Everyone that caught an episode of Monday Night Raw—or WCW Nitro if you’re old enough— has probably thought of what it’s like to be a professional wrestler at least once. Though some actually follow through with that feeling, most do not. Instead, we relegate ourselves to fandom, consuming whatever bit of wrestling media we can. For those fans, there is Ballerina I’m Not, Fighter I Am, a documentary following Francesca Zappitelli, a former indie wrestler turned filmmaker, on her journey as she explores women’s wrestling around the world.
The title of the film actually has a personal meaning for Zappitelli. Like many children who grew up watching wrestling stars on TV, she was discouraged to pursue a life in the world of pro graps by her parents. Instead, they wanted her to take up more feminine sports like ballet, but that wasn’t what she had in mind.
After wrapping up her wrestling career—a part of her life she doesn’t miss, on account of the toll that career takes on your body—she took the next step in her life and picked up a camera. The transition wasn’t easy for Zappitelli; coming from the world of wrestling, the closest she got to actual filmmaking was a series of online wrestling videos she performed in. Still, Zappitelli admits, that isn’t really close to what she’s trying to achieve.
“Online wrestling is scripted and is really cheesy, I guess any kind of experience in production, the better, ” says Zappitelli. “My biggest issue with the documentary was that I had no budget…[and] when I first started, I had no idea of storylines or character arcs.”
So, she looked for a mentor and found many who helped Zappitelli tell the story of Ballerina I’m Not with no budget. Using the contacts she made throughout her career, Zappitelli spoke to a number of indie stars like Shelly Martinez, better known as Ariel from WWE’s ECW, along with Japanese MMA star, bodybuilder, and director Ken Yasuda to add a level of expertise along with her personal experiences.
The film takes viewers around the world, revealing different styles of women’s wrestling, and how female performers are presented in other major wrestling hotspots across the globe. Though it is a little shocking to see how far behind North America is compared to Mexico or Japan, Zappitelli’s goal was to highlight the good in women’s wrestling.
“When I saw the movie The Wrestler in 2008, I was so moved by that fiction story,” says Zappitelli. “So often the indie scene can be really dark, in the documentary I wanted to show that dark side and the light… I thought it would be insightful to shine a light on the non-fiction side of that.”
One positive Zappitelli wants to expose is how far women’s wrestling has come. When Zappitelli made it to WWE’s developmental system, she describes being one of the few female superstars, along with Martinez, in the promotion. Now, women’s wrestling is highlighted in WWE, and the Women’s Division in UFC is beloved by fans.
While her experiences in the industry were mostly positive, Zappitelli isn’t necessarily looking to stay within the realms of wrestling when it comes to her budding film career. She is open to pursuing other projects in the crazy world of wrestling, but for now, she could jump into any genre. You can buy now Ballerina I’m Not, Fighter I Am on Amazon now.
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