Purely by chance, director Laura McGann came across roller derby on Facebook. “Somebody shared something and I just realised there’s a Dublin team and I gave them a shout”. A little while passed without a reply until she saw that an Irish team was being formed to go to the first roller derby World Cup and realised, “something’s actually happening”. That, to her, was her cue to pursue the idea of a documentary wholeheartedly: “right, throw all the things off the table, I have to get in touch with these people”, she recalls thinking.
“Roller derby is an intensely competitive, at times violent, contact sport played with two opposing teams. Players don’t shy away from that reality. One Revolutions character sports a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘a little violence never hurt anyone’,” explains McGann.
“Players skate clockwise around a track while the ‘jammer’ tries to skate past all opposition players who attempt to block her. For every opposition team member she passes, a point is accrued. Back in the early incarnations of the sport “the girls would come with baseball bats and chainsaws”, McGann says. The contemporary version is organised entirely by amateur players but “beforehand it was run by people who owned stadiums and managers and men with cigars”
McGann acknowledges “it was the right time” to have found the story. Revolutions traces the expansion of roller derby in Ireland. But, she knew from her first encounter, at a training session for the World Cup back in 2011, that there was a good story: “it was just vibrant and it was alive”. What she stumbled upon in roller derby was a subculture complete with costumes, vibrant makeup and creative characters with names for their identities that become interchangeable with their birth names. At times it was “hard to figure out who they are, helmet on, helmet off. It’s a community, it’s a world, it has its own rules, its own norms.”
From that first session the main characters (calling them participants would do them a disservice) who were to carry the story in Revolutions “just jumped out at me”. Their passion for the sport was “overwhelming”, McGann admits. In fact, the story is less about Irish roller derby and more about the people involved who McGann thinks are the “true story” with roller derby “actually a medium” to get to them. In particular, two characters in their late twenties/early thirties, are caught at tough times. Zola Blood (her roller derby name) had just finished her PhD and couldn’t get a job. Crow Jane (also a roller derby name) made a good living as a tailor until her career dried up due to austerity. For them “roller derby was a coping mechanism for the unemployed”, a “place they were really needed”.
Revolutions took six years to be ready for the cinema. No one knew it was going to take so long. Luckily McGann is “really happy” with how it turned out. “Of course I worried and at times didn’t know where it was going to end. I was even thinking where are we going with this” but McGann never doubted that there would be a story whatever the outcome of character’s life events. “You have to just trust”. And it’s lucky that she did.
In her head, McGann had it planned: The World Cup was December 2011 and the European Cup was in July 2012. “We’d have it cut by Christmas”. When the European Cup didn’t happen the plan to bookend Revolutions with two big tournaments was scuppered as the next World Cup was two years away. Herself and the producer, Ross Whitaker of True Films, “looked each other straight in the eye and said are you prepared to stick with this”. Both agreed, “we just have to”. Enthusiasm dipped at times through the years, but not the belief in the project itself. She repeated to herself, “this will be in the cinema…it will be, it will be”. As this is her first feature, McGann thought that when shooting was completed that most of the work is over. Whereas the reality is “it’s taken a year of like pushing like, pulling like a dog at this film to get it to be in the IFI”.
Through the years she got close to the people of roller derby, some of whom will even be at her wedding this August. Though she’s “better friends with them now that it’s over ‘cos I’m not nagging them”. She was even given a “mortifying” roller derby nickname she, sadly, won’t reveal to the readers of Totally Dublin. Despite this closeness with the characters of Revolutions, McGann managed to never take sides or involve herself in the drama that played out, knowing that “If I got involved I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story. You empathise with everybody”.
That’s how she likes to work: empathising and seeing the documentary “as our project”. Before it was completed McGann showed the footage to the characters, saying “if there’s something in this that you really want to take out we’ll talk about it.” That’s part of how the characters felt comfortable to open up emotionally. “I’d push them to do something, they’d push back and we’d find somewhere in the middle where we were both happy”.
As a child McGann was involved in youth theatre and made films in the garden. From there she went to Ballyfermot to study Media and on to Liverpool for a masters in documentary. The family had some experience with film. Her Grandad brought supermarkets to rural Ireland, filming it all the while, and her uncle ran cinemas.
There’s no shortage of stories or inspiration for her. “I was really interested in groups that were off doing stuff… like activists where the UK hold their nuclear weapons”. For Channel 4 she “stayed there for three weeks in the woods in a tent” filming the activism. “I loved getting out there, embedding myself in groups where they’re trying to do something together”. She doesn’t meet many people for new feature projects, but has clear ideas of what makes good work. “The thing is with documentaries, you can have wonderful ideas or like you can have thematic things but if there’s nothing actually happening in the real world” it won’t make a good documentary.
Sadly, the future does not involve partaking in roller derby. “I was terrified” and never even tried, citing the “slightly boring practical element” that if she broke her arm there’d be no one to shoot the rest of the documentary, as her reason.
Not just a feature film maker, McGann is working a lot in TV, mostly on housing documentaries for RTÉ. The length of time spent on Revolutions hasn’t tired her enthusiasm for another feature project. “When you work on something for six years then you see it come together, like, you get your energy back very quick ‘cos it’s like a dream come true”. But it’s not over yet for her work on Revolutions, “I have to get this to its audience and that’s me finished it, not just finishing making it”. There are “a few bits that are in development”, but for “something that maybe takes two years”.
For McGann, “the most important thing in the world” is all of Revolutions characters “getting behind it” and supporting their film. Still have no interest in roller derby?
Revolutions is on release now. Screening details at revolutionsfilm.com
Words: Sarah Taaffe-Maguire
Photos: Ruth Medjber