Family ties (and feuds) - a review of Derby, Baby!

Photos courtesy of http://derbybabythefilm.com/images.html
Photos courtesy of http://derbybabythefilm.com/images.html

Spend even a short time in the world of derby and it won't take you long to observe that the sport is in constant movement even off the track. It's growing at such a rapid pace and is attracting the attention of so many across a range of generations. Yet, it often struggles to shake off the yoke of the 1970s version of derby that your creepy uncle remembers.

It seems that derby is a bit cursed by its origins as a theatrical entertainment, and some might see both those origins, and the still-present subculture and style of derby, as thwarting any attempts it (maybe) makes to be recognised as a valid, complex sport.

Some (limited) exposure of derby in the media compounds this issue with obsession regarding the contact nature of the sport, the derby names, the fishnets. This focus doesn't do the world of derby the justice it deserves.

'Derby, Baby! - a story of love, addiction and rink rash', is fortunately not one of those films.

I initially expected this documentary, directed by Robin Bond and Dave Wruck, to be a narration of perhaps the story of one or two North American teams. Granted, much of the film involves interviews with the representatives of the many leagues across the continent where derby all began - but as a non-American it was a nice surprise to see, only moments into the film, that we were being given an insight into the lives and opinions of a league in Dublin, Ireland. As the film moved on, it became clear that this was an ambition to capture derby from a wide range of views, not only geographical, but philosophical and even economical.

The film is loosely structured around the concepts of 'Love', 'Addiction' and 'Rink Rash' - though much of the second half focuses more on how the sheer growth and interest in derby is challenging the sport in terms of ethics, corporate sponsorship and independence. In a way, I still interpreted the 'Rink Rash' term to describe the evident tension and, erm.. sore points (sorry) that are produced when debating issues of commercial sponsorship and the implications of a sport still coming of age and finding its own feet (wheels?).

The title of this review mentions family, and that was the strongest element that I felt this film portrayed. Community has always been the driving force behind derby since its revival in 2001. Narrated by Juliette Lewis, the documentary does an excellent job of conveying the close kinship that derby players, volunteers and fans feel. This is most evident in the strong ties within leagues, including among the teams in those leagues. Words such as 'gathering' and 'bind' were used frequently by those interviewed. I can't think of many other sports that practice such a healthy competitive yet friendly relationships between teams.

Without a doubt, this strong family or community vibe is the product of the independence and 'DIY' ethic that most, if not all, leagues practice. The responsibility and self-management systemic in pretty much every league in the sport resounds strongly in the film and will probably linger with those new to derby as a whole.

Of course, as the famous Spiderman idage says: with great power, comes great responsibility. This independence requires a tonne of work and much sacrifice from all involved. Entering into a vignette based on 'Addiction', the film primes us with these impressions and delivers a sober recognition of the toll it takes on those managing a league's operations: those being volunteers and usually the players themselves. Thanks to the lofty grins on the faces of these awesome people and their matter-of-fact admission of the impact responsibility has on themselves and their families, it's clear this is a road worth travelling. Derby really is addictive, or else who would bother? It's hard work.

That said, you can't help but wonder whether there could be an easier way of helping sustain the 'business' that derby creates for itself. But at what cost? The documentary senses this train of thought and deftly offers us two new points of view: one being the literal forming of a business structure / company that uses ticket sales to pay for costs derby players would normally cover for themselves (equipment and so on) - and the other being the prospect of corporate sponsorship and investment.

The latter idea touches a nerve that even caused jitters in the audience on the night. Derby, as we've established after all, is synonymous with fierce independence, well known for its penchant for edginess, the concept of alternate egos, 'rebelliousness' and the ever-mentioned tattoos and fishnets. While it's without a doubt that derby is a lot more than this, it's also undeniable that this is part of its appeal to many (arguably, though, at the cost of perpetrating stereotypes to the uninitiated).

How would corporate interest impact - or even impose - on the derby ethos? Would wages influence players to change leagues - would this further stretch the gulf between exceptional players and learners, or fuel the drive to improve to bridge that gap? Or to put it another way: would derby have to sacrifice more than free time in order to be recognised as a 'true' sport?

The Denver Mile High Club travelling team - one of few to use their real names rather than derby names

I don't think the film tries to convince us one way or another. In fact, it does better than that, by letting the subjects share their own views with us. Even as a reviewer, I couldn't escape disagreeing with some of the arguments based on my own personal opinion: for example, one subject declared that there were too many leagues and that this was 'watering down' or over-saturating the sport, even going so far as to suggest that smaller leagues were 'not serious'. Given that I was at a venue where a small league was showing the film, I couldn't go this far, and in fact it's the smaller leagues that I find are so energetic and exciting to observe. In any case, who has the right to say how serious the leagues are, other than the league and its players themselves? And how 'serious' is serious enough anyway?

Nonetheless, what I liked about this film was that it was demonstrating the many views within derby and sharing them equally with the viewer. Something as complex as derby will always entertain hotly-contested issues. Ultimately, is this any different from the wide variety of personalities, traits, team colours, skills and techniques we already see demonstrated on the track? Maybe it's best to agree to disagree just so things stay interesting. At least arguing would be one thing all the leagues have in common :)

Again, as if in an attempt to reconcile us all, the film begins to wind up its journey at the Roller Derby World Cup, and we're reminded of what little import most of this is, when all it takes is a flat track, some tape and some consistent rules to unite women from all round the globe in an activity each and every one of them loves so intensely. I liked the way that a variety of international players, coaches, refs and commentators were interviewed here and throughout the footage, largely without any introduction or their derby name mentioned on the screen. In Derby, every player and every opinion is valid - not just those of the rockstars, even if you've been around long or enough (or as derby-obsessed as I am) to recognise the faces.

Derby, Baby! impressed me. As someone not altogether new to Derby anymore, I enjoyed perhaps most of all the insight and balancing of views on the future of the sport. Additionally, I appreciated the challenge that the producers took on to highlight so much of the derby culture and what it means to the players, without falling into the trap of making a montage of stereotypes of fists and fishnets despite the discussion of them. It's clear the project, funded largely thanks to a KickStarter project and therefore with the same spirit of DIY and community effort we see in derby itself, was taken seriously and in earnest. It delivers back very well to the sport, to those passionate about it, and to those that helped make the project a reality.

Apart from all the deep and meaningful topics, there's plenty of fun in there too: notably the bat-wielding ladies on wheels in the 'running of the bulls' in New Orleans (one audience member exclaimed that this would be great to see on Swanston St, Melbourne), along with a nice mention of the famous Friday night Paris city rollerskate (which made a half-Frenchie like me happy :)).

Though I didn't get a chance on the night to talk to anyone who might've been new to derby to hear their thoughts, I think the film also offers a great and reliable introduction to the world of derby beyond just what the rules are, and beyond the clichés. Perhaps soon, we'll hear of fresh meat who discovered derby thanks to the invitation this project provides, rather than (just) Whip It!. If nothing else, it's thought-provoking for those both new and familiar with derby.

Mig aka The Cleaner

Derby, Baby! - a story of love, addiction and rink rash is a documentary project by Emmy-winning filmmakers Robin Bond and Dave Wruck, currently in limited screening around the world. Contact your league for more information and/or visit http://derbybabythefilm.com for more info.

Special thanks to the Diamond Valley Roller Derby Club for the showing that I attended!

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