Most documentary filmmakers tend to focus on a specific theme or genre for the course of their careers. Jacques Cousteau was world famous for his lyrical oceanographic documentaries. Frederick Wiseman’s cameras found their way to the darker elements of everyday life. Arthur Dong eloquently details the deeply ingrained undercurrents of homophobic intolerance. Liz Garbus celebrates women facing terrific odds in order to achieve their goals. Michael Moore lampoons the right wing attitudes that control much of the American mindframe.
For Oklahoma-based filmmaker Joe Lobell, the focus is on the fringe sport of bodybuilding. Whether aiming his lens at the oiled-up competitors of regional and national bodybuilding championships or following individual athletes through their grueling and totally unglamourous workout regimens, Lobell has produced a high number of fascinating documentaries which are greatly appreciated by the bodybuilding subculture but are virtually unknown to the rest of society (Lobell self-distributes his titles via the Internet).
Lobell’s most recent production is also, in a way, his most daring. Chris Jalali: The Real Me covers four years in the life of a (now) 22-year-old Texas bodybuilder who is working to find his star within his sport. Lobell’s camera is present at Jalali’s strenuous workouts, capturing the agony of the endless weight routines and the angst of missing goals (the look on Jalali’s face when he is unable to duplicate a complicated barbell exercise demonstrated by a more seasoned champion, former Mr. Israel Sagi Kalev, is gut-wrenching). Lobell also manages to pry open Jalali’s private life and have the athlete show off his remarkably paintings – who says a gym rat can’t have class and sensitivity?
Film Threat caught up with Lobell to discover the method and motives behind his film output.
To an outsider, bodybuilding documentaries may seem all the same: watching the big guys lift weights, talk about lifting weights, posing, and lifting more weights. How do you work to determine a sense of originality from film to film? ^ Bodybuilding videos do tend to focus on posing and training because those are two of the most important elements for a successful competitor. But there’s more to bodybuilding than lifting weights, and hopefully there’s more to a competitor than bodybuilding. So I try to let the personality of the competitor shine through. But having said that, it’s still about muscle. It’s a specialized, niche market composed of fans of bodybuilding and fans of individual bodybuilders. The latter group supports a particular competitor because of how he looks, how he poses, the persona he displays to the public, and sometimes a history of some interaction in person, over the phone or by email. So that’s where the competitor’s personality play a role. It’s similar to what happens with fans of pro wrestling, although on a much smaller and much more subdued scale. And there are some bodybuilders who are “famous” for a particular body part, such as arms, legs or chest. Fans want to see how that competitor developed that muscle group, although in most cases, it’s a genetic gift.
“Chris Jalali: The Real Me” was shot over a four-year period and resulted in a three hour production. Why did it take so long to create this, and why did you decide to present the film at such a long running time? ^ I sometimes work backwards when producing a video. Instead of starting with a script I often shoot competitors initially to create photos and video clips for my website, MostMuscular.Com. If the shoot goes well, if the bodybuilder has a marketable look and personality, and if the reaction to the photos and clips is positive, I might schedule another shoot. Sometimes this pattern develops into a friendship. That’s what happened with Chris. When we first shot in 2001 I never envisioned him being part of a DVD project. But as time went on we accumulated more and more footage, his fan base grew, and he started climbing the bodybuilding ladder, so to speak. Putting together the existing footage with some new material seemed a logical step in Chris’s case. So we shot some additional footage to round out the production and, presto, a DVD was born several years later.
Why so long? I suppose the question is “Why not?” For bodybuilders, bigger is better, so for bodybuilding DVDs aimed at a niche market, longer is better. The more the fans can see of their favorite competitor, the happier they are. And I simply like to use as much footage as possible. More footage equals more sales equals more exposure equals more profit for Chris and for me.
Chris Jalali is not yet a major star in his sport. What made you decide to devote an entire film to someone who is still relatively unknown? ^ I had 80% of the material in hand before I started putting the DVD together, so that played a major role. Chris and I are friends and work well together. He lives and trains in the Dallas area, less than 100 miles from where I’m based. I’m down there frequently so I can catch his training sessions on a regular basis. He has a modest fan base out there from his years of competition and exposure on various websites. He has the potential to be a major player in the sport because of his genetics and his devotion to the sport. And he has a marketable look and personality.
In more general terms my decision-making process on who might be a good DVD subject centers around four factors: physique, face, personality and potential. All these play into a competitor’s marketability, and Chris scores well in all four. And, as I mentioned above, convenience plays a role. A large percentage of my clients are based in north Texas, which is arguably becoming the second “mecca” of bodybuilding (after the Venice – Los Angeles area.) Five major, successful pro bodybuilders now live in the Dallas – Ft. Worth area — Johnnie Jackson, Branch Warren, Quincy Taylor, Art Atwood, and, of course, eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. That creates an atmosphere conducive to aspiring bodybuilders.
I have approximately a dozen or so similar DVDs shot and waiting to be edited this winter after my hip replacement surgery. I hope to release about one each week starting in January. So you can surmise that these are low-budget productions aimed at niche markets.
“Pumping Iron” is still considered the most famous bodybuilding documentary of all time, but that was made in 1977. How is it that no other title within this genre has been able to find the same degree of mainstream success as “Pumping Iron”? ^ That’s an easy one: Arnold. There have been other bodybuilders arguably as good as or perhaps better physique-wise than Arnold, but none with the bigger than life persona of Arnold. He’s a unique figure in the bodybuilding world. If Ronnie Coleman becomes a hollywood icon and wins the governorship of Texas, his videos will sell like hot cakes. But that hasn’t happened. With the exception of Arnold, even the best bodybuilders haven’t become household names. And that’s where bodybuilding needs to take some lessons from pro wrestling. They’re done a much better and more aggressive job of marketing their sport as entertainment. Thirty years ago pro wrestling and bodybuilding were both on the sidelines. Now almost everyone has heard of Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and The Rock. The same can’t be said for Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney and Dorian Yates, three of the most successful bodybuilders since Arnold.
What are your future projects? And will you be pursuing film production beyond this sport? ^ Right now I’m pretty much a one-horse show and bodybuilding videos are my niche. I also manage a couple of websites and shoot about 50,000 photos a year in addition to cranking out several dozen event and workout videos each year. It’s something I enjoy doing. And since I’m self-employed, I want to do something that’s fun and profitable. I could do other projects that would generate more income, but it just wouldn’t be as much fun. And I’m not going to do bodybuilding porn, although there’s huge money to be made there. The only other possibility on my horizon might be to shoot and produce storm chasing videos. (I’m a former weathercaster.) So far I haven’t “caught” any tornadoes but I’m really adept at running into large hail. Maybe someday I’ll produce ‘The Horrors of Hail.” Or not.