A documentary about all things derby: the sport, the culture and some seriously kickass women. From its roots in Austin, Texas, modern day roller derby has become the fastest growing women’s sport in the world. The film follows the phenomena here in Australia, with a group of very different women who band together to grow their own grassroots Roller Derby league in the rural town of Ballarat. Over twelve months, they strive to become a part of the greater Roller Derby community.
Intriguing premise ends up going in circles.

The test for a good sports documentary is whether it engages viewers with no interest in that particular game, or even sport in general. To take just one example, I’ve absolutely no interest in disabled men’s wheelchair basketball, yet I found the 2005 documentary Murderball a blast for its insights into a different and colourful world and its exploration of some difficult personal journeys.

This would have made a successful 50-minute documentary.

For the first 35 minutes, this local doco about the Australian roller derby scene seems to be pursuing a comparable path. Director Daniel Hayward (previously assistant director on the 2008 low-budgeter Men’s Group) does a great job in outlining the history of this female-dominated sport and introducing some of the local characters who play it. These young women have adopted monikers: 'Barrelhouse Bessy’ is a US roller derby enthusiast who brought her obsession along for the ride when she migrated to Adelaide, while 'Mad Mac’ is the nom-de-skate for a librarian whose sedate day job gives the need to find physical release.

Fantasy and escapism quickly emerge as important parts of the appeal of a world variously described as 'rock’n’roll" and 'punk" and partly inspired by the gay scene’s love of camp. Common elements are wild costumes, tatoos, proudly displayed knickers (one contestant has 'Eat this, bitch" sewn into the back of her panties), and, bizarrely, mock weddings of women players that the participants insist have no lesbian connotations.

The film starts with a brisk summary of roller derby’s origins in the US during the Depression – initially as a kind of skating equivalent to the marathon dancing contests seen in Sydney Pollack’s 1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Organisers observed the viewers erupting every time the skaters crashed into a 'pile up", and so the roughhouse game developed.
Roller derby reached a peak of popularity when televised in the early 1970s but ultimately went the way of wrestling, where it became "all about storylines" rather than genuine competition, and declined. But in 2001 it was revived by a promoter in Austin, Texas, where it quickly spread to the US, then Europe and Australia.

This would have made a successful 50-minute documentary. The first half, at least, has genuine energy. Hayward clearly finds roller derby fascinating as a phenomenon, and his subjects display infectious enthusiasm.

The trouble is that in driving his material towards a feature-length running time of 80-odd minutes, Hayward steers into a cul-de-sac, showing longer extracts of the action from tournaments rather than digger deeper into some of the personal stories.

The most frustrating omission, though, is the film’s failure to ask the big question: where are the men? True, we meet a single male player, who half-jokes that he came along to meet more women, along with a few obsessive male fans. But were there ever male teams, and why did the sport appeal primarily to women in the first place?

I suspect part of the answer is that so many established sports are already male dominated, giving women a motive to stake out their own turf, but the topic is left frustratingly unexplored. And while the film does touch on the question of injuries (this is hardly a gentle game - understatement), and the obvious preponderance of larger-figured women in the sport, it skates a bit too superficially through these questions to satisfy.