With a decades-long career, a memorable look, and a massive popularity boosted by Internet memes, Kemonito has surpassed the lucha bubble and is one of the most recognizable individuals in all of México. Before his departure from CMLL, you could argue he was the most popular man in Arena México every Friday night because, in addition to the local following, he was an immediate success with foreigners watching lucha for the first time.
But who is behind the blue suit? How does Kemonito live? Has his immense popularity translated to a comfortable economic life? In just 23 minutes, the short film Kemonito: The Final Fall answers these questions through an observational approach that gives us a rich and endearing glimpse into the life of the legendary lucha mascot, and while doing so, director Teresa de Miguel subtly reveals the difficult economic conditions that lucha libre stars endure in the country, regardless of their fame.
“That was precisely the focus, to understand a little bit how it is possible that a figure so recognized, so loved, so famous at all levels in Mexico, lived in such a difficult economic situation,” director Teresa de Miguel told me in an interview during DOC NYC 2023, America’s largest documentary festival where Kemonito: The Final Fall is currently screening online.
The film, which has already been praised in film festivals throughout México, uses an observational approach to allow us to dive into Kemonito’s world. “The focus is Kemonito’s personal story: show Mexico that this much adored and endearing character also has a story of struggle, of personal growth beyond the ring,” said the director.
Below you can find my interview with Teresa de Miguel about Kemonito: The Last Fall. We talk about directing Kemonito and his charming personality, the magic of lucha libre, the challenges of shooting a subject with a mask, navigating through the chaotic lucha libre archive, and much more.
This short film encapsulates what I’ve always condemned about lucha, which is that wrestlers are not paid the amount they deserve and they don’t have the best working conditions despite the fact that the stuff they are doing is extremely hard, In a very sensitive way and without addressing it directly, you show this in your film. Was this something you expected when you started the project?
The project started almost five years ago. I was doing a report for a newspaper about old wrestling glories who in the last years of their careers had physical and economic difficulties. Then I remembered Kemonito because, well, I also like wrestling very much. As a Spaniard who has been living in Mexico for more than ten years and who has visited Mexico from a very early age, the first time I went to the Arena Mexico and saw Kemonito flying through the air and saw the fascination he generated in the crowd, I was shocked by both what I was seeing and the reaction of the crowd. So I remembered Kemonito and said, “Well, let’s interview him.”
The focus was to understand a little bit how was it possible that a figure so recognized, so loved, and so famous at all levels in Mexico, lived in such a difficult economic situation. So, after the interview, I realized that there was a much deeper story there. It’s not a protest documentary, but it is a documentary that wants to expose a situation with sensitivity both toward the character and the situation itself; the pandemic was very difficult for all the luchadores and each one of them found a way to cope with it, whether it was selling burgers or, like Kemonito, selling merchandise online.
How did you contact Kemonito? How did you get him to accept the project? Luchadores can be very protective
The first time I contacted him for the report was literally through his Facebook page, it was before the pandemic, a little bit before his figure became so viral. It was a moment in which he, as a figure, was not so recognized, so I literally looked him up on Facebook, we talked and I interviewed him through CMLL; they obviously handle the press and help you get in touch with the luchadores, so it was first from the press side. Then, once we generated that link, I began to pitch the documentary.
Kemonito is one of the most honest people I have ever met in my life and the first thing he told me was that he had a great friend, Chiaki Toda, who had also tried to make a documentary but the project never took off. I contacted Chiaki, who had done TV stuff with him, and he became an ally of the film. Kemonito had a hard time at the outset, especially with the most intimate stuff. He’s had interviews, has participated in films, and has participated in television programs, so he is very comfortable around cameras in an arena or in a formal interview setting, but having the camera in his house, with his family, at the doctor’s, was difficult for him. We needed that bond of trust that luckily we eventually generated, and that is what allowed us to enter into his private life.
The short film uses old CMLL archive footage. Was it complicated getting your hands on it? Did you negotiate with CMLL? How did you get it?
It was complicated. Throughout the making of this entire short film, I received full support from CMLL, I would not have been able to make it without it. The issue with the archive was that they told me “Well, it’s there on YouTube, grab it,” but if it’s a movie, we need the original file! So it was a mess because we didn’t know if the footage was owned by Televisa or if it was owned by CMLL. Entering the archives, searching through the tapes, and then digitizing them, was something that delayed a lot the post-production process of the short film because we had practically finished the editing using a YouTube file, and we needed the original files as well as written permission to use them. That delayed the process a lot, but it was a great victory to get them because their archives are chaotic.
How was the process of recording with Kemonito in terms of maintaining the secrecy of the mask?
He is very used to wearing the mask and even the full costume for social events with his fans. However, it was a huge challenge to try to show the intimacy of a character when you don’t see his face, I think that was the biggest challenge of this documentary. What we tried to do was to play with that and turn it into a strength. He is always wearing a mask in the documentary, even when he is in places as intimate as the doctor.
That made for some interesting moments. On a very important day of shooting, when we had everything ready and we were using rented lenses, Kemonito arrived without the mask. I was like “Where’s the mask?” and he said, “Oh, I was only going to see the doctor, I didn’t think about wearing it”. So we had to call friends to see if they had a Kemonito mask and one of them sent it from Iztapalapa, it was all crazy. There are also some scenes where, in order to not reveal the identity of his son, we put a mask on him, so we had those moments that made the shooting interesting.
Have you had to explain the mask thing in Q&As?
The public outside of Mexico doesn’t understand why he can’t show his face, so I always have to explain that is part of the Mexican and lucha libre culture. I think that many people think that it is a purely cinematographic intention.
What do you think about the lucha libre industry after this experience? What did you learn?
The short film is centered on Kemonito’s story. I wanted to focus on his personal life, to show the strength he has as a person. Instead of having to say it literally, I wanted to show how he is an example for so many short people. The documentary of course gravitates around the lucha libre industry but it’s not really something I wanted to explore. For me, the focus is Kemonito’s personal story: show Mexico that this much adored and endearing character also has a story of struggle, of personal growth beyond the ring. I believe that the Mexican lucha libre industry went through a brutal crisis, particularly during the pandemic, and that can be seen in the short film. Mexican wrestlers have economic situations that are distant from what one might think as a fan.
One of the last shots of the film encapsulates very well what lucha libre can be. Kemonito is completely alone in front of the Arena Mexico mural in which he does not appear, even though he is one of the most recognized lucha libre characters in the whole country. How did you film this? What was the idea behind it?
I think that, given the amount years he was a mascot, he was not taken seriously as a wrestling icon, and the fact that he is not in the mural shows that. For a long time maybe he was only seen as a character to make the crowd laugh or for the children. He didn’t have the status of a lucha icon that he has now, so I wanted to know how he feels about not being part of that mural, which at the end of the day is the place where the legends of lucha libre are. He is a very humble person who is never looking for the spotlight, in fact, he pretty much made the documentary to help us out, not because he wanted to have a great film about himself. So, he explains it in the film: when they proposed to include him in the mural, it was no longer possible because it was already finished. There were some intentions to make a sculpture of him, but well, nowadays, given the situation between Kemonito and CMLL, I don’t think it will happen. He is an icon of Mexican lucha who does not appear in this mural, and for me that is sad, and I guess for many fans too.
Right now, lucha libre has become a top tourist attraction. Many tourists visit Arena Mexico. Why does this happen? What makes lucha libre so special?
I think it’s an integral part of Mexican culture and tradition. It’s something that perhaps as a Mexican you might not realize how valuable it is, how impressive it is, how much fun it is. These kinds of things, for me, are integral to Mexican culture and folklore, and I think that foreigners who live in Mexico or who are visiting Mexico see just that. For me, what happens in the ring is as important as what happens in the stands: the fans, the kids yelling at the wrestlers. It’s beautiful to see and it really shows Mexicanness at its best.
“Kemonito: The Final Fall” had its New York premiere at DOC NYC 2023, available to watch online until November 26. You can buy online screening passes here. You can follow the film and its upcoming screenings on its official Instagram profile (@kemonitodocumental).
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