Beyond first impressions: a review of This Is Roller Derby

One of the first derby articles I ever wrote - and the piece that committed me to telling a little bit of the story of roller derby from then on (whether anyone wanted me to or not), was a review of Derby, Baby!.

It's been a while since any other documentary about derby has blessed our screens, but tonight, I had the opportunity - and the pleasure - of seeing 'This Is Roller Derby' - a documentary concerning itself less about the economics and future of derby than the formerly-mentioned release, filmed over the course of 12 months which crosses repeatedly between leagues in the United States and here in Australia - and particularly my home state of Victoria.

OK, enough of the introduction. I want to be perfectly frank with you: I wasn't immensely excited about seeing this film. In fact, I was even apprehensive of doing so, after watching the trailer which you can view on Youtube. For me, after viewing this, I had qualms that this was going to be a pop-culture hoo-hah about all the things that didn't excite me about derby: girls punching each other, fishnets and so on.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not denouncing the satellite world of derby that orbits the sport: that of the culture, the drama, and what it means even off-skates for those that play. But I first experienced derby simply captivated by the athleticism of these players and by the energy generated by those around me watching the event unfold. (As a male - apparently such a concept is non-existent? There's a certain presumption, even mentioned in this film, that men who watch derby only come for one thing, which makes me uncomfortable - while I don't doubt there are some bad seeds in any environment, broad generalisations are the friends of no-one and don't solve any problems. A story for another day..)

It only takes one case of mentioning roller derby to someone who hasn't been to a modern day, non-1970s bout, and observing the evidently uncontrollable laughter erupt (which can even be seen in an excerpt from Channel 10's 7pm Project shown in This Is Roller Derby) to see the effect that the perpetration of stereotypes can do to the sport. Oh how easy it is to presume that nothing changes, without taking the effort and courage of finding out for oneself!

Fortunately, actually watching the film from start to finish is a picture painted entirely differently to that seen in the trailer. This documentary captures something altogether rather special: rather than focusing on the spotlight shone on the few superstar leagues that stand tall across our continents, it tells first the early history of roller derby, followed by the rebirth of the sport in the early 21st century, and ultimately culminates in the story of several leagues from their beginnings to them finding their feet (skates?). Of particular study are the Ballarat Roller Derby League and the Adelaide Roller Derby League - with occasional deviations to Canberra's home league and to the delightful assistance from sister leagues such as the Geelong Roller Derby League and the VRDL to help others become bout-ready. Ultimately, this is an honest and generous tale. At no point does the film pretend that those before the camera are something that they are not. Each player shares their own struggles, their uncertainties, their victories and their epiphanies candidly with the audience. Nothing is perfect in derby, but at the same time, derby is perfect.

The story is deft at dancing between the experiences of various leagues in the U.S, and those in Australia, and does so frequently to maintain the audience's interest. The coverage includes explanations of the rules, snippets of actual bouts (perhaps sometimes a little too long), but focuses on the evolution of young leagues attempting to 'make it' - which includes the challenges posed for both league coordinators trying to manage an organisation and communicate effectively, as well as the emotions of fresh meat trying to pass their tests - sometimes unsuccessfully. Again, honesty is the watchword. Derby is for humans, not rockstars, and sometimes humans just don't cut it when it counts.

The fears I had for the film were very quickly admonished. Although there is some coverage of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls and their antics, open fighting and crowd participation, this doesn't play a huge part in the overall story, or at least didn't for me. But it is indeed a segment of the roller derby phenomenon, and isn't to be ignored. I was simply happy that it didn't play centre stage, because it's this author's opinion that derby is a lot more than what pop culture insists we know about it.

What this film does exceptionally well is portray the experiences of contemporary roller derby leagues existing in the here and now, and yet paradoxically tells their story from their humble origins and what the journey teaches them, and can teach us.

I don't intend for this to be a review of the entire film and what it shows us. The message here is: you may have watched the trailer and rolled your eyes. You may be a newbie seeing it on Youtube and thrilled by the spectacle and the opportunity derby might offer you. In either case: go and see this film regardless. It has even more messages to send you. For me, I took 'honesty' from the story and the reminder that anyone can achieve what they set out to do if they set their mind to it. Having a community of fanatical derbyites accompanying you on that journey probably helps - but what's certain is that it makes it one hell of a good time.

This Is Roller Derby is a film by Daniel Hayward and Titan View, and is narrated by April Ritzenthaler. It's currently in limited screening. Check the Facebook page for updates on when it might be showing in a cinema near you!

Update: edited to remove the 'ir' in 'irregardless', epic fail :)

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