The Backyard

2003, Movie, NR, 78 mins


Chances are you'll watch most of this documentary with both hands over your eyes, but as a window into a particular kind of insanity seizing kids in heartland America it's enthralling. Filmmaker Paul Hough was working as a director on a syndicated wrestling program when he came across an audition tape featuring two young kids engaged in a staged match in their backyard. Typical, except that the two kids were smashing light bulbs over each other's heads: Welcome to the world of backyard wrestling. Intrigued, Hough went online and was amazed to discover just how big a phenomenon backyard wrestling has become, mostly among adolescent boys who dream of one day earning enough money to pay for wrestling school (yes, there is such a thing) and becoming a WWE superstar. After expressing an interest in what 24-year-old Justin Gates and his 18-year-old brother, Bo, were doing, Hough was invited out to the Nevada desert to film a loosely scripted event the siblings like to call "Three Stages of Hell." Aided and abetted by their mother and videotaped by a friend, the Gates boys, armed with chairs and crutches wrapped with barbed wire, start by throwing each other around a barbed-wire ring until one buries the other in a six-foot-deep grave. The grand finale involves the victor slamming his opponent (Justin, it turns out) into "Hell's Pit," which is filled with light bulbs, barbed wire and flaming sheet of plywood. Hough captures the whole bloody mess on tape, and his trip to Gates Hell is just the beginning of what turns out to be a fascinating and deeply disturbing tour of one of the strangest developments in home-grown entertainment since the advent of the dance marathon. Hough travels to Tuscon, Ariz., where high-school drop-out "Chaos" and the other members of the High Impact Wrestling Federation wrestle "deathmatch" style with thumbtacks, flourescent lighting, barbed wired-wrapped baseball bats and even a cactus. In a Los Angeles suburb, Matt, aka "Scar," who as a child underwent years of surgery to treat a nearly fatal liver ailment, wrestles with the full approval of his parents, who feel it's important that their son now has control over his body. There's a lot less blood spilled in the small upstate New York town where Phil Snyder and his friends wrestle with a big thumbs-up from teachers, the school principal and much of the community; kids still get hurt, but the adults feel there are far worse things they could be doing. Modesto, California's Andrew Cook, aka "The Lizard," is acutally picked to audition for the MTV/WWE reality series Tough Enough, which sends a lucky group of aspiring wrestlers through WWE training. Hough follows Cook to Las Vegas, where he finally gets a shot at moving from the backyard to the big leagues. The lads in Northfork, England, meanwhile, are eager to prove that wrestling isn't just for Americans, and "blade" themselves with concealed razors in order to get the blood flowing down their faces. Justin Gates offers a surprisingly poignant psychological explanation of the sport's appeal, and while Hough refects on the injuries sustained he refrains from suggesting that his subjects are freaks or losers; this non-judgemental attitude is the key to why Hough's film works as well as it does. But consider yourself warned — it's not for the squeamish. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Backyard
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