Lucha Libre wrestler and Nebraska native Charles Fairbanks Irma screens March 3 as part of the Omaha Film Festival.
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It's not what you'd expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics. Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre , is a photographer and maker of short films who loves wrestling. He combines his passions as self-expression. He's gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action. “Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.” His documentary short Irma , an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter. He befriended Fairbanks at Bull's Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City. Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It's shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks. Some, like Pioneers, don’t involve wrestling. Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team. He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images, but has since used video to capture stories. “I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says. Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop. “There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution, the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off. “For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.” Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with. “At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, ‘This is totally different. Now I've gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.’” Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts. “There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.” Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters. “In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move [then] you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly. “And then there are variations, where you're doing something defensive that's changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms." The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It's not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.” Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says, “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven't mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He's also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's learned about Lucha Libre’s “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception. “I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.” In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-jokingly harangue this outsider. “It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer. “I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says. Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he's traveled, including Europe and Asia, he's wrestled. Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.” Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma's tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers, Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff. “I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.” Authenticity is his goal. “For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.” As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.” Irma's Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.