where nonconformists can find a wild outlet. "There's a symptom of the age of empire that we Americans are experiencing. We have everything. We have strip malls and grocery stores, but there's this huge homogenization of culture that has sucked the soul out of ourselves, and we're standing here in all of our riches asking, 'Who am I?'" For him, arm wrestling is "the antithesis of Twitter and the virtual relationship, that you're going to grip, go nose-to-nose with someone for 30 seconds, and celebrating that."
For Beth Taylor, co-founder of Austin's CLAWstin league, it's that sense of community that is most important. Co-owner of local interior design firm Wheelhouse, she and her business partner Jen Murrill had been looking for "something that was bigger than us," when they heard from a friend who was studying at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "He called me one day and said, 'Oh my gosh, I went to this crazy event last night. It was women arm wrestling, and all of the money went to charity. It's perfect for Austin. You should bring it there.'" Now they run two events a year in Austin, plus a special exhibition bout before this week's local premiere of the film. That charitable side is a big part of the appeal: To date, CLAW has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for charity, mostly children and women's campaigns and art projects, simply by passing the bucket, and CLAWstin hopes to emulate that. Taylor said, "There's no real pride in this other than raising money for charity."
Yet nationwide, there's what Taylor called "a lowercase-i issue" about the dynamic tension between showbiz and sport. The Washington league, DCLAW, has a reputation for putting the competitive side first, but she has different priorities for CLAWstin. "We have to really remind our girls that this is about raising money for a local charity, and being funny and goofy. Our referee is a firm advocate of, even if you're the strongest girl here, you're not going to win. If people in the crowd raise enough CLAWbucks, I'll call a foul on you, no matter how big your muscles are."
In many ways, Charlottesville's creation today is where an Austin innovation, women's Roller Derby, was in 2006: A few dozen nationwide leagues, a slow spread, but with its first national championship under its belt. In CLAW, Austinites may also sense a kinship to a classic local documentary, 2007's chronicle of the growing pains of the Roller Derby revolution, Hell on Wheels. Both are tales of an insurgent female-led revolution, balancing spectacle and sport. There's also the jolting horror of that first serious accident. In Hell on Wheels, it was a sick twist of a broken leg. In CLAW, it's a fractured arm – and the look of horror on the face of the ref when he realizes what's just happened. Then it's the second time, when the microphone picks up the heavy pop of shattering bone. Hunt said, "When you go to a Derby match, you expect people to get knocked down; you expect somebody to get hurt. This, it started off very theatrical. It's some crazy fun and spectacle, and all of a sudden it's, 'Oh no, you can get yourself hurt doing it.'"
It's a pivotal moment in the film, as Tidwell starts to question her involvement in a sport that's supposed to be helping people: But it was also a critical moment for the filmmakers, as they realized their feel-good doc had real repercussions. Wimer said, "To go into the hospital and see that compound fracture where the bone is X'd over itself, you say to yourself, 'This wasn't just a little thing. That girl has a scar from her shoulder to her elbow and 12 screws in her arm. This is really life-changing.'"
CLAW: The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers screens at 8pm, Jan. 30, at the North Door, 502 Brushy, with a preliminary exhibition bout by the wrestlers of CLAWstin.
For more info and DVDs, visit www.clawthemovie.com.
For more on women's arm wrestling in Austin, visit www.facebook.com/clawstin.
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