The CLAW documentary reaches beyond local audiences

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Andrea Kavanagh from Washington, D.C.’s D-CLAW competes as Amy Smackhouse in the lady arm wrestling documentary CLAW. Each wrestler has an entourage that solicits bets from the crowd, exchanging real money for “CLAW bucks,” which eventually benefit a charity. Bribery is encouraged, and the referee’s calls prioritize humor and shenanigans over sporting or fairness. Andrea Kavanagh from Washington, D.C.’s D-CLAW competes as Amy Smackhouse in the lady arm wrestling documentary CLAW. Each wrestler has an entourage that solicits bets from the crowd, exchanging real money for “CLAW bucks,” which eventually benefit a charity. Bribery is encouraged, and the referee’s calls prioritize humor and shenanigans over sporting or fairness.

When the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers held its first match in the back room of the Blue Moon Diner in February of 2008, few dreamed it would become a nationwide movement.

CLAW began as an all-women’s arm wrestling competition, initiated by Jennifer Tidwell and Jodie Plaisance, in which the stereotype of women as weak is upended by a traditionally masculine activity. The result? A spectacle of self-assertion, physical strength, and solidarity through competition.

As CLAW has grown, so has interest in the movement, which is captured beautifully in a recent documentary by local filmmakers and photographers Billy Hunt and Brian Wimer. The CLAW doc debuted with a sold-out premiere at the Virginia Film Festival last November, winning the festival’s Audience Award, and it will show again at The Paramount Theater on Saturday before embarking on a tour of screenings in the spring.

The filmmakers have been part of CLAW since the beginning, and much of its history has unfolded on camera, but the film’s strongest moments—outside of the documentation of dozens of matches, for those who have never been—are the ones in which the participants speak out-of-character about their lives outside of CLAW and their experiences in the movement.

In-depth interviews with organizer and emcee Tidwell, the wrestlers, including local Kara Dawson, a.k.a. The Homewrecker, (who held the champion title for much of the first year and represented Charlottesville in the national championship), several organizers from other cities, and peripheral figures like former referee Jude Silviera, and Laura Galgano and Rice Hall of the Blue Moon Diner provide compelling backstories.

CLAW grew quickly and soon moved to a large tent in the Blue Moon Diner’s parking lot, with each event raising thousands of dollars for a variety of charities. It was a monthly event for the first year or so, and now occurs semi-annually. By 2010, ladies’ arm wrestling had grown into a wider DIY movement, much like women’s roller derby, with matches taking place in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Durham, and Austin.

Due to expansion, the league is now the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, and the loose coalition held a national summit entitled SuperCLAW at Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater in June 2012, featuring eight participants from collectives around the country squaring off and comparing muscles.

The atmosphere at a CLAW match is wild and carnivalesque, with a fervent energy that was present from the very first event. Though the actual matches are often brief, there is a tremendous amount of build-up and presentation, recalling an illicit boxing match and a burlesque show.

The wrestlers take on outlandish personas in the spirit of professional wrestling or Halloween. Their names come from puns, parodies, and historical figures—Josephine Baker, Rosie the Riveter—or combinations, such as the Virgin Mary/pop singer Madonna Ciccone.

The film is less Charlottesville-obsessed than other local productions, but many of the city’s memorable characters and musicians made the cut including Barling and Collins and Accordion Death Squad, as well as the CLAW house band We Are Star Children, who wrote the collective’s theme song and also scored the film.

In addition to offering an accurate and well-crafted overview of a fun and fascinating phenomenon, the film isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, delving into some of the trickier aspects of its subject matter.

For instance, CLAW events are often sexualized, a problematic paradigm for a feminist project. But it’s to the credit of the participants that they discuss it openly and thoughtfully, and the filmmakers investigate the subject at length.

The film also questions the degree to which some of the wrestler’s costumes portray irresponsible racial stereotypes. But the toughest scenes are in the footage of wrestlers’ arms getting broken in competition, which is incredibly gruesome and upsetting even for the non-squeamish. (The second break is tougher, because you know it’s coming.)

The costumes play with clichés, sometimes reinforcing tired stereotypes, but more often as brilliant inversions of expectations. Some of the characters are highly sexualized, some wrestlers are masculine, some feminine, some are absurd, and many are all of the above. The competition is as much a celebration of the diversity of womanhood as a display of strength.

Hunt and Wimer have managed to honestly capture many crucial or difficult moments in the history of the movement, including discussion of how to balance legitimate competition against the risk of another broken arm. The film wisely sticks close to its core subject, and climaxes with an extensive depiction of the SuperCLAW event, functioning well as a fond memento for CLAW aficionados and a fine introduction for those hearing about it for the first time.

CLAW screens at the Paramount on Saturday, January 18 at 8pm. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for those age 12 and under. While the film contains plenty of salty language, it also serves as a healthy introduction to an inspiring subject in an environment less rowdy than a crowded bar. There will be a Q&A with the directors after the screening.

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