The prospect of sitting through a three-hour documentary about an unknown bodybuilder may not seem like everyone’s notion of ideal viewing. Yet the genuine surprise of “Chris Jalali: The Real Me” comes from its off-beat ability to bring depth and emotion to its subject. Filmmaker Joe Lobell brilliantly captures the intensity and commitment which 22-year-old Texan Chris Jalali brings to his sport and his life. The film, like its star, is highly unpredictable and truly entertaining.

“Chris Jalali: The Real Me” was filmed over a four year period starting in 2001. It incorporates footage of Jalali at the gym, on the competitive stage and at home. The gym training takes up most of the footage, which makes sense since it also takes up most of Jalali’s time. Yet this is not the case of just watching some big guy lift weights. Lobell’s camera captures an extraordinary spectrum of emotions as Jalali goes through his workouts. A memorable sequence comes when Jalali is trained by bodybuilding champion Sagi Kalev. Jalali watches with barely-concealed awe as Kalev effortless maneuvers huge dumbbells, as if they were made of plastic. When it is Jalali’s turn to lift the same weights, he discovers what Kalev made to look easy is anything but. The pain, not only from the effort in trying to raise the weights but also from his inability to master the moves, is striking with its raw power and it is difficult not to feel Jalali’s suffering.

At another training session, Jalali is pushed to his limits by a trainer who barks at him in a thick Texan drawl. The trainer urges Jalali to push harder, and it is not fatalistic to assume Jalali cannot push further. Yet somehow he finds the energy to complete his reps, even though the _expression on his face shows he is running on adrenaline empty.

The film’s extended running time enhances this play on the viewer’s emotions – anything less and the sensation would be encapsulated and thus diluted. If it seems like a lot for the viewer to watch, just imagine what it must be like for Jalali, who spends several hours a day and nearly every day of the week at this.

One has to wonder what purpose is gained by all of this. The tournament footage answers some of the question, with a finely sculpted Jalali on stage with a host of equally muscular gym warriors. But the beefcake pageant seems peculiar both for its lack of charm and for the abruptness of its protocol. Jalali and his fellow athletes are only allowed to strut and flex for a few minutes – the sum of endless hours (if not months, or even years) of iron pumping reduced to a stage turn that barely lasts five minutes. All of that hard work for a brief spotlight spin?

Yet Jalali is clearly satisfied with his endeavors, noting his musculature is the result of dedicated training and careful diet. “Nothing else!” he adds, in clear reference to pharmaceutical assistance which many athletes seek out for growth. But not every goal is met. In a very amusing interview, he gladly shows off his massive arms and claims his biceps are about 20 inches in diameter. A tape measure is produced and Jalali measures himself. Alas, the 20 inches have not been reached. “It’s almost 20,” he says. “Nineteen-and-a-half. Near 20.” Clearly unhappy that he did not measure up, Jalali begs patience from the camera while he begins to pump his arms, hoping the rush of blood to his muscles will swell them to the magical mark. However, the return of the tape measure does not provide the desired measurement. Jalali’s attempt to stay nonchalant in the face of this frustrating half-inch misstep is priceless.

The real Jalali, as promised in the title, is actually far more complex than the stereotypical muscleman. Jalali is a highly talented artist and he takes considerable pride in showing off his paintings. His style is versatile, ranging from visually-friendly Thomas Kincaid-style landscapes to a wildly imaginative dance of angels created in a style reminiscent of classical Persian art. Jalali acknowledges that bodybuilders are stereotyped as having no passion beyond weightlifting, and the enthusiasm he brings to explaining his artistic inspirations is quite inspiring. It is not everyday you hear a bodybuilder talk at length about the textures of oil painting or the desire to capture the pantheistic glory of nature in oil paints.

“Chris Jalali: The Real Me” is a memorable portrait of a young man who appears to be heading in the right direction. With luck, follow-up films can keep track of his athletic and artistic pursuits. Clearly, he deserves to succeed.

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