News Column

'CLAW' arm wrestling documentary brings local muscle to Virginia Film Festival's lineup

November 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 08--When Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell and Jodie Plaisance decided to arm wrestle in a Charlottesville bar, a few things happened.

The immediate result was that Plaisance's arm went down faster than a prizefighter with a glass jaw. This got the vanquished thinking about pumping a little iron to get in better shape, and she suggested to her conquerer that they train together.

This led the two friends to direct plenty of motivational bad-mouthing toward one another as they sweated and strained in the gym. It wasn't long before they had dubbed themselves the Prim Reaper and MoJo the Underdog.

Obviously, having this much fun should be shared, which caused them to create CLAW, which is an acronym for Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers. The first sanctioned competition was held in February 2008 in the back room of the Blue Moon Diner.

The female contestants tried to best each other with brute arm strength, as well as zany, over-the-top alter egos with names like Edmumda Sleazerhands, Scarilyn Monroe and Malice in Wonderland. The initial event, as well as subsequent matches, were huge successes with proceeds benefiting local women's charities.

The idea has caught on to the extent that there now are CLAW -- Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers -- offshoots in 25 cities across the nation, including Chicago, Brooklyn and New Orleans. And two local filmmakers, Brian Wimer and Billy Hunt, will be premiering their documentary film, "CLAW," at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Paramount Theater as part of the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival, which continues through Sunday.

The four-day festival is screening more than 100 films ranging from dramas to documentaries. A full schedule of films, parties and special events, as well as tickets, can be accessed at www.virginiafilmfestival.org.

Hunt got in on the CLAW phenomenon when it was still in the discussion stage. There's even a CLAW branch in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"I was at the Blue Moon Diner, and I heard these women talking about starting a charity arm wrestling league called CLAW," Hunt said during a recent telephone interview. "My first thought was, 'Oh, wow, this is going to be amazing.'

"I completely got it. It was going to be interesting, and it was going to have all the things I like in a project. It has spectacle, but it also has meaning and a point to it all. And there's going to be a lot of ladies acting the fool, and that's awesome."

Soon after CLAW formed, Wimer and his Charlottesville-based Amoeba Films got involved. The cameras were rolling as the number of contestants and the events grew in popularity.

The scope of the documentary film also grew, and it became a collaboration between Amoeba Films and Billy Hunt Productions. Wimer and Hunt have co-produced and co-directed the film.

"CLAW was modeled after the WWF [World Wrestling Federation] so there's entourages, characters and a lot of horseplay and craziness," Wimer said. "The [concept] just took off.

"To date, it has raised more than $250,000 for charities nationwide. We've been filming this for close to five years now, and part of the film is about how this movement took off.

"And we delve into why people do it. There's the women's empowerment angle, the charity angle and the competitiveness. And we try to get at how it changes their lives, and how it allows them to sort of step out of their skin."

The filmmakers initially made a short documentary about CLAW. When Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival, saw it three years ago, he wanted more.

"This is a remarkable phenomenon that is a fascinating mix of burlesque, vaudeville and empowerment for these ladies," Kielbasa said. "When Brian first brought a shorter version of this film to us, I was fascinated by the story of these women.

"I told them that the film was great, but I felt it would be a stronger film if they got into ... why the women participate. As a result of them doing this, it's now a full-length documentary that offers a fascinating window into what it's all about.

"The work they do for charity is outstanding, but it's also interesting to see what these women get out of it personally and even beyond that."

Having been on the front lines of CLAW from the beginning, Hunt has formed some theories about the rationale that drives it.

"I think people want to give back and contribute to society," Hunt said. "But they don't necessarily want to go to some boring fundraiser and drink tea with their pinkie out.

"CLAW offers women the opportunity to engage with their community, help charities and to be wildly entertained at the same time. And it gives the participants a chance to explore other sides of themselves that they maybe can't do in their jobs or families or whatever.

"For example, there's a contestant named June Cleaver. She got a big meat cleaver and has blood all over her and is this frustrated housewife who has obviously become some kind of crazy murderer. On its face, it's funny, but on the other hand, it kind of explodes this stereotype box women have often been put into."

This spoof might be lost on those too young to remember the popular television sitcom "Leave It to Beaver," in which Barbara Billingsley portrayed the perfect wife and mother, June Cleaver.

A local arm-wrestling favorite, Home Wrecker, is more widely identifiable.

"Home Wrecker is a character with a filthy mouth who does a lot of trash talking," Wimer said. "In real life, she works at [a local food store] and is the most jolly person you've ever met.

"This character allows her to be somebody she is not."

There's really nothing else like CLAW.

"Nowhere else are you going to find somebody in a burqa arm wrestling a giant banana, followed by an Amazon princess and a Greek goddess."

The premiere of the documentary film "CLAW" will be presented at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Paramount Theater. A discussion with directors Billy Hunt and Brian Wimer will follow the screening.

A full schedule of events and tickets for the 26th annual Virginia Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, are available at www.virginiafilmfestival.com.

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(c)2013 The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.)

Visit The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.) at www2.dailyprogress.com

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