Hell on Wheels

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“In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Austin’…”

The revival of modern-era roller-derby started in Austin, Texas, when a man of dubious background and apparently even more questionable character, Dan Policarpo, arrived in the city and started talking up the sport to anyone who would listen. While he didn’t last long – taking loans out in the names of his skaters doesn’t inspire confidence – he was instrumental in putting together the first in what would become a worldwide wave of amateur, but extremely dedicated, all-girl roller-derby leagues. At the center in Austin were four women – Heather Burdick (a.k.a. Sugar), April Herman (Queen Destroyer), Anya Jack (Hot Lips Dolly) and Nancy Haggerty (Iron Maiden) – who founded Bad Girl Good Women and were captains of the four teams. However, it was not long before the inevitable drama starts, with the rest of the participants wondering for exactly whose benefit they were risking life and limb, as well as sacrificing their free time.

And when I say inevitable, this is not a gender slam, since we’re currently “enjoying” something similar in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling here in Arizona. It’s more that strong personalities, contact sport and money are unlikely to be a good combination, and the film demonstrates this in spades. Things come to a head after a financial fiasco involving calendars, and a very nasty injury at a bout that turns out to be an uninsured event, and about 3/4 of the skaters slough off into a rival league, setting the stage for even more drama. You couldn’t script this stuff, and it’s remarkable that Ray was there to capture it from the very beginning, well before Dave Attell showed up to film it for Insomniac, before A&E covered the original league for Rollergirls and way before Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page took any interest.

However, it’s a double-edged sword, in that there’s far more footage of league meetings than league matches – and if you can work out what’s going on in the latter, you’re better than I am. Admittedly, that may be because, in these early days, they weren’t actually very good skaters. As for the former, most get-togethers appear to take place in bars, or other places not conducive to the recording of crystal-clear dialogue. But it’s worth persevering, for the characters and drama that unfolds with a remarkably even hand. It would have been easy to portray the Gang of Four as exploitative tyrants, but one makes the point that they wanted to run the league like communists, and it failed miserably. There are also times when the film should have called out the BS of those present, such as when a skater gets all snotty after an audience member grabs her crotch… instead of merely spanking her as intended… while she’s dressed as a sexy schoolgirl. Yeah. I think you lose much right to credible outrage at that point.

But, for all its uncritical approach and other flaws, this is the Declaration of Independence of roller derby, a historic document which shows how the whole thing got started. Austin set the tone for both the good and the bad aspects of the sport-industry-crypto-feminism which we know and love today, though after this film, you’ll be left feeling it’s something of a miracle the whole shebang didn’t crash and burn during its formative years.

Dir: Bob Ray

[The whole doc is now available to watch online, though the DVD comes with a lot of extra footage, commentaries and other assorted bells and whistles.]

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