When it comes to Toronto-based film company, Red Queen Productions, you’d be wise to expect the unexpected. “We like to look at subjects that are frequently on the margins and bring them into the mainstream in some way,” says Maya Gallus, director and co-founder. Now celebrating their 10th year, Gallus and co-founder Justine Pimlott’s latest documentary, Derby Crazy Love, explores the powerful universe of women’s roller derby.
Following Red Queen’s 2003 series on women’s boxing, Punch Like a Girl, various people suggested that Gallus and Pimlott make a film about roller derby. After attending the 2011 Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto, the spark for the film was ignited: “It just blew our minds,” says Gallus. “Here was this amazing subculture – this whole community of people that was so DIY, player-owned-and-operated, feminist, grassroots and kickass. It was amazing.”
In Derby Crazy Love, Gallus and Pimlott follow Canada’s top roller derby team, Montreal’s New Skids on the Block, as they prepare to confront their rivals, the UK’s London Rollergirls. In it, we meet a host of charismatic characters, like the New Skids’ gender-bending announcer, Plastik Patrik; Roller Derby World Cup MVP 2011, Val “Smack Daddy” Desjardins; and Montreal Roller Derby founder, Alyssa “Georgia W. Tush” Kwasny.
I got the chance to interview Kwasny and Gallus about the sport, the film, and a new kind of femininity.
Alyssa “Georgia W. Tush” Kwasny
Shedoesthecity: Could you start by talking a bit about how you founded Montreal Roller Derby?
Alyssa Kwasny: It was in 2006. Roller derby was starting to get pretty popular in the States, and starting to pop up in Canada. There were about 4 leagues at the time in Canada. And then I was kind of waiting for one to start here and kind of obsessed over it for a little while, [but] nothing was happening. Eventually I just got fed up and found some people. At our first meeting, we had 14 people. But within a year, I think we grew to about 50, 60 people.
SDTC: How much of it is a physical game versus it being a mental game? Or is it a balance between the two?
AK: It’s both. You know, you could be a great athlete but if you don’t really understand the rules, or if you’re not paying attention to your team, you’re not going to be as successful. The best players in the sport right now are not only extremely athletic, but they’re also very intelligent.
SDTC: What direction would you like to see this sport move in?
AK: Hmm…a lot of people want to see it go to the Olympics. I don’t know if that’s a realistic goal in the near future. I’d rather just kind see it go in a direction where it just continues to get more athletic, established, and fan-friendly.
SDTC: Do you have any advice for women who are considering starting the sport?
AK: Make sure they’re comfortable on roller skates. There are a lot of leagues that will accept people that are new to roller skating, but it always helps showing up not thinking you’re going to die the moment you stand up – figuring out that stability, balance, and just getting comfortable on your skates before.
SDTC: Is the fear of getting injured something you simply put out of your mind when you’re playing?
AK: That’s a good question because a lot of people, when we’re talking about roller derby, they’re like “That sounds fun but I’d never want to do it because I don’t want to get injured.” But I know people who’ve broken their leg taking a step, you know? Injuries are more preventable the more fit you are, however it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear for injuries. You’re less likely to get injuries the more comfortable you are with skating and the more strength you have. Core strength. Strong hamstrings. It’s all about taking care of your body. I have a friend who was walking and slipped on ice and I think she may have broken both ankles. I trip over stuff all the time on the street but I can roller skate pretty well. I can’t walk but I can skate.
Shedoesthecity: Where did you hear about the New Skids on the Block and why were you inspired to follow their story?
Maya Gallus: From our research, we determined that Montreal’s New Skids on the Block were the top team in Canada. So they were a natural in terms of profiling. Once we met them, we knew that they would be perfect to follow because they’re just so colourful and inclusive. The whole art subculture aspect is a really significant part of the roller derby world, so people like Smack Daddy and Plastik Patrik were also really intriguing to us. And they had a really great dramatic story, because they had a chance to go the regional championships and take on their nemesis, the London Rollergirls from the UK.
SDTC: There’s a lot of talk in the film about roller derby becoming an obsession for the people who play it. Why do you think this is?
MG: It really does take over your life, that’s what they all told me. It becomes an obsession, if you like, or at the very least, it certainly becomes a way of life, because it’s not just the fact that this is a new sport that not a lot of people know about, but it’s also because it’s player-owned-and-operated and any spare time that they have, they’re either practicing or playing or they’re doing something else, fundraising or organizing or booking, in order to keep the whole thing alive.
SDTC: Was there anything that surprised you about the sport or the people who played it ?
MG: I know what many people do make an assumption about the kind of person that would be attracted to. You know, maybe very tough, aggressive, hard core. I didn’t have that bias, but I was pleasantly surprised at how really lovely and friendly everyone was. And so open. And I think that one of the reasons that people are so open, aside from the fact that derby attracts a certain kind of open person, really, is that they want to get the word out.
SDTC: Given that a lot of your films look at the experiences of women, was there an aspect of women’s experiences in sports you were particularly interested in exploring through this documentary?
MG: Unlike many other sports, it’s so inclusive, not only in terms of the orientation or the way people present, but also in terms of body shape and size. Derby is truly one of the sports where no matter what shape or size you are, there will be a position where you can actually use your shape or size to your advantage. They all talked about how anywhere you go, anywhere around the world, that if you meet someone who’s in derby, it’s like BOOM! Instant connection. And I loved that. I just found that appealing on so many levels.
SDTC: What, if anything, are you hoping that people take away from the documentary?
MG: My hope is that people will learn something about how empowering and DIY this sport is and also that they’ll maybe start a league in their area. I mean, it’s really a wonderful thing for women, because women are taught that we’re not supposed to be physically aggressive. I think it’s amazing to look at a sport that says Yes, you can be aggressive, and that doesn’t mean, as Smack says, that you have to be a douchebag. If I could summarize the message I’d like people to come away with, it’s that roller derby really is about a new kind of femininity, about women as amazons – women finding their most powerful self and expressing that.
Derby Crazy Love’s world premiere is this Thursday, November 14 at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (7pm at Cinema du Parc, 3575 Parc). It will also be screening on November 16 (3pm, Cassavetes/Cinema Excentris, 3536 St-Laurent). If you can’t make it to Montreal, a shortened version will also be airing on Global TV, November 16 at 8:00 pm EST.
Director and Roller Derby Gals with present at both screenings for Q&A session! For more info, visit their site.