Independence: Wrestling With A Community

How do you capture a year in the life of an Iowa high school wrestling team ... while also working towards promoting the mat program, the school, and the sport?

You get a camera and film over 200 hours of wrestling matches and interviews on your own ... then you enlist the help of a former wrestler and filmmaker to put it all together into a polished 83-minute documentary.

That's the story behind Independence: Wrestling With A Community, a new film about the 2009-2010 season for the Mustangs wrestling team of Independence High School in Iowa.

Lights, camera, action!

Independence is a small farm community located between Waterloo and Dubuque in northeastern Iowa. As the wrestling team's website states, "The tradition and history of Independence wrestling is deep." In fact, the tradition and history of wrestling runs deep within the state of Iowa. After all, Iowa is the birthplace of legendary wrestlers from Frank Gotch to Dan Gable ... along with the first African-American to win an NCAA wrestling title, Simon Roberts. Four college programs within the state -- Cornell College, Iowa State Teachers (now University of Northern Iowa), Iowa State and University of Iowa -- have won a total of 33 NCAA team titles.

Despite that legacy, Independence has had its share of struggles. As the film points out, voters have rejected a number of bond issues to build new schools. ("Our high school building is not in the greatest shape," said assistant wrestling coach Keith Donnelly, featured prominently in the film, in an interview with InterMat.)

All this set the stage for the making of what became Independence: Wrestling With A Community.

"Last year, we thought we had a team that could win a state title," said Donnelly. "I sat down with Michael (Doyle, the Mustangs' head wrestling coach) and we talked about doing a documentary about the team, to rally the community."

Donnelly had been inspired by the ESPN documentary The Season which provided a behind-the-scenes look at a year in the life of the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling program earlier this decade.

"We researched it, and found out it would take $20,000-$50,000 to get a professional documentary produced," according to Donnelly, a former wrestler at Independence himself, and member of the 1997 Mustang team that won the Iowa dual state title.

If you want it done right, do it yourself ...

That high cost didn't deter the Mustang coaching staff. "We went to our mat club and said, 'Let's get some cameras and do this ourselves,'" said Donnelly.

Keith Donnelly
The Indee Mat Club purchased the cameras. Now, they needed to find someone to go behind the camera to capture the wrestling program in action.

"We approached a new teacher, Helen Lukes."

Lukes, in her first year teaching in an Independence elementary school, had expressed an interest in writing a book.

"Even though she had no connection to wrestling, she said yes," Donnelly continued. "She filmed over 200 hours -- meets, practices, meetings, banquets."

… then bring in a professional

Now the question was… how to take all that footage and turn it into a finished film of watchable length?

Helen Lukes to the rescue, again. The new teacher came across the name of J.D. Oliva, documentary filmmaker and former wrestler living in Illinois.

As coach Donnelly described it, "Oliva took our footage and ran with it. He lived in Independence at a bed and breakfast for a week. Talked to people, read the papers, got a feel for the community."

Oliva edited Helen Lukes' footage, added in some of his own, with the final result being the finished documentary, Independence: Wrestling With A Community.

The film made its debut at a local Independence theater in mid-August. Oliva plans to take the documentary to film festivals. Donnelly said that they have been talking to the local cable TV provider about airing it.

More than a highlight reel

"I didn't want some glorified highlight film," head coach Michael Doyle told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in an August interview at the time the documentary was to be first shown to the community. "I think it's good that the documentary portrays high school sports and high school wrestling in particular, and what coaches go through, and what athletes go through, and what some parents go through, in the course of a season."

If ever there was a wrestling season to capture on film, the folks at Independence High School picked one that more than enough drama to make for an entertaining fictional film.

As stated earlier, the coaching staff thought the 2009-2010 Mustang matmen had a real chance to win a state dual meet title. However, there were additional dramatic elements along the way that made the season even more compelling as a documentary.

"We had one student who had lost his father," said Donnelly. "Another broke his neck. We had a transfer student. A real roller coaster."

Michael Doyle
"The biggest thing I hope (people take with them) is no matter what kind of hand life deals you, if you just put your head down and keep working hard, sooner or later your cards are going to get better," Doyle told the Courier. "You've just got to keep working hard, try to create opportunities, and when those opportunities come along you take advantage of them."

"The thing that's probably the most shocking is a year ago we thought of doing something to promote wrestling in Independence and the community, and we sit here today and we're doing something that's going to promote the sport of wrestling statewide and maybe even nationwide," Donnelly said in his August interview with the Courier. "Some of the scenes they have in there, it's amazing how they can go about getting it filmed so precise and make it look so good."

All of that is true. Independence: Wrestling With A Community is much more than a highlight reel; it does provide viewers who've never seen high school wrestling a strong sense for the sport as it is practiced in one of the nation's wrestling hotbeds. What's more, filmgoers come to know the individual wrestlers and their coaches, and the community they call home.

One neat aspect that differentiates Independence from other wrestling documentaries: the contributions of Helen Lukes. She is frequently seen in the film, being interviewed about the community, the school district, and the wrestling program. Even when she's not on camera, her voice is often heard as she asks questions of those she's filming. In a world where most wrestling documentaries seem to be exclusively a male bastion, it's refreshing to see -- and hear -- a woman's perspective. That alone makes Independence: Wrestling With A Community a winner.

Independence: Wrestling With A Community is available on DVD, and may be purchased online at the Mustangs' website,


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