“There’s a point in Peter Pan when Peter and Wendy are pretending to be parents to the Lost Boys. Peter says, ‘Are we playing or is this real?’ Wendy says, ‘Oh it’s a game, but it’s real.’ Eventually Peter says, ‘I’m tired of playing this game, let’s play a different one.’ But that’s the reality of our lives. We’re all playing roles.”
Brian Wimer paused. I watched the co-director of the Virginia Film Festival’s center-piece movie, CLAW, and star of Faux Paws, a VFF film about two werewolf lovers on the lam, adjust my recorder on his knee. I felt acutely aware of my reporter’s posture: perched on the edge of my chair, nodding while typing.
He smiled, blue eyes bright under wild curls. “People may think that someone starring in X-Men at Regal Cinema is the actor, but no. Every one of you is a character and a role, and you have a script,” he commented.
A drama major in college, Wimer credits his philosophy in part to the surrealist Theater of Cruelty and plays by Antonin Artaud, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett. “You’d walk away with a lot of questions,” Wimer said. “But that alternate reality on stage was somehow more vital than your own.”
More vital than the corporate life Wimer lived after college—10 years spent in advertising, developing print, TV, and radio campaigns for brands like Citibank and Snapple. “I was always looking for something different,” he said. “Advertising promotes things you don’t need. Art supplies, often for free, something that life is lacking and truly lacking.”
After a marriage to a Yugoslavian woman at the height of the Balkan Wars and time traveling overseas, Wimer discovered a new way to pull back the curtain on reality: independent filmmaking. “I don’t want to create movies that people walk out from and say ‘O.K., that was two hours of entertainment, now let’s go eat a piece of cake’,” Wimer said. “You want to create a piece of entertainment that a little bit changes their lives.”
Wimer’s features and shorts have appeared in past Virginia Film Festivals, often as part of the Adrenaline Film Project, the 72-hour filmmaking competition in which three-person teams write, cast, shoot, edit and screen films. Despite jury and audience awards for some of his Adrenaline films, however, the high profile status of CLAW at this year’s festival came, he said, as “a very welcome happy surprise.”
CLAW is a feature-length documentary that follows the growth of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers from its origins in Charlottesville to 25 cities around the world. The brainchild of Wimer, photographer and filmmaker Billy Hunt, and actor and CLAW co-founder Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, the film, like the movement, is an exercise in collaboration: shared cameras, time bank swaps, and sleeping on foreign couches.
While support networks allow independent filmmakers to create high-quality movies on relatively low budgets, collaborative direction isn’t so easy. “Us creative types often have huge egos, so it can be difficult for us to play well with others,” Wimer said. As co-directors on CLAW, Wimer and Hunt did not share aesthetics—Wimer is prone to non-sequiturs, and Hunt “is a lot more linear”—but they respected one another’s criticism and managed to agree on over five cuts of the film.
“The movie’s not perfect, but CLAW itself is not perfect. That’s part of the beauty of it. You could plan everything perfectly, but someone could break an arm.” Part philanthropy, part pageantry, and part sport, lady arm wrestling “isn’t scripted,” Wimer pointed out. “We try to keep some of that spirit in the film, of you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The story of CLAW’s incredible growth is one of speed bumps, personality clashes, and yes, injuries. Flour-slinging housewives, pregnant brides, and giant bananas: the free wheeling strangeness that whips crowds into frenzies made choosing a narrative “like playing Tetris or something.” Wimer and Hunt needed to analyze the themes of a women’s empowerment movement, which some participants thought two men couldn’t do, and they needed to identify the film’s antagonist. Wrestlers smack-talked and fought, of course, but they also saw CLAW as a big sisterhood. So what were the women really struggling against?
“To a certain extent it’s the state of genders today. It’s the world of men, but it’s also the stereotypes that women have allowed themselves to be stuck into,” Wimer said. “The theme that I found was women acting out against the state of the world, regardless of whose fault it is.”
“Jen [Tidwell] will talk about a fourth wave of feminism, and others will talk about what feminism means to them,” Wimer said. “But I’m not a woman. I’m a white guy in America, and I’ve kind of got it made, and seeing these women act out in this way makes me understand their position and where they want to be.”
The playful freedom of CLAW allows women to be beautiful or gross, vulgar or prim, “to tackle their own demons about what they don’t like about themselves or the limits that have been put upon them,” Wimer said. By climbing on stage, a woman can celebrate any part of herself, from her mind to her butt to her muffin top, and exalt, however briefly, in freedom.
The same sense of freedom shows in Wimer’s on-camera work. “I didn’t give him much direction and much of that was on purpose,” said Doug Bari, the writer, director, and co-star of Faux Paws. “Brian does his best work, his most vulnerable work, when he flies by the seat of his pants a little.”
After four years at work on a script written with Wimer in mind, Bari began production of the film, which follows two werewolf lovers who flee from their lycanthrope reservation to werewolf-tolerant Maine with bounty hunters in pursuit. “Brian borders on being fearless,” Bari said. “And I knew he’d do anything we wanted him to.”
Which included sleeping in glued-on wolf hair for three days. “It’s weird and amazing,” Wimer said of the film. “I don’t think people could walk away and help but think about it.”
Films like Faux Paws and movements like CLAW may owe some of their success to the Charlottesville arts scene, which Kevin O’Donnell, a singer/songwriter and supporting actor in Faux Pas called “a haven where people’s dreams can be visualized and heard.” But even though self-expression “is welcomed and encouraged in this town,” day-to-day life still reflects social norms.
“As nice as Charlottesville is, we’re still searching for another reality that is more satisfying,” Wimer said. “When you walk into a place like CLAW, for those two hours you get to behave differently. You come away going, ‘Oh wow, how do I do that? How do I get the feeling of CLAW in my life?’ And it’s tough because it’s about not accepting the roles. At age 43, I can say that most of my life has been a role-playing game, and I want to start writing the script myself.”
He glanced out the window, at the sunlight and people milling past. “What do we want the story to end up saying? Is it a happy ending? Because we’re writing it right now. We’re writing it every day.” he said.