A new film explores the Cork v Dublin rivalry in roller derby, and also delves into the lives of the women who play the sport, writes Don O’Mahony.
SINCE its re-emergence in Texas in 2001, roller derby has been growing in popularity. Contested on roller-skating rinks, the female-dominated sport received a boost in 2009 thanks to the Drew Barrymore-directed Ellen Page vehicle Whip It. Around this time it began to take root in Ireland. Fast paced and intense, the contact sport is the subject of a documentary titled Revolutions: A Roller Derby Story by Laura McGann.
She documents the early years of roller derby in Ireland through the prism of the Cork-Dublin rivalry. But while she was capturing some of the flash points between the main personalities on both sides, a more personal battle was taking place off screen.
McGann had travelled all over the country visiting the various teams, all the time managing to blend into the background. One day in Cork, her presence was noted and the question was asked as to why the filmmaker was there.
“She’s making a documentary,” said Crow Jane, the strong-willed coach of the Cork City Firebirds, before adding the withering caveat: “If it ever gets made.” Unbeknownst to Jane, the filmmaker was within earshot of the remark.
“I remember hearing that and going, ‘By hook or by f**king crook, this is getting made, just to prove her wrong,’” recalls McGann with a triumphant laugh.
Having spent four years filming, her tenacity paid off.
Crow Jane, the roller derby pseudonym of Rhona Flynn (these nicknames are part of the sport), is one of the players who features in the McGann’s film.
“I walked around with a radio mic on for four years. You just forget. She’s there until you forget she’s there. I think there’s loads of scenes in the film where it’s pretty obvious that we’ve forgotten she’s there,” she says, laughing as she recalls the conversations and offhand comments made in the heat of battle.
It was thanks to Whip It that McGann became aware of the sport and the fact there was team in Dublin.
“And I thought, ‘That’s really interesting that that goes on in Dublin, I must give them a shout’. And I reached out to them and didn’t hear anything back for a long time. I reached out to them a couple of times,” says McGann.
“And then when I saw on Facebook that they were forming the first ever Irish roller derby team in order to compete in the first ever Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto, I was like ‘Wait a minute, there’s a story here. Not only is it this really interesting, fearsome-looking sport with what initially I thought were alternative women who were really strong women, there’s a real story here — this could be a feature documentary’.’”
Having eventually made contact with the Cork team, her interest deepened. It was August 2011, and the first national roller derby team were preparing for the first World Cup in Toronto that December.
“So I had three and a bit months to find money to get me to Toronto with them. That was my one and only goal. I was like, if I missed that I can forget it, but if I can get there I can make a story out of this.”
McGann got a producer, Ross Whittaker, and the pair approached the Irish Film Board, which provided them with development money to go to Toronto and establish if there was merit in making a feature-length film.
Despite being knocked out early, the Firebirds did better than expected, but tensions emerged within the camp. It gave McGann the starting point for the film and allowed her to structure the tale so that it would trace the story of these sportswomen from there until the next world cup.
“Basically it bookends the start and the end of the film. So it’s like, where are these people in this moment when this World Cup is happening and now where are they when it’s happening again four years later?
“For me the sport is so important. The triumphs, the defeats… it’s really exciting. But the real story is these women’s lives and what’s going on behind that. That’s what gave it the longevity.
“You know the sport itself is obviously a huge part of the film and it’s a really interesting sport to watch but it’s almost like the medium that brings us to this world and this community of people. And this new group who have come together, for whatever reason, for different reasons. Some of them are really interested in how it’s a grassroots community, it’s a grassroots sport and it’s organised by the skaters for the skaters.”
The sport was developing against a background of economic uncertainty and this allowed McGann tell more than just a sport story. “It was right in the middle of the recession and for quite a few of the people they were unemployed and they didn’t have jobs and maybe they would have been very independent, maybe sole traders beforehand and work may have dried up and roller derby provided them with a place where they were really needed and their skills were appreciated and they felt part of something.
“The first layer is the sport. The second layer is the recession and the effects of the economy have on women in their late 20s, early 30s, who kind of were, well, on their way to finding themselves without that path, their career wiped out. Where do you go from there?”
McGann surmises that roller derby in Ireland needed these strong, capable individuals as much as they needed roller derby. But it was also a tumultuous time for McGann, who lost her father when she began making the film. “I really loved their strength. They were kind of inspiring me,” she says.
“Making this film, for a while it was the one thing that kept me going as well.”
As one of the founders of the Firebirds, Jane accepts that there’s only so much that’s going to fit into an hour-and-a-half film.
“I would have loved to have seen a bit more of what the Firebirds were up to and a bit less of what I was up to,” she says, shrugging.
But if Jane reluctantly takes on the mantle of main protagonist in the story, McGann believes she embodies qualities which are emblematic of all participants.
“Their tenacity, their confidence, and their fearlessness both on and off the track really fascinated me,” she reflects. “Like I had never seen this kind of thing before. It was a real f**k you to society about it. It just felt like it was rebellious.”
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