‘Muscle worship, domination, same-old same-old.” Tischa “The Tigress” Thomas is describing a recent session with a client, who pays for the privilege of submitting to her will. Thomas’s main gig is bodybuilding, but like many semi-professionals in the world of sports entertainment and performance, she engages in various side-hustles to make ends meet. One of the strengths of Philipp Fussenegger’s documentary portrait of her is that it is not wholly a feelgood story of uplifting empowerment, nor is it a relentlessly grim look at a life lived on the margins. Instead, it shows how for Thomas (as for most people), the highs and lows blend and overlap, and tend not to obey the neat narrative arcs of fiction.
In other respects though, this is a documentary that does feel rather like fiction. Fussenegger doesn’t make use of talking heads or a narrator, or have a stated agenda; it’s more of a character study. Fortunately, Thomas is a compelling subject, with multiple contrasting facets to her personality. When we meet her, she’s dancing on camera, joyfully delivering some inspirational chat around body image, which she defines simply and directly as “how you think and feel about how you look”. A little later, we see her bitterly upset that her expensive spray tan has run during a bodybuilding show.
More than once, we see her cat-called and verbally abused in the street. Her mood the first time we’re shown this is amused and confrontational; she answers back, chuckling: “I like fucking with them since they like fucking with me.” At a lower moment, she despairs over the fury of an aggressive stranger who interprets her as a man in a dress. Thomas isn’t transgender, and the incident is a painful reminder that the victims of transphobia are not just trans people. Touching on a wide range of issues without ever becoming an “issues documentary”, this is a window into a life which may – or may not – be very different from your own, and a touching look at the many different manifestations of what we call strength.
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