Smack Daddy, Apocalypstick and Georgia W Tush race around on the oval flat-track in bright outfits, through a pack of women on roller-skates with hard hits coming their way. Does this sound hardcore? These Montreal roller derby players embody it. Women’s roller derby has become a household sporting name in Canada with over 100 teams across the country run by women for women. Filmmakers Justine Pimlott and Maya Gallus decided it was time to give derby the attention it deserves, and the queer-filmmaking duo launch their new documentary, Derby Crazy Love this month. It premieres in Montreal at the Montreal International Documentary Film Festival and the pair hopes to organize screenings across Canada and in derby communities around the world.
The film follows Montreal’s top team New Skids on the Block on their exciting journey to the regional championships against the London Rollergirls. We are introduced to the derby world’s champions, the Gotham Girls of New York, and meet some of their best players, Bonnie Thunders and Suzy Hotrod, as well the Skids’ Smack Daddy and London’s Raw Heidi. These fierce players share their stories of being queer in sports, being aggressive versus violent on the track, power, love and community and the DIY culture that truly captures derby for what it is.
“We show Canadian pride in our film when we follow Montreal as they go to playoffs and meet up with their nemesis, the London Rollergirls,” says Pimlott. “We were blown away by athleticism and the community feeling, [gender-bending artist] Plastik Patrik as the announcer and this amalgamation of theatre, spectacle and queer people in sports.
Pimlott and Gallus mark the 10th anniversary of their company Red Queen Productions this year (but they’ve been making films about women, social issues and arts and culture for more than 20 years.) They were encouraged to check out a derby match after audiences had seen their six-part series Punch Like A Girl, about women’s boxing, which features Savoy “Kapow” Howe of the Toronto Newsgirls’ Boxing Club. Once they caught the derby bug, Derby Crazy Love went full steam ahead as the pair set up camp in Montreal to document one of Canada’s strongest teams.
“The wonderful thing about the derby community, unlike some other sports, is that it’s very DIY and has a culture of empowerment; it’s also about inclusivity. When Maya and I were doing the research for the doc, in 2011, we went to the derby world championship in Toronto so we could see what the excitement was about,” says Pimlott. “We were impressed by the game but what struck us was the [derby] community: the fans, the players, the officials, there are lots of queer and trans people who are part of it.”
The “DIY punk rock” environment is what keeps roller derby true to its core of being community-oriented and inclusive; the players and dedicated volunteer coaches and officials run the teams and leagues and, as Pimlott explains, people who feel marginalized because of their gender identity or sexual orientation find a safe space to play sports. Players spend countless hours fundraising for their team and volunteering in their community; chances are, if you’ve attended a Dyke March during Pride, you’ve seen packs of derby girls whizzing by on their skates.
“I grew up playing traditional sports and as a young queer person, there’s the stereotype of the lesbian gym teacher as the very athletic women; in that, I found a level of homophobia that was sometimes more overt than covert,” says Pimlott. “My experience as a filmmaker though … differences are celebrated and encouraged. That’s also the thought and ethos of the derby community; if you don’t fit anywhere else you fit in [here].”
Smack Daddy truly captures the essence of derby at the beginning of the film: “The fact that you’re combining roller-skating which is like, let’s hold hands and go to the roller-rink, with chicks beating on each physically is like, fireworks.”