Laura McGann Talks Roller Derby and Revolutions
This Friday, the Irish documentary Revolutions opens in cinemas. Engaging and accessible, Revolutions offers a look into the rough and tumble world of the unconventional sport of roller derby, as well as a look into the lives of the women who play it. Beginning in 2011, the film follows the players and coaches of Dublin Roller Derby and the Cork City Firebirds, both competing separately and coming together to make up most of the Irish national team that travels to their first roller derby World Cup in Canada, competing against the likes of England and Argentina. Director Laura McGann has been promoting the film – her debut feature after numerous credits on TV shows and documentary shorts – ahead of a special Q&A to launch the film at the IFI on Friday. Film In Dublin spoke to Laura about the allure of roller derby, tension in the teams and the importance of keeping your distance when drinking coffee around athletes racing at high speed on skates.
What first drew you to the world of roller derby? It’s a very distinctive sport.
Yeah, that’s what it was really. I saw some videos on Facebook and was like, ‘what?’, they were falling and bashing each other. You know the way you’re watching something through your fingers? I was thinking, ‘this is crazy! And they’re doing it in Inchicore! How did I not know about this before?” I kind of felt like I was coming to it late, even though I didn’t realise it had just started, there were loads of people and they were all in their gear, it was fully formed. So when I heard about Dublin Roller Derby and when I heard that the World Cup was happening, that the Irish team was being formed and they were going to compete against all these other countries I was like ‘ah here’. But I also thought someone’s on this already, somebody has to be making this, because it’s just sitting there waiting to be followed. I came along to the first Irish training session and there was somebody there with a camera and I thought “Bollocks, shit now I’m after missing the boat”, but it was actually an American filmmaker who had spent about two years making a film about the sport, in the world. So it was all about the rules and how many teams there are, it wasn’t a character driven story so that was fine. We were doing something completely different.
What I liked about Revolutions was that it does explain how the sport works early on, but it’s very much character-focused. But for those who have no familiarity with it at all, how would you describe what roller derby is?
That was something we really had to think about in the film. It’s not like it’s about a football team, where everybody knows the ball has to get into the net. In no football documentary do they explain the rules of football. But we had to try and get that in, in a way that didn’t feel like we’re coming out of the story to tell you how the sport works and now we’re going back into the story. Because it’s a story about people, it’s not a story about a sport. And the world is so vibrant and we knew a lot of people would be seeing it for the first time and it would look quite different to them and would be a lot to take in, so let’s not confuse the issue with the rules of the game until they’ve gotten over the shock of people’s hair colour and people falling and being trampled on and all that. We tried to intergrate the rules of the game into the story, we brought it in in the Argentina game which is the first game that is part of the story and driving the story forward, so you felt like you were still in the story. So you’re like “what’s going on? Oh, she’s trying to pass around her, okay”. We narrated the game with the rules. But in answer to your question, there’s an oval track, there’s two teams, there’s five on each team, four blockers and one jammer. The jammer’s job is to pass out the skaters on the other team and the blockers job is to stop her and help their own jammer get through. For every skater on the opposite team the jammer passes, her team gets a point. It’s just much more easy just to watch it. But yeah, then the team with the most points at the ends, wins, every time.
It’s a sport that has a long history, that underwent a revival and where the sport is at now it particularly appeals to women. It also has this theatrical aspect to it as well. From the people you followed, what kind of personalities do you find are drawn to roller derby?
So they get asked this question a lot. They get asked so much “what kind of person plays roller derby” and everybody asks it because it’s like ‘who are they?’ But they’re everybody. They’re you, they’re me, they’re your sister, your ma, your auntie, your daughter, your friend, librarians, teachers…but it’s not as if they’re librarians by day, roller derby killers by night, they’re just women, they’re everyone. But what I noticed about them was a lot of the girls were self-employed or they were starting their own businesses or working together, so they were kind of leaders and they had an independent streak in them. In a group of people, there were probably more self-employed people in the roller derby community maybe than there were in other communities. So that was one thing, there was definitely an “I’ll paddle my own canoe thank you very much” kind of feeling in the group. That’s what was really interesting, not only are they doing all this sport but they’re also trying to pave their way in terms of business, forming their own businesses and making money. Do I have enough money to pay my rent, oh no I don’t, what will I do? It’s not like oh I’ll just go to work again, I need to figure out how else will I make money.
My mother always says paddle your own canoe, from the word go. My parents split up when I was twelve so it was herself and myself and my sister. And she always said paddle your own canoe, not in a cut yourself off from everybody kind of way, but just that’s what she was doing. And that’s what these girls were doing. I thought that was really interesting and empowering, like “yeah, you can do it”.
That comes through when you see the two teams Cork and Dublin come together for Team Ireland, there’s tension that develops between them. What do you think was at the root of that? It definitely runs deeper than just inter-county rivalry.
It’s nothing to do with the counties, that’s just a total coincidence. It’s nothing to do with the old Cork and Dublin rivalries because most of the Cork team are from all over the world, Malta, the US, English, they weren’t your Cork heads. Actually Crow isn’t even from Cork, she’s from Meath even though she has a bit of a Cork accent she’s there so long. It was just that there were a lot of cooks, a lot of strong voices. You put any group of strong people together, there’s going to be…I think the World Cup accentuated the rivalry, because people thought things should have been done differently, so there were too many cooks at the World Cup and that helped to solidify the whole “well we would have done things differently, we run our league differently and we run it so differently that we’re gonna come back and kick your ass and that will prove us right”. It wasn’t even about the other team, it was about rising to the top. It wasn’t about beating Dublin, Cork didn’t give a shit, Dublin didn’t give a shit about that, it was about being the best. They were both having to be at the same place at the same time.
You can see in the film Crow’s ambition isn’t so much to beat Dublin but to surpass where they are. Crow and Zola and Jemerald – these are all interesting personalities to follow. How soon after you began following the teams did you focus in on these people and say this is my story?
If you can imagine being in a room with all those people, they come to you, you know? Zola said to me on the first day, “If you get in my way I’m going to skate through you, camera or no camera”. Point taken, get out of the way, fuck me what am I doing here? After a while you get that and you know the flow of how they skate and all their drills, but on the first day there’s people everywhere and they’re on wheels, you’re thinking can they stop? I don’t know and I’m just terrified. Somebody did skate into me at one point, I didn’t have the camera in my hand, but I had coffee, the coffee went everywhere and I thought “The fuck am I doing with coffee?” There’s still a stain on the wall in Inchicore.
They just stand out, they were the people who were natural leaders. Zola’s a natural leader, Crow is, Bob is. Each knew what they wanted and I could tell by their personalities that they were very goal-driven people and they were going to get what they wanted. They were certainly going to work very hard to get where they wanted to be, do what they wanted to do and that’s a recipe for a good story. Every story needs a good character, who wants something and there’s a number of obstacles in their way. You follow them getting over these obstacles and they either get it or they don’t and there’s a resolution. I knew there will be a resolution here because they’re not going to stop at the first hurdle.
Despite the pressures that come up in the teams and in the sport it’s clear that for these people, roller derby is an outlet for pressures in their own lives, particularly employment. How open were they in allowing access to that part of their lives?
We started the film and I didn’t think we’d be filming it for four years. I thought it would be about roller derby and the World Cup because that’s all I knew of it. Then when I discovered that there was more going on than I’d initially realised, a lot of people are unemployed here and they’re putting so much of their effort into this. It’s more than a sport they play, like Zola says it’s a coping mechanism for the unemployed. Not everyone was unemployed but at that time there were these young people, in their 20s, and when that started to come up, I would try and go into it a little bit. I remember Crow saying “Why are you asking me about me paying my rent? This is about roller derby”. I said it is about roller derby but this is also interesting. She said “Well what are you making?” Bob asked “What’s your angle on this?” I said I don’t have an angle, I’m just discovering as I go through. I don’t want to impose an angle, I just notice this is an interesting thing that’s coming up and I’m just asking about it.
At times I was told absolutely no and then we discussed it a lot. I said the place you’re in is representative of a lot of people in the country, And Crow, rightly so, said yeah it is, but I don’t want to be the person that’s waving the flag for that”. Fair enough. So the whole thing was that I’d push a little and they’d push a little back at me and we’d find a place in the middle where we’re both happy to go that far with it. The whole journey was that. I’d try and go somewhere and sometimes it would be fine, no problem. By the time we realised it was about them as well we were well into it and there was no point in turning back. But for them it was a lot of trust and the most important thing was to earn their trust, to really respect it and make a film that they were happy with as well. Because they were quite vulnerable in it and they gave a lot of themselves in telling their story, so I take the responsibility really seriously to tell a story that they’re happy with, that’s true.
You can feel at times there’s tension directed towards the camera. In the heat of the moment after a loss people are saying they’re not ready to take about this etc. How did you know when exactly to do the pushing and when to pull back?
You get it wrong sometimes as well and you’re told to…go away. You just use your instinct, you know when it’s important to be there and you try to be there for those moments because it’s important to see them. Like that moment after the Dublin/Cork game, where Crow says go away, I can’t be talking to you now, I’m in the middle of this, piss off or whatever. You have to be mindful of how they’re feeling and tread gently. Sometimes you go in there and ask how it’s going and they yell that now’s not a good time and you’re like oh-fuck-sorry-shit, that happened a lot as well! But it comes back to me pushing and them pushing back and we find that place where we’re both happy to rock and roll.
When you travelled with the team to Canada for the World Cup or to watch Dublin play teams abroad did you see how they were perceived by bigger teams or by other countries?
They were playing teams that were at their level. It’s growing all over the world so there’s that 2010 batch that started around then. You picture grass growing all over the world, it’s growing at the same time. The ones that started in 2005 are playing other teams from 2005, there is a ranking system, I think Dublin are 75 at the moment, but they play teams that were developing at a similar rate, at a similar level. Sometimes they go in and they’re annihilated because the other team was more advanced than them, other times they’d go in and there would be a really good game, someone like Sheffield, but they were like Dublin at the time. Cork have come a long way as well since the film, they’ve got a really strong team, they’ve rebuilt their numbers and they’re doing really well, playing a lot of games and stuff. They were playing teams at a similar level.
But at the World Cup, Ireland were laughed at. Zola was telling me people were saying “Why are you even having an Irish team? Why bother, you’re just going to get beaten” and that put a real fire in their belly. They were like, we’re not going to stay at home. The English team said they had a margin of 200 points to clear in winning and for every point they went under they had to do eight press ups or something like that. They were underestimated and laughed at a bit going in there, and they’re Irish girls at the end of the day, nobody puts them in a corner, they’re confident so that gave them fire in their belly to really bring it to them, which they did.
You’ve spoken about how it ended up being a longer shoot than you first anticipated and there were good things you got out of that and maybe a few difficulties as well, but it helped you develop these stories to have a proper beginning, middle and end. After you’ve spent that amount of time with these people, how much is there a feeling of still wanting to check in and know where are they now?
I’m still very much in touch with all of them, really very much in touch with Crow and Zola. They know what’s going on in my life, I know what’s going on in their life, we’re friends now and I’m not bugging them. We always got on great, but there was this thing of ‘oh, she’s probably ringing me because she wants something to film, can’t be arsed with that’ or whatever, there was this thing of me always asking them for stuff, whereas now we can just have the chats and that’s really great. Crow is now doing really well in university, publishing papers, speaking at conferences and you’re like ah, that would have been great to see. You could follow Crow for the rest of her life I think, on all of her adventures. She’s living on an island off Cork, she’s a really passionate person and she brings that wherever she goes. You could follow her for the rest of her life, though she probably wouldn’t let you. We’re pals now and we keep in touch.
Over the years that the film was made you see some of these people end up in a place that’s different to what they might have thought when they started. For you, where do you feel you’re at as a filmmaker when you finish the shoot compared to when you started it in 2011?
I learned so much. I shot the shit out of stuff at the start, I’d just go in there and press record…no I wasn’t that bad. I learned a lot about story, how to shoot a scene to make it work and the right question to ask and not over-shooting stuff. At the start I filmed too much and as I went on I was looking through the footage and I thought, you need to be more organised going in. Think about what might occur and get that, don’t film everything. Certainly now when I go in shooting scenes, I shoot a lot of documentaries for RTÉ and stuff and I know what I need to get, I don’t over-shoot it. And I know when I have the scene, I’m more confident in knowing that I have it and I’m not over-doing it, and I can just learn more about telling stories and what you need to make it interesting and make it work, certainly what to shoot to make it work.
For a documentary you might have an idea going in of what your general story is going to be, but you only really find the story when you’re shooting it, would you agree?
Totally. You go in thinking you’re making one film. Like I made some behind the scenes stuff for an actor, do you know David Morrissey? He was in Basic Instict, he’s a Liverpool actor. I used to work in Liverpool and I got roped into shooting a behind the scenes documentary of his first film that he was directing. I did an interview with him and he said to me that you go in thinking you’re making a film, you shoot a different film, you edit a different film and your end product is so far from the film you thought you were making at the start, you’ve got something that’s a completely different beast altogether.
I was involved in theatre when I was a kid and when I was a teenager, then I made a few short films in my back garden and when I went to Liverpool, my friends were actors and I’d write a script and we’d do that, and we would edit it and had a few little screenings ands tuff. I would write a lot but then I moved to Liverpool and travelled around a lot and I just felt I could sit around and make up stories, or I could look around and make films about that. There’s far more interesting stuff going on in the real world than there is in my head apparently and I wanted to do that, make those stories. That’s why documentary is so interesting, because you go in thinking you have an idea and it becomes something that you never could have envisioned at the start or if you had sat there. You discover so much.
Based on your work on Revolutions and the stuff you’ve worked on since then, when you work on a feature-length film documentary again would you feel like you would want a few years to work on it again or would you want a narrower amount of time to work on the story?
Well it didn’t take that long because I didn’t know where it was going or because it was just starting out. I stuck with it that long because you got this real arc, this real resolution in people’s lives. Certainly I would never intend to spend five years to make a film or six years to make a film again, but that wasn’t my plan going into it either. But there are definitely things that I would do differently, I’d be far more focused from the start, next time.
So not quite Boyhood style?
You never know, if it’s the story takes that long, it takes that long. I could be 50 and spend 10 years making a film and it might need that. I don’t think the experience thing and the length of time filming are really connected in that way. There’s certainly things I could be maybe be more efficient on next time but I wouldn’t change how long I spent following them.
Roller derby in Ireland develops quite a lot over the course of the film and it’s developed even more since. From your perspective, where do you see it going in the future? Do you see it continuing to grow?
I think it’s got such strong roots now because it was a slow development and it was developed by the skaters. They say it’s run by the skaters, for the skaters. They’ve built a really strong foundation, slowly and it’s just been growing and growing ever since. I wish I had numbers actually for you, for Dublin especially, they’ve certainly got a C team now anyway, whereas they only had an A team when we were starting. And I think they’re at 75 in the world. Even since the last World Cup they’ve come on even more, so they can absolutely continue to grow. In the States and the UK there are junior roller derby teams, so there are little kids on skates, that’s something that I’d say will kick off here fairly soon. At the moment you have to be 18 or something for insurance for the teams but getting kids in that’s probably the next step. In terms of competition, they’re rising through the ranks pretty quickly. And the next World Cup is soon, in Manchester. I’m sure the Irish team will be one to watch.
Hopefully they do well.
Hopefully they do well. They might come 10th again, they came 10th in the first World Cup. I’d say they’ll do really well.