The colorful world of professional wrestling is a treasure trove of unbelievable stories and complicated lives, and wrestlers have long fascinated nonfiction filmmakers. Most wrestling documentaries are straightforwardly biographical, but some go a step further, exploring spheres of the wrestling world that are less charted.

Cassandro, the Exotico! (2018)

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In Mexico, lucha libre is esteemed and respected in a way American wrestling is not. But there’s much more to it than the iconic masked luchadores; there’s a whole constellation of character archetypes. The gender-bending exotico wears a different kind of mask: a full face of makeup. Mix a little Liberace, a little Ric Flair, and a little bit of drag queen camp, and you have your typical exotico, who often uses gender ambiguity and queerness as an advantage in the ring by making macho opponents uncomfortable. Though often the butt of the joke, the character type has provided a space for many queer wrestlers to explore their identity, like the subject of Marie Loser’s documentary. A formidable performer, Cassandro overcame homophobia and other obstacles through stunning acrobatics and an indisputable commitment to being himself. Loser captures Cassandro with gorgeous, candy-colored 16mm — a format befitting a wrestler who sews his own sequined gowns and comes out to “I Will Survive.”

On various platforms.

Nail in the Coffin: The Rise and Fall of Vampiro (2019)

Though wrestling has had its share of distinctive creatives, there are few like Vampiro (real name Ian Hodgkinson). A tough Canadian punk who got his start as a bodyguard for Milli Vanilli, he forged his own path, cutting his teeth in Mexico as a white northern outsider. Vampiro immediately became a star antihero, totally unlike anything else in lucha libre at the time. By working harder than anyone else, learning the language, and genuinely respecting Mexican culture, he’s become one of the most singular artists in wrestling worldwide, helping to shepherd the series Lucha Underground and working as a primary creative force behind AAA, Mexico’s equivalent to the WWE. In Nail in the Coffin, which follows Vampiro as he leaves the ring behind to prioritize fatherhood, he comes off almost a little like the Anthony Bourdain of wrestling. Beneath the hard rock edge, there’s a tender heart, endless energy, and a true love for other cultures.

On various platforms.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette (2020)

It sounds absurd, but in the early 2000s, there were few bigger public enemies in the world of wrestling than character actor David Arquette. As part of a promotion for the now-forgotten 2000 comedy film Ready to Rumble, Arquette briefly became a world title holder in Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Though celebrities have been part of wrestling shows since Mr. T faced Muhammad Ali at WrestleMania I, this stunt took things a step further. If any Hollywood hotshot could come in and be given a title immediately, then it seemed there were no stakes at all, and learning the craft didn’t matter. After years of struggles in his career and personal life, Arquette decided to become a real-deal indie wrestler, climbing his way up from the bottom rope. In this diaristic documentary, Arquette almost becomes a tour guide to the world of wrestling: picking glass out of his skin at a suburban show run by pimply teens, taking chair bumps for pesos with luchadores on the street in Mexico, and almost bleeding to death in a hardcore match. David Arquette might be the last person you’d expect to make you cry, but his underdog story is disarmingly moving. It’s not just about an actor’s personal comeback; it’s an emotional tribute to the legions of unknown wrestlers who risk their bodies in ways most Hollywood actors never will, all for the heat of the crowd.

On Hulu and other platforms.

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Nadine Smith

Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and co-host of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema. Her work has appeared in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, the Outline, Bandcamp Daily, Observer, and...