Raise a Little Hell: Hell on Wheels a Fascinating Tale of the Birth of Modern Roller Derby

Monday Magazine | January 31, 2008
A word of warning: Bob Ray’s Hell on Wheels, a documentary about the birth of all-female roller derby in Austin, Texas, won’t necessarily make you want to strap on skates and sign up for the local derby team. The hour-and-a-half-long film depicts serious injuries, drama, fast-paced skating, financial woes, drama and even suicide. Oh, did we mention drama?

“By the end, there’s a positive spin put on it, but overall it’s a pretty heavy drama and I think that’s what gives it some weight and substance,” Ray says of his film. “If it was just a celebration, there would be no interest beyond the core derby audience . . . we wanted people who maybe didn’t care about roller derby to be into the movie and just watch a human conflict.”

Shot over a period of four years (and 500-plus hours of tape), Ray and his producer Werner Campbell managed to get on the Austin derby wagon early in the league’s formation, when four women—under the encouragement of a man known as “Roller Derby Dan,” who turns out to be a less-than-honest guy—form Bad Girl Good Woman Productions, the world’s first all-female grassroots roller derby league, which eventually went on to inspire thousands of ladies all over the world to form their own leagues. Ray, who was fairly well known in the Austin music community for his work on music videos and his acclaimed film Rock Opera, became intrigued with the idea of a derby doc in 2001 after learning a friend of his from high school was on the team—a friend who happened to be the class valedictorian, an accomplished handball player and who held a Masters degree.

“Once I saw that she was involved, it struck me as far more interesting than it was previously because maybe somewhere in the back of my head, I was holding on to a stereotype that a lot of other people seemed to have about the kind of women that do it and what it’s really about,” says Ray.

While the original plan was to focus on particular characters within the derby scene, it quickly became apparent to Campbell and Ray that the story was bigger than individuals.

“We saw that they were going to try. Whether they succeeded or failed, they were going to try and that would be a fight, that would be the conflict,” he says. “We were trying to take more of a sociological approach and look at what this group was doing and try and stay in their world. Over time, characters fell by the wayside in the broader scheme of things and the group story became much larger.”

Despite being burned early on by Dan and vowing to make the league a ladies-only affair, the girls gave Ray and Campbell total access. They managed to be there every step of the way, from private meetings of the four founders—who attempt to incorporate the league into a business and dub themselves She-EOs—to bone-crunching crashes at derby bouts to very emotional blowouts that lead to the formation of a second, player-run league. It’s this unfettered access that makes for a great—albeit tension-ridden—film. Ray says it was a combination of their dedication (they sometimes filmed 17 or 18 days a month) and their promise to not let anyone else see interview footage they shot that led the women to trust them—particularly after the league split.

“Because we had been very clear with our intentions and we hadn’t released any footage, they kept telling us what was happening,” says Ray. “I think everyone on both sides of the fence felt we were going to be objective.”

This objectivity and dual perspective not only makes for a great movie, but it may have also helped to heal some of the rifts caused between the original Bad Girl Good Woman crew (a.k.a. TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls) and the Texas Rollergirls, particularly after the world premiere screening at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin last year.

“By the time the movie finished, the women had seen that the intentions of the opposition weren’t malicious or vindictive. They weren’t just out to screw over their opponents, they were just protecting their own interests. That took a little bit of the edge off, it made it less personal,” says Ray. “In part, a lot of that had to do with the fact that it had been a couple years since the split had happened and people were just ready to move on. They’re still not super friendly, but they’re not hostile anymore either.” M

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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