Modern roller derby is a sport that’s part athletics, part violence and part theatre. The all-women teams of Adelaide Roller Derby start each match with a performance to intimidate their enemies and rouse their fans, rising from a grave as the Wild Hearses team, or swimming with sharks as the Salty Dolls. Their costumes draw from a scrapbag of movie and other cultural references, including skeletal face paint, frilled bloomers, fishnets and leopard prints. Skaters have their derby names emblazoned on their backs, often a pun like “Ginger Nut Risk It” or “Sin & Tonic”. Then the match starts, and high-velocity skaters tear around an oval track, taking the hands of team-mates to swing them on faster, and using their hips to smash the opposition from the track. It’s exhilarating to watch.
Australian director Daniel Hayward spent four years and a shoestring budget filming a documentary on roller derby. It’s enthusiastic but uneven. He speaks with the women who restarted the sport in 2001 after a confidence trickster claimed to be setting up a league in Austin. From there it’s spread across the globe. Austinite Barrelhouse Bessie brought it with her when she moved to Adelaide and teams are now spread across Australia. Hayward mixes interviews within a loose thematic structure, but provides a narrative hook by documenting the difficult start of a new team in Ballarat. With no external funding and all the usual problems of volunteer-run organisations, the team struggles first to exist and only second to win matches.
Adelaide derby fans will welcome the extensive interview with Barrelhouse Bessie, the scenes of the Adeladies playing against Victoria in Skate of Origin matches, and interior shots of the Wheatsheaf Hotel. As an introduction to the sport, it’s passable, even though the rules aren’t explained until halfway through the movie. As an introduction to a cultural phenomenon, it glides away from the hard questions, such as the uneasy boundary zone between the fetishisation of the players and its punk attitude to self-expression.