Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: DOGLEGS, An Intimate Look Into An Extreme World
"Sambo" Shintaro is a middle-aged man with cerebral palsy. He works in janitorial services and depends on others to help him navigate the world around him. However, in the ring Shintaro is the superstar of the Doglegs wrestling league. In the ring he has a nemesis, the organizer of Doglegs, an able-bodied man who goes by "Antithesis" Kitajima. For twenty years Kitajima has served as mentor, master, and tormentor to Shintaro. Now Shintaro wants to retire, but not before taking one last swing at Kitajima in an effort to finally overcome his greatest rival.
Shintaro and Kitajima are the main focal point and certainly the most emotional and conflicted relationship in the film, however, Cozens does a good job of rounding out his film with the stories of ancillary characters in the Doglegs world. We get to see the story of the depressed hoarder who loses a match while crying himself into submission in the middle of the ring. We get to see the story of L'amant, a severely disabled cerebral palsy sufferer who uses the ring to become close to his wife after years of distancing due to the necessary intervention of professional caregivers. These stories are just as touching, puzzling, and confoundingly fascinating as that of the leads.
As I walked away from Doglegs, I felt uncomfortable, distressed, and most disturbingly, confused. Cozens takes a very distanced, calculated approach to the film and its subjects. He allows them to tell their own stories, never intervening and never leading the audience in one direction or another.
We are shown numerous scenes of able-bodied men and women pummeling disabled performers into the mat with blood spatter to prove that it's the real thing. The viewer is given numerous examples of disabled performers using what little strength they have left in their contorted bodies to head-butt and kick each other into submission. We are shown all of this without judgment, plain and simple, left with the imperative to decide for ourselves what our own ethics say about the lives of these men and women. It's a puzzling thing.
Is the Doglegs wrestling league built upon and profiting from the suffering of those who cannot see that they are being exploited? Is Doglegs the ultimate protest against ableism and those who might seek to subjugate the disabled into losing all sense of agency? Is it some combination of the two?
Does it really matter what I think of action in the ring, or is it only the feelings of the performers that count? In any case, it is obvious that the performers are do what they do because there is nowhere else they'd rather be, and for those fifteen minutes in the ring they feel like gods, whether people are cheering for them in earnest or in mockery.
I am left with an raging case of cognitive dissonance. The desire to reconcile my own feelings about the exploitation of the disabled for entertainment battles the idea that everyone deserves the opportunity to be the hero, if only in their own mind.
To be honest, I still haven't made up my mind, and that is where Doglegs succeeds. Cozens presents his subjects with remarkable objectivity. He gives them the chance to tell their stories, he observes without acutely affecting, and most of all, he seems to be just as befuddled as I was. By turns heart-wrenching and hilarious, Doglegs is a fascinating, once in a lifetime look into a world that you may not have known existed, but you'll certainly never forget.