For years, I've had occasional fantasies about joining one of the Austin all-female roller derby leagues. All the women I've met who do roller derby are cool, and it sounded like fun in a twisted kind of way, like the time a friend of mine told me about a study where women went through firefighter training (I was too late to join, sadly) or triathlon training (I did two Danskins) or another friend who used to play rugby but grew tired of sustaining injuries.
For a brief and shining moment, Hell on Wheels fanned the flames of my roller derby chick fantasies. On the surface, the documentary is about roller derby in Austin, and begins with a brief history of roller derby in an amusing newsreel format (I loved the flying skate). However, the events that occurred during the five years when director Bob Ray followed around the Austin roller derby founders and skaters turned the movie into something a little larger -- it's about women trying to find the best ways to run a business.
Back in 2000, a guy showed up in Austin to start an all-female roller derby league, then skipped town when things grew too complicated for him. The four team captains decided to continue the league and Bad Girl Good Woman (BGGW) Productions was born. However, all kinds of difficulties soon occurred. The four women didn't know much about starting and running a business. The league members, who paid monthly dues and supplied a lot of their own equipment, felt they should have a voice in how the league was run.
When the four captains decided to establish a corporation with themselves as "she-e-o's" (a term I think we could have done without, since it implies that all CEOs are male), the league members are increasingly dissatisfied with decisions in which they have little part. Although the roller derby matches draw big crowds, by 2003 some of the members leave to form the skater-run Texas Rollergirls league. Could Austin support two roller derby leagues, and which will survive? If you live in Austin you probably know the answer, but you might not know how we got to that point, and it's a fascinating story.
Hell on Wheels follows all sides of the league controversies and offers us glimpses into the lives of the women involved. We are able to see that the BGGW founders have perhaps made some poor decisions, while still sympathizing with them and hoping that things will turn out well. We're also able to understand why many of the league members wanted a skater-run league. They put a lot of money and effort into the league -- many of these women didn't know much about skating when they joined. They had to become athletes as well as performers with fabulous skater names like The Wrench, Buckshot Betsy and Suzy Homewrecker. I admit I started wondering what my skater name would be. However, all my fantasies of becoming a roller derby skater evaporated when I saw brief but graphic footage of a leg injury that occurred during the 2003 exhibition match at Austin Music Hall. I think I'll stick to non-contact exercise.
The SXSW audience included a lot of roller derby chicks -- my guess is that they were Texas Rollergirls -- who weren't afraid to cheer on their friends appearing onscreen or even yell out contradictions to a few of the statements made in the film ("no, she didn't!"). Hell on Wheels is best seen with some roller derby skaters, preferably from Austin, but fortunately will also be a fun movie to watch at a regular screening or on DVD. You not only get to follow women struggling with the world of business, you get to watch some kickass roller derby. Hell on Wheels currently has no distributor, but with the number of roller derby leagues increasing around the country right now, I feel hopeful that non-Austinites will get a chance to see it.