The Ultimate Game of Trust

Leslie Zemeckis draws parallels between her discipline as a documentarian and the work of her latest subject, tiger tamer Mabel Stark.

Remember that childhood game of trust fall? Where one person falls backward, relying on the person behind to catch them? It’s a relatively harmless trust-building activity, certainly nothing that involves life or death. But what if what you trusted had the ability to harm, maim or kill you within seconds? Would you play that game?

There was a woman who for years played what I’ll call the Ultimate Game of Trust. Her name was Mabel Stark, she was born in Tennessee in 1888 (or 1889, depending on which records you read), and she’s the subject of my latest documentary, Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer. Mabel grew up with little, if any, reason to trust the people who were supposed to protect her. She felt abandoned when her parents died, was most likely abused in her own home, and was publicly betrayed by her siblings. She would marry men who drank or stole money. Is it any wonder she turned to tigers to trust?

Trust tigers? Mabel said that man would break your spirit, but animals would not. She could endure cuts and bites, but not having her heart ripped apart. She knew what she faced when the door of the steel arena shut behind her and she was alone with 18 400-pound tigers. Trust, according to its dictionary definition, involves a “belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.” Mabel knew her cats had the ability and the strength to seriously harm or kill her. And some were just waiting for the opportunity.

She would suffer numerous attacks by her cats. There was not an inch of her body that was not scarred. But she never blamed them. The violence was honest and she dealt with it. It got me thinking about how important trust is in the work I do. Like Mabel with her tigers, I have to gain the trust of whomever I am interviewing. As a documentary filmmaker and author, the people I talk to – from burlesque strippers to Siamese twins – are “unusual.” Most reside in professions that are misunderstood. They are self-proclaimed outsiders. To really understand them, I need them to trust me. To learn about her cats, Mabel had to establish and maintain trust with them. Just like Mabel, I need to show that I’m not going to hurt anyone. No whips and no misrepresentations. It is a hard-earned confidence I do not take lightly.

During the making of my first documentary, Behind the Burly Q, about burlesque in America between the 1920s and 1950s, I needed to convince men and women of a certain age to give me their previously untold stories, highly intimate narratives most had never revealed before. Some had held on to their secrets for more than 50 years before I gently coaxed them into sharing them with me. Tales of nudity, arrests and accusations of prostitution (for that is the perceived hidden occupation of burlesque strippers – untrue, of course.). I had to rely on their cooperation and trust that, after traveling sometimes halfway across the country with a film crew, my interviewee would be there, and be willing to open up.

What does one do to earn the trust of people who don’t want or need to talk to you? Mabel’s tigers didn’t need to work with her. They didn’t have to learn to walk a tightrope or sit on a chair. I like to think tigers must have similar desires as people; a deep yearning within us to be seen, heard and understood. Just as Mabel reached deep within to find out what her tigers were capable of, I must observe and figure what my interviewees are able to give me. Once I’ve met my interviewee face to face, I have to assure them it’s about them, not me. I want to hear what they have to say. I meticulously prepare for what I’m going to ask them, and ask of them. I often surprise them with information they wouldn’t think I could possibly know. And then show that they can trust me with that information.

Mabel worked long, hard hours in the ring. Practicing slowly and methodically with her “stripes.” She never bullied or berated, but cooed and coddled. I do the same. Many burlesque performers did not want to be interviewed. I sent them letters, sent pictures of my kids, told them about myself. Month after month, sometimes for half a year, until they gave in. A former stripper told me she was ill and couldn’t see me until she felt well enough to wear makeup. I promised to interview her wearing no makeup either. She laughed. It broke through a barrier.

When I first ventured into the world of the circus for Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, I had no idea how difficult it would be to gain the trust of circus folks. I had no idea they were constantly set up by animal rights groups. When I make an appointment to interview someone, my word is everything. I cannot be dishonest about my intentions. Sometimes it just takes one person to let you in. One former animal trainer, Patricia White (sadly now deceased), spread the word to other trainers that I was to be trusted, and that they should go ahead and do an interview with me. I was still stood up, delayed and lied to a few times, but I didn’t blame them. Luckily, my past work stands for itself, as does the dignity with which I treat my subjects. It’s all I have.

Trust that’s been built is not a temporary thing. Once they left the spotlight, Mabel’s tigers had to trust they would be taken care of, given time off, given time to play and romp in big open spaces, be fed, watered, left alone. And I feel I have a responsibility to the people who have let me into their lives. The relationship doesn’t end when I stop filming. It can’t. These people have revealed things to me they have never told anyone else before. For my documentary Bound by Flesh – about Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese twin who became vaudeville superstars – sex, intimate body functions and body parts were discussed. I’ve driven some interview subjects to doctor appointments, sat on the bed of one 90-something woman who confessed she wanted to die. I’ve had long phone conversations, asked advice of these people, become a surrogate daughter or granddaughter.

For all the obstacles and difficulties that you face as a director, you have to trust that the time and effort you’re investing isn’t a waste, that people will show up and watch your film when it’s finished. All because you love what you’re doing. Mabel loved her tigers. I love telling true stories about amazing women from other eras. Mabel wanted to show the humanity and dignity of her tigers, just as I do with my subjects.

Mabel invented a daring trust game when she trained a tiger to do something no man would attempt. She taught one of her favorites, Rajah, to wrestle her. In the ring, during the show, she would have her back to Rajah. Suddenly, Rajah would leap at her back and brought Mabel to the ground. As the pair wrestled, with Rajah taking a hold of her arm or leg, the audience would gasp. It was all carefully orchestrated, but occasionally, Rajah would get carried away. Mabel was confident, though, that she could get him back in line and not walk away too badly hurt.

I can’t give away the end of the film, but Mabel Stark did play the ultimate game of trust and, in the end, lost. I have a feeling, though, that if she had a chance to do it all over again, she wouldn’t change a thing.

Leslie Zemeckis is an actress, author and award-winning documentarian. She is the co-author/creator of a one-woman cabaret show Staar wrote and produced the mockumentary film Staar: She’d Rather be a Mistress, starring Carrie Fisher, Jeffrey Tambor and Fabio. She wrote, produced and directed the critically acclaimed documentary Behind the Burly Q, the true story of old-time burlesque, based on the bestselling book of the same name. Her second book, Goddess of Love Incarnate, the story of iconic burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr and has garnered interests in film and Broadway for adaptation. Her second film is the award-winning Bound by Flesh, about vaudeville superstars Daisy and Violet Hilton. Her third documentary, Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, about Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer, is forthcoming through Cinema Libre Studio. Find more at