Hell on Wheels

by Jake Meaney

30 March 2009

This is good stuff: heated rivalries are cultivated; bouts take on a circus-like atmosphere; skaters lose themselves in character, skating under aliases of almost universal excellence and cleverness.
cover art

Hell On Wheels

Director: Bob Ray
Cast: Nancy Haggerty, Anya Jack, Heather Burdick, April Herman, Amy Sherman, Rachelle Moore

US DVD: 24 Feb 2009

Of all the fledgling trends and fads to emerge on the indie/DIY scene in the 2000s, none has been so improbable, so successful, or so entertaining as the emergence and rapid growth of all-female roller derby. From its revival in Austin, Texas in 2001 this grass roots, female organized and run movement has spread rapidly across the US in all directions, giving birth to 60-odd local leagues, with the number growing exponentially every year.

As of 2004, the various leagues have organized themselves nationally under the aegis of the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association), which has further solidified and consolidated roller derby’s evolution into a real sport, conferring on it a degree of growing legitimacy and aspiring professionalism.

And if you go to a bout (which I cannot recommend it highly enough), you will discover immediately that the derby and its participants very much want it to be considered a legitimate sport, on par with baseball or football. They take it seriously, and so should you. And to a certain degree, they’d be correct – rules are codified, there’s an inherent strategy of play, and there are seasons of interleague bouts followed by requisite levels of post-season championships. But to focus only on the serious side is to perhaps miss the point.

Because, staying true to its origins in the roller derbies of the ‘30s and then the early ‘70s, there’s also, thankfully, an inherent level of campiness attendant with modern day roller derby. While maintaining a high level of athleticism, the skaters also fully embrace the theatricality and sense of gaudy spectacle inherent in, say, professional wrestling (though without, you know, the whole scripted/fakeness factor) –  heated rivalries are cultivated; bouts take on a circus-like atmosphere; skaters lose themselves in character, skating under aliases of almost universal excellence and cleverness (e.g., Pina Collidah, Sandra Day O’Clobber, and, my personal favorite, Slammah Montana), a trend the carries over into team names, as well.

The derby also incorporates certain elements of neo-burlesque (another nascent and now entrenched indie trend), a certain vaguely unapologetic bawdy sexiness, which to some degree acts as an extension of the latent proto-feminism that underlies the entire movement and is its most admirable characteristic. Though not overtly political, the sort of riot-grrrl punk rock aesthetic that fuels the roller derby – fiercely independent, stridently non-co-ed and proud of it – can’t help but feel like something else other than just a bunch of women skating around in circles and shoving each other. It’s like the derby is an exponent of something bigger, a refounding of feminist ideals in the most unlikely of places, in a cathartic activity where traditional sexist barriers are ripped down and run over. 

But why the derby? What is it about this previously obsolete “sport” of yore that so appeals to—and energizes—the punk/indie demographic?  There has to be something more, something deeper than just the outré/kitsch aspect of it, and maybe something beyond even the empowerment aspect? It’s just so… odd. Unfortunately, Hell on Wheels, a 2007 documentary about the origins of the derby in Austin, never really gets around to answering these questions.

I was expecting the film to be a sort of survey of the sport and the subculture it has spawned, an introduction for the noninitiates. I was expecting extensive footage of bouts, and maybe some following around of individual skaters, getting to know their motivations for joining the derby, what appeals to them, speaks to them… you know, stuff of that nature.

Hell on Wheels is not this film – and might be the better for it. Instead, what starts out as just what I described above quickly morphs into an entirely different film.  It opens with the founding of the BGGW (Bad Girl Good Woman) league in Austin by a shady, hipster (and most decidedly male) events promoter who tries to get roller derby off the ground.

He recruits about 50 women, picks four arbitrarily to be team captains, and doesn’t do a whole lot else besides offer up empty promises of success and riches. Rather than give up the idea of derby as some pipe dream, the four captains band together, reorganize themselves, and set to re-envisioning and building their own league, one that is independent, where the skaters run the show, and, most importantly, is enitrely female run. The film becomes their story, as they try to build the derby into a viable – and eventually, hopefully, profitable—venture.

The problems at first are typical of any fledgling business – how to drum up capital and generate income, how to secure venues, and, most importantly, how to deal employee concerns. As the latter issues start to dominate proceedings, the women who constitute the league – who do the actual skating, who shell out the membership dues to belong to the league, who endure injuries and indignities – start to take umbrage with the highhanded treatment they believe they are receiving from the four captains/managers. There are accusations of misallocation of funds, of not allowing skaters to have a say in big picture decision, and even of callousness in the treatment of injured skaters.

The internecine squabbling erupts into full out labor disputes, with the majority of the skaters organizing against the managers, and a threatening a strike and/or a walkout if their demands aren’t met. The drama runs high, and the pitched battles between the two groups are riveting to watch. Who knew that the politics of organization would be so fascinating? 

The whole thing is ratcheted up to a whole other level as the skater-organized group follows through on its threat, splintering off and forming their own competing league, the Texas Rollergirls. The two groups vie for the same audience and same pool of potential skaters, and a larger share of success. Jealous of the subsequent rapid rise and popularity of the upstart group, the BGGW rechristen themselves the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, hoping to exploit confusion over the similar names (the BGGW claim that the Rollergirls stole the name when they left). But they also seem content to continue to drive themselves into the ground, by, for example, blowing all their capital on building a banked track, even while flat track derby is the trend among the burgeoning scene.

Like the birth of many revolutionary movements, the origins of the roller derby, which these days is on pretty stable ground, seems to have been messy and violent (both on track, but more so off) – prisoners were taken, heads rolled, bridges were burned. But in the end perhaps the sport was only able to succeed, able to prosper and spread like wildfire, because of its volatile early years, which fostered the innovation, solidarity and independence which have become its hallmarks.

Hell on Wheels careens onto DVD with a whole pile of excellent features. Most notable are a collection of 40+ deleted scenes, which, taken together, actually exceed the length of the actual film by 10 minutes. Most of them merely add depth or context to what is included in the film – some are redundant, merely rehashes of the similar scenes of the board meetings and skater rallies. But also included is a much welcome bevy of actual bout footage, supplementing the little that is included in the film itself.

The disc also boasts not one, not two, but three commentary tracks. The one with the filmmakers is the most interesting, from a technical/logistics angle. The director and producer discuss the early ideas for what the film would be versus what it actually became during shooting.

What’s remarkable, and fortuitous, is how they managed to catch the origins of the derby right as it was happening – they had no idea it would all blow up to be as big as it is now when they started, or that it would get off the ground at all. In that way, the drama of the BGGW thus dictated the shape of the film to come, as the focus was inexorably drawn to the organization and labor disputes of the roller derby.

The other two tracks are split between the main players In the BGGW/Texas Rollergirls squabble. On both tracks, it seems the women are watching the film for the first time, and seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. They do tend to veer off point most of the time, only tangentially commenting on the film, but the “reunion” type feel to the tracks, like old friends catching up and shooting the breeze, just makes the tracks all the more enjoyable, if less thoroughly informative.

Hell On Wheels


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