Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 16 March 2007
Source 35mm print
Roller derby was invented in the 1940s, and waned in the 1970s before its influential resurrection in Austin in the early 2000s. The resurrection ripened the sport’s potential for exploitation ingeniously: the women are more aggressive and burlesque than their predecessors, displaying pronounced cleavage and elbow or knee pads braced around fishnet stockings. At each match – held between two teams that tally points as both encircle an oval rink – the scanty fashion is ruined in wonderful glory, as women topple over one another, some of them jettisoning each other out of the rink entirely. The concept is ingenious, at once a catalyst for feminism and an embellished entertainment for men.
This is a preconception Hell on Wheels encourages in the viewer, and it is violated with little notice. As a grassroots roller derby league begins to attract members in Austin the injuries begin to mount: an early montage finds a bruised tailbone, a broken wrist, and a stray bicuspid. Later at a match in a banked track, a woman’s lower leg snaps in half, the weight of her left skate contorting her shin into a menacingly incorrect angle.
It is very difficult hereon to remain an audience to the concept’s exploitation, primarily because its aggression and struggle become such prominent deflators. Know that the allure of roller derby is somewhat incidental to Hell on Wheels’ focus, and that footage of derby matches is interrupted regularly by the meetings of the league’s organizers, discussions of finances and democracy, and finally conflict as the original league begins to dismantle.
Seeing this in Austin, with several girls in the film in attendance (most all of whom have professional pseudonyms), was a privilege that necessarily colors my admiration for it—it was the perfect viewing context for this particular film. But despite some aspects of its production that warrant criticism — for one, the filmmakers’ intimacy with the story lends it some glorification — it remains endowed with sincere compassion. That, and a lot of aggression.