This fascinating film follows the physically grueling and mentally exhausting training regimen of several young wanna-be GAEA GIRLS, a group of Japanese women wrestlers.
Far from the larger-than-life figures and their cartoonish displays of hyper-masculinity that you may expect from professional wrestling, what Gaea Girls reveals is a different side to the sport than you might be used to—in more ways than one. A documentary from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams that premiered at TIFF in 2000, the film revolves around GAEA Japan—a joshi puroresu (Japanese women’s wrestling) promotion—and the life and training process of a group of hopeful teenage girls who aspire to become professional wrestlers for the company. The film’s main figures are Saika Takeuchi—a shy, bubbly and young trainee, striving to pass her tests and make her professional debut—and Chigusa Nagayo, a legend of the business in her mid-30s, and the founder and head trainer of the dojo. The focus on these two figures indicates one of the main themes of the film: idols and role models, and how they may shape the person you become in a big way.
To get the full context of the importance of this theme, it’s also crucial to understand the impact that Chigusa had on Japanese teen culture at that point, and how joshi wrestling, as a medium, represents its idols. Gaea Girls does a great job at contextualising this for the viewers—even those completely clueless about the reality of wrestling. In showing highlights of one of her matches, the film also foregrounds Chigusa as not just the head trainer and a parental figure to her students, but as a seasoned competitor. As a teen in the mid-to-late-80s, Chigusa was part of the legendary Crush Gals—a wrestling tag team that took Japanese pop culture by storm, much like Hulk Hogan in America. Enthusiastic whilst also violent and rebellious, The Crush Gals represented a brand of wrestling directed specifically at teen girls—a truly foreign concept to the West at that point. Joshi wrestlers are portrayed as true warriors, who engage in bloody affairs, while never sacrificing their unique femininity.
“When you see the wrestlers in the ring, they are so alive, they shine. I want to be like that,” young Saika confesses early in the film. The chance of becoming a pro wrestler gave Saika an opportunity to stand out—while the profession can be a prime outlet for expressing inner adolescent rage and the frustration of growing up, it can also be a means of transcendence. It offers a chance to be role models themselves, to be like her trainer and idol Chigusa—rocking, storm-like specks of light that live, breathe and thrive in the ring, and overcome ordinariness. “In the ring, I can become someone who is noticed,” she remarks.
Despite being defined by dreams of spectacle, the bulk of the film is not spent in the limelight. Instead, we spend most the time in the dojo, a remote and rural area where Takeuchi and other trainees endure the hardships of training. One of the triumphs of the film is precisely this dichotomy—an effective and palpable balancing of the spectacle and the behind-the-scenes, of the overwhelming noise and the quiet remoteness (where the only sounds you hear are the echoes of bodies hitting the ring mat). Longinotto and Williams achieve this without ever feeling heavy-handed, instead letting the images speak for themselves.
The narrative arc of the documentary is built around the big tests that Takeuchi needs to go through to determine if she’s ready to be an official member of the company. These consist of a series of one-on-one matches against more established women, and it is when we see Takeuchi’s first test that the film truly takes a darker turn. Apart from the violence of the older competitors towards the young Takeuchi, when it becomes too much for her to handle, Chigusa also displays horrifying acts of emotional and psychological abuse. She slaps her, yells at her to give up and tells her that she’s useless, as Takeuchi sobs and begs to stay.
Seeing these scenes play out, as raw as they can be, hit you with the harsh reality of joshi wrestling’s training process; but through them, we also begin to understand the mentality behind this notion of “tough love.” Chigusa confesses that these girls are like children to her, though while she feels the responsibility to push them to reach their dreams and be as great as they can be, she also wants to give the audience as strong and believable a show as possible. She is brutal as the head coach, but shows herself extremely proud of what she does—seeing her method as an act of love, for both the girls and wrestling as an art form in its own right. Having witnessed Takeuchi’s will to stay, Chigusa eventually decides to give her a second test, and it’s this faith that lies behind all of her brutal training methods.
The next time we see the young prospect, she’s different: no longer bubbly and naive, but more rugged and adult, with scars visibly on show. Takeuchi appears more determined than ever to fulfil her potential and give everything that she has in this second test. All the abuse and rejection from her idol turned her into a brewing storm, ready to be unleashed—it’s either this, or the burden of crushed dreams.
Her final encounter in the test ends up being against Chigusa herself. By then completely battered, Takeuchi is constantly forced down to the mat, but she keeps getting back up with all her might. It’s absolutely enthralling to watch, serving as a cathartic, nail-biting climax to the film, despite not even being Takeuchi’s big professional debut. No crowds cheering for their favourites, no spotlights and no extravagant fictional storylines behind the matches—it’s as raw and real as it gets here. One may even forget that they’re watching a documentary, since the scene plays out like an emotionally demanding conclusion you may expect from epic fiction: displaying titanic efforts of fortitude and will. Part of the reason this comes off is that the filmmakers share a perfect understanding of what’s inherently captivating about pro wrestling. Their framing of scenes and how they let things play out creates a dynamic between the viscerally real and the staging as a vehicle for storytelling. What we get out of it, as a result, is a thrilling and fascinating story of master vs student, naturally unfolding before our very eyes.
At the end, having been frustrated and tested to the limit by Chigusa, Takeuchi passes and shows herself worthy of debuting as a pro in front of the whole world. Her debut match is treated more as an epilogue, but what truly stays is her post-bout interview. When asked about the wrestler that she admires the most, young Takeuchi, with a haunting and hardened look in her face, answers “Chigusa Nagayo.” This goes to show how normalized this type of upbringing and the traumas linked to it are in this culture. It’s a culture where idols and role models cyclically breed contempt from their admirers with punishing abuse, creating a system—dangerously embraced by those who emerge from it—where every drive to succeed is rooted in fear.
Moments like this is where we realize how poignantly Longinotto and Williams’ contemplative directing has worked. They effortlessly introduce the wider context, and deeply hone in on these women’s burning desires and the forces that drive them—both individually and with respect to the culture they exist in. The film is a testament to the power of cinema: its ability to immerse you in a different reality, and to greatly enhance our understanding of its subject matter (as obscure and foreign to the viewer as it may be). Gaea Girls is a masterful feat of storytelling in documentary filmmaking—a meditation on the cultural significance of our idols, the means to reach their heights, and the irreparable scars that we may suffer along the way.
Desperate for answers about the theft of her 2 paintings, a Czech artist seeks out and befriends the career criminal who stole them. After inviting her thief to sit for a portrait, the two form an improbable relationship and an inextricable bond that will forever link these lonely souls.
Shinjuku Boys introduces three onnabes who work as hosts at the New Marilyn Club in Tokyo. Onnabes are women who live as men and have girlfriends, although they don't usually identify as lesbians.
Boniface Mwangi is daring and audacious, and recognised as Kenya's most provocative photojournalist. But as a father of three young children, these qualities create tremendous turmoil between him and his wife Njeri. When he wants to run for political office, he is forced to choose: country or family?
Jawline follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.
In Mexico City’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the Ochoa family runs a private ambulance, competing with other for-profit EMTs for patients in need of urgent help. As they try to make a living in this cutthroat industry, the Ochoas struggle to keep their financial needs from compromising the people in their care.
The searing documentary Welcome To Chechnya chronicles the current anti-LGBTQ campaign raging in the Russian republic of Chechnya and shadows the LGBTQ activists who risk unimaginable peril to rescue victims from a targeted campaign of torture and brutality.
Hla and Nyo Nyo live in a country torn by conflict. Hla is a Buddhist and the owner of a makeshift medical clinic in western Myanmar, where the Rohingya (a Muslim minority community) are persecuted and denied basic rights. Nyo Nyo is a Muslim and an apprentice midwife who acts as an assistant and translator at the clinic. Her family has lived in the area for generations, yet they are still considered intruders. Encouraged and challenged by Hla, who risks her own safety daily by helping Muslim patients, Nyo Nyo is determined to become a steady health care provider for her community. Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing’s remarkable feature debut was filmed over five turbulent years in a country that has long been exoticized and misunderstood. The filmmaker’s gentle, impartial gaze grants unique access to these courageous women who unite to bring forth life. Filled with love, empathy, and hope, Midwives offers a rare insight into the complex reality of Myanmar and its people.
Divorce Iranian Style is a documentary film directed by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. It is set in a small courtroom in central Tehran, and follows a number of women who come before a non-plussed judge and in turn use whatever they can - reason, argument, charm, outrage, pleas for sympathy, patience, and wit - to get what they each need. There are four main characters: Massy, who wants to divorce her inadequate husband; Ziba, an outspoken 16-year-old who proudly stands up to her 38-year-old husband and his family; Jamileh, who brings her husband to court to teach him a lesson; and Maryam, remarried and desperate to regain custody of her two daughters.
An emotional and raw documentary about three young South Korean women who has to make a choice of weather to keep their child or give it up for adoption, while they are staying at a shelter for unwed mothers. The film offers a unique look into South Korean society and into the conditions for vulnerable women and their children - all seen through the eyes of the director who herself was adopted from South Korea.
For years, a homeless community took root in a train tunnel beneath New York City, braving dangerous conditions and perpetual night. Dark Days explores this surprisingly domestic subterranean world, unearthing a way of life unimaginable to those above. Through stories simultaneously heartbreaking, hilarious, intimate, and off the cuff, tunnel dwellers reveal their reasons for taking refuge and their struggle to survive underground. Filmed in striking black and white with a crew comprised of the tunnel’s inhabitants and scored by legendary turntablist DJ Shadow, Dark Days is a soulful and enduring document of life on the fringe.
In the wilderness of the Bucharest Delta, an abandoned water reservoir just outside the bustling metropolis, the Enache family lived in perfect harmony with nature for two decades, sleeping in a hut on the lakeshore, catching fish barehanded, and following the rhythm of the seasons. When this area is transformed into a public national park, they are forced to leave behind their unconventional life and move to the city, where fishing rods are replaced by smartphones and idle afternoons are now spent in classrooms.
International art sensation, Keith Haring, blazed a trail through the legendary art scene of 1980s New York and revolutionised the worlds of pop culture and fine art. This fascinating and compelling film - told using previously unheard interviews that form the narrative of the documentary - is the definitive story of the artist in his own words.
London Edinburgh London follows a group of cyclists from around the world on a remarkable feat of endurance. Travelling over 1400km, our unlikely and eccentric heroes are not only tested physically, but face the mental challenge, "can I push myself further, can I go one more day?". This is a documentary about what happens when you push the limits of cycling.
It’s 1997, and the World Wrestling Federation is facing fierce competition from Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. When the legendary Bret “The Hitman” Hart is offered a lucrative opportunity to jump ship to the WCW, WWF mastermind Vince McMahon appeals to his sense of loyalty and lures him back with a 20-year contract. But when McMahon abruptly reneges on the deal, Hart reconnects with the competition, paving the way for one of the most notorious events in the history of professional wrestling: the Montreal Screwjob. Widely hailed as the greatest wrestling documentary of all time, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is an engrossing look at the life and career of Bret Hart and the Hart dynasty. Granted unprecedented access to the secret world of wrestling, director Paul Jay presents a real-world narrative far more dramatic than any story created for the ring.
The I love NY logo is so ubiquitous in New York today that it feels hard to imagine it actually being designed. Surely it has always been there, offering New Yorkers and tourists the chance to proclaim their love for the city?
A stunning documentary short by New York City-based director Jake Oleson. Shot in the Cape Flats of Cape Town, South Africa over the course of three days, “The Flats” explores what life is like for the residents that live there.
A documentary short about low income citizens in rural Florida who struggle with smoking related loss and addiction. Christy, Eric and Geremy have smoked since their early teens and lost loved ones yet they continue to spend up to 25% of their income on cigarettes. Each have their reasons to quit...but can't.
In this film, enviable images of fur coats and bottles of Dom Pérignon are juxtaposed against snapshots of burnt hash and broken boards. Lüdi comments, “By having acquaintances from both the luxurious and rebellious sides of St Moritz, I was able to create a film that visually translates the dichotomy between the two worlds.”
In parts of the Florida Everglades, there’s a tradition that dates back to the early 20th century in which young men – and now young women – use nothing but sticks and quick reflexes to hunt rabbits at the margins of sugar plantations.
We the Bathers is a visually beautiful and emotive short documentary featuring fourteen people across the globe. Each story and person is unique, but they share one common connection. Water.
Los Angeles-based director and photographer Liza Mandelup takes a look at the new era of social media fuelled fangirls. Mandelup captures human nature in a world growing increasingly dependent on technology to feel connected. Adolescence is hard, but “fangirls” have found solace and companionship in the people they follow on a daily basis.
In a cramped suburban apartment in Mumbai, an eccentric patriarch and his family consider killing and eating their hell-raising pet rooster, so that they can reclaim their normal lives.
The custom of the Rocket Wars, whose roots go back centuries, uses shots of homemade fireworks (rockets) between the two largest parishes of the area, Agios Markos and Panagia Erythiani. In recent years, the number of rockets produced has reached several thousand, and the spectacle they present in the spring sky on the night of the Resurrection is truly spectacular.
Alec Gill, 75, has been taking pictures of England's Hessle Road area in Hull since he first trained his camera lens on the city's St. Andrews fish dock in 1971. He describes himself as "tourist in his own town" and an "unwitting" chronicler of the local fishing industry's decline, which he has recorded in 6,630 images of the area and its people over the decades. The photographer, who was born in Hull's Old Town, had several spells of work in the shipping and forwarding industry in the 1960s but did not like office life and often took to travelling and taking photographs.
Since 1975 Yoshiichi Hara has made more than fifteen hundred photographs of strip-tease artists – and Stripper Zukan is regarded as the starting point of this lifelong project.
By 1990 gentrification and rent rises had begun to destroy much of the exotic ambience, slowed down by the arrival of the gay community and the transformative power of the vibrant “pink pound”.
The cast of characters in Bruce Gilden’s theatre of the street is outrageous. Sometimes tawdry and out of this world, they are mostly mysterious. To Gilden and his fellow New Yorkers, they’re just neighbours. In broad and simple terms, and with great expressive authority, Gilden has captured the uniquely individualistic, self-styled New York personality on the run. In Gilden’s world, no-one is on the margins of centre stage, they are all star players.
Mincéirs are a traditionally nomadic ethnic minority indigenous to Ireland, referred to by the Irish Government and the settled population as Irish Travellers.
One of the most important practitioners of her time, Freedman was a diligent street and documentary photographer who spent her life capturing the complexities of the day, with rare veracity and grace.
The Brooklyn-based photographer spends eight to 12 hours a day snapping photos of people and speed-walking away before they can harass him. Much of his time is spent piercing New Yorkers' illusion of privacy, but he takes pictures wherever he goes.
Until 1993, there stood a structure in Hong Kong like no other. On a small plot of land in Kowloon, a mass of buildings stretched skywards, interconnecting like a jungle canopy to form a single dense block. Reaching 14 storeys, its facade glowed with the fluorescent lights of hundreds of tiny apartments and shops. Packed inside were schools, workplaces, medical clinics, and factories; places of worship, relaxation, and hedonism – and more than 35,000 inhabitants living on top of one another.