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Life & Arts

'We Wanted To Tell Sweetwater's Story': Documentary 'Miss Snake Charmer' Chronicles An Unusual West Texas Pageant

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Every year, the town of Sweetwater, Texas hosts the Miss Snake Charmer pageant, which is very much like hundreds of other small town high school scholarship pageants save for one very key distinction – all the hopeful Miss Snake Charmers must kill and skin a rattlesnake at the start of pageant week. Documentary director Rachael Waxler first heard about the contest while listening to a podcast, and knew she wanted to make a film about it. “It was a podcast, so there were no visuals,” she says. “And I just had to see these snake-slaying beauty queens in West Texas.”

She says she immediately called her friend and fellow director EmaLee Arroyo to pitch the idea. “She said ‘tiaras and rattlesnakes’ and I was like, ‘let’s go,’” Arroyo says. “We both grew up in Texas, so… I’d never heard of this, but I believed it. I was like, ‘of course this exists in Texas.’”

A teen pageant that involves killing animals – even rattlesnakes – isn’t without controversy, of course, but Arroyo and Waxler say they weren’t interested in passing judgement. They just wanted to tell the story of the town and the nine young women who competed in that year’s pageant. “We really tried to focus on the pageant and Sweetwater and less about [the controversy],” Arroyo says. “There were plenty of people who were doing that story there – there were plenty of people who were there who were very upset.”

“We wanted to tell Sweetwater’s story,” Waxler says. “This is what happens in the town of Sweetwater and this is who they are and why they do it. We didn’t want to be judgy. I strongly dislike it when I’m watching a film or a documentary and [the filmmakers] are trying to tell you what to think.”

“You can feel however you want to feel about it – we’re not here to tell you one way or the other,” Arroyo says. “But… if you’re going to focus on the snakes, to me it just means you can’t sit for like literally an hour with nine young teenage women who are out here being extremely vulnerable and showing you who they are.”

Waxler and Arroyo say that the pageant’s outcome was hard to predict, with no clear frontrunner emerging while they were in town shooting the documentary. “Honestly, they were like all my favorite,” Arroyo says. “They were just so cool. They really were. Everyone was rooting for each other. The nine of them had become this unit, and it was really, really special to watch. And it was so cool too because their whole families were there too, so it was like this whole community really did come together. I mean, it was such a spectacular night. It was so fun. It really felt quite incredible.”

“This is one of [Sweetwater’s] biggest events, and to be Miss Snake Charmer is an honor,” Waxler says. “30,000 people come from all over the world that one weekend to see them.”

Miss Snake Charmer chronicles the 2017 pageant, and the film hit the documentary circuit after its completion before landing on Hulu and other streaming services. “We did a premiere there in Sweetwater, at the theater where the pageant was held,” Waxler says. “And we showed it to all of the families and the girls… and they loved it. And they just said ‘Thank you. This is our story. This is how we see ourselves, and this is what we wish people would see about it.’”

'Miss Snake Charmer' is now streaming on Hulu and other streaming services.

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