by Luke Gorham Featured Film

The Death Tour — Stephan Peterson, Sonya Ballantyne [Slamdance ’24 Review]

January 27, 2024

The worst thing a film — or any other form of art — can do is work too hard to be about something. This is especially true of the documentary, where artists and filmmakers too often fail to trust in the observational, presentational, or aesthetic, defaulting instead to producing films that are easily digestible in narrative, discursive, and moral terms. At best, such self-consciousness results in works that are cursorily engaging but functionally indistinct from written accounts; more often, they arrive as reductionist texts that flatten all nuance to crêpe depth.

The Death Tour, co-directed by Stephan Peterson and Sonya Ballantyne, initially seems equipped to clear some of these fundamental hurdles of form. Documenting the titular weeks-long wrestling tour across Indigenous communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the film’s early focus is aimed at capturing the culture and personalities of indie wrestling, demonstrating a keen understanding of the sport’s essential appeal: the long-form, near-mythic approach it takes to storytelling. It also takes care to document the twinned truths of wrestling: art and pain. Where recent hit The Iron Claw proved bafflingly incurious about pre-match wrestling, the choreography, physicality, and psychology that motivates its participants, The Death Tour makes no such mistake. And saturated as we all are in our hyper-digital present, there’s a distinct analog appeal to the industry’s roots and continued massive appeal, and The Death Tour’s behind-the-scenes look at this phenomenon on a small scale holds a curious nostalgic appeal despite its contemporaneity. It’s in these smallest moments that Peterson and Ballantyne’s film is at its best: a whispered “sorry,” set against skin slapping skin, after an ad-lib gone too far; or the camera lingering on a clearly impatient promoter’s face as motivational speeches are delivered by wrestlers. 

But partway through, The Death Tour fully gives into the dual meaning of its title, to its considerable detriment. Matches are increasingly canceled due to local deaths, and the film fully turns its attention to the epidemic of youth suicide in Inuit communities. This focus in itself is no flaw, but the film’s integration of these two threads feels entirely artless, offering no more substantive throughline than the wrestlers’ — many of whom are Indigenous themselves — desire to bring joy to suffering communities. There are nods to the ways that capital’s colonizing force — and the insidious tendrils that continue to pollute all that isn’t white homogeneity — have directly led to this present moment and crisis, but it’s offered only in declarative rather than interrogative terms, the filmmakers seemingly unable to engage beyond superficial acknowledgment. It’s ultimately that lack of a why that proves to be The Death Tour’s essential, fatal absence. In trying so hard to locate what the film is about, there is no sense of why these wrestlers do what they do, beyond the same surface-level motivations trotted out in all media narratives of sports culture. There is no sense of why this sport in particular is or should be so important to the communities the film documents, or how its presence works to mitigate the tragedies we observe there. What’s abundantly clear is that this is all close to the wrestlers’ hearts and their human decency is distinctly felt, but The Death Tour itself lacks a cogent perspective or thesis to elevate the film above mere tour to others’ miseries.

Published as part of Slamdance Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.