Revolutions follows the journey of the Irish roller derby team.
a true underdog story

'A lot of them were unemployed and they were trying to find their place again'

Filmmaker Laura McGann chats about her new film Revolutions, which takes an in-depth look at the Irish women’s roller derby team.

IN THE TRAILER for Laura McGann’s upcoming documentary Revolutions, one line in particular feels key.

“Roller derby, it’s a coping mechanism for the unemployed,” one of the film’s three main protagonists says.

The sentence brings together the story’s two main strands. On the one hand, it’s a film about a sport that not many Irish people will know an awful lot about, but equally, it is about a time that few will forget.

When McGann started shooting Revolutions in August 2011, the recession was at its height.

The project began innocuously enough. McGann reached out to the Dublin Roller Derby team on Facebook and eventually got a response after a couple of attempts.

The sport, on these shores, was in its infancy. However, versions of it in the US date as far back as the 1930s. Indeed, by the 1940s, the sport was being shown on television and its increasing theatricality over the course of the 20th century led many to compare it to and associate it with wrestling – results were even pre-determined at one stage, and competitors would come onto the track wielding baseball bats and chainsaws among other instruments of violence.

Nevertheless, having seen its popularity dwindle to the point of irrelevance, a roller derby revival took place in the early 2000s. An amateur female-driven modern incarnation of the sport is thought to have begun in Austin, Texas before spreading throughout the US and beyond thereafter.

Roughly a decade after the revival started, the craze hit Ireland. The first team in Dublin was formed in 2010 — not long before McGann started filming her documentary. Moreover, the first day of shooting happened to be the first Team Ireland training session.

Wildcard Distribution / Vimeo

The film traces the sport’s gradual development in this country — from one initial team, the number of clubs based throughout the country is now believed to have reached double figures. When we initially meet them, the Irish team — made up mainly of the Cork and Dublin skaters – are preparing to compete in the first-ever roller derby World Cup in December 2011 in Toronto, Canada. It follows the inexperienced side on this journey and over the course of the next few years, all the way through the 2014 World Cup in Dallas, Texas (the competition is taking place again next year in Greater Manchester, England)

“I thought, hang on a minute, something’s really happening here,” McGann tells The42.

Not only is there a really colourful, exciting, fearsome sport, but there is a big event happening in the sport, a worldwide event, and there are people from Ireland (competing in it).

“But there were girls in the States who had been doing roller derby for maybe 10 years at that point.

By the time they went to the World Cup, some of the (Irish team) had played three games and then they were going to be in the World Cup, whereas they were competing against teams who had played 3,000 games. So it was a really big deal — it was kind of like The Mighty Ducks story.

“They were certainly the underdogs going in there and people were kind of saying: ‘Why are you even bothering to have an Irish team?’ The girls were like ‘because we are… We’re going to go over there to do our best and we’re going to represent, and they absolutely blew people out of the water. There were jokes being made about the Irish team going over there, and they really surprised.”

In addition to conveying the many aspects of roller derby that draw people so intensely to the sport, the film is also an intimate portrait of a small group of fascinating characters, illustrating how they live and cope with various highs and lows over the course of a five-year period.

And unlike the Cristiano Ronaldos and Conor McGregors of this world, the athletes portrayed in Revolutions happen to be ordinary people with real-life struggles trying to come to terms with a recession-hit country in which faint vestiges of hope are provided by this incredible and unusual sport.

It’s competitively fuelled, but the narrative of the film is really the people’s lives,” McGann explains. “But what was interesting as a second layer is that these are women who are all in their late 20s and early 30s. The recession has (impacted on) what they were doing previously. A lot of them were unemployed and they were trying to find their place again.

“One of the girls had just finished a PhD and she couldn’t get a job.

One of the other girls was making high-level furnishings for other people’s houses. But people stopped doing up their houses and the work completely dried up.

“One of the girls described it as a coping mechanism for the unemployed. It was somewhere where you were needed and it was necessary to get out your aggression and be part of something, because being unemployed is a lonely place. To be part of a team can mean a lot, so that was the other angle that we followed.”

Zola skate

Having devoted more than five years of her life to the project, McGann describes becoming deeply immersed in the world of women’s roller derby as an intense but ultimately satisfactory experience.

I kind of compared it to if I worked in radio and you say the words, they come out of your mouth then they’re being broadcast at the same time. This was the complete opposite of that, where you shoot something and it kind of goes into a vault that you’re tipping away at.

“I was always really passionate about (the project) and I’m really passionate about the characters as well. I really love the characters. And at times, they weren’t getting on for whatever reason and I would empathise with each of them even though they’d be kind of disagreeing with each other.

I was always so fascinated by the world and by our characters in terms of staying committed to the project. It was easy (for me), because it was a really interesting story.

“But more so for the people in the film, that’s who it was hard for. We started off making the film and we thought ‘it’ll probably take us a year’ with the edit as well.

That’s what I had kind of said to them, I certainly didn’t go in thinking we were going to spend five years shooting with them, so they’d turn around to me and say ‘Laura, what are you fucking doing?’ They were like: ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’

“Keeping them on board was a really big challenge and it was a challenge for them as well. ‘So Laura, are you just going to follow me around for the rest of my life asking: Why am I doing this? Why am I doing that?’ I said: ‘I promise you I won’t, but I just need you to keep with me for a while.’ That took a lot of their time, effort and energy, sitting down, catching up on interviews.

Allowing me to be there and film them at all these different events that they were going to in their lives, you do get used to a camera looking at you all of the time, but then you get fed up with it.

“For them to maintain that commitment was incredible. There are not a lot of people that would allow you to do that, so it was probably the trickiest part for all of us — the length of time that it went on for. But that’s what’s really strong about this film. You get real character progression.

You get really light progression — there’s a beginning, middle and end. And it’s because we allowed it to happen naturally and we were there for those moments. I think it’s more indicative of what real life looks like because of that.”

Crow in Cork

For McGann, it was a seminal project. She has directed TV shows and documentary shorts before, in addition to working as a cinematographer, but Revolutions is her debut feature. Influenced by the work of fellow documentarians Kim Longinotto and Nick Broomfield, she studied Media and Film in Ballyfermot College of Further Education before moving to Britain and undertaking a masters in documentary filmmaking in Liverpool’s Hope University between 2005 and 2007, returning to Ireland in 2011.

The native of Newbridge, Kildare has previously worked on Channel Four soap Hollyoaks as well as becoming involved in a documentary series for National Geographic/Lonely Planet, but nothing has yet compared to the scope of Revolutions — a labour of love for the young director that was supported by the distributors Wildcard Films with help also coming in the form of funding from the Irish Film Board.

The trailer (see above) got a positive reaction when it was released during the week, while the film itself received a small screening at the Galway Film Fleadh last July.

In almost a year since then, McGrath and her colleagues have been tirelessly spreading word about Revolutions, and finally it has come to the point where it is about to be shown in select cinemas across the country.

Bob and Kitty

“Was (shooting a feature) what I expected? I don’t know,” she says.

I love jumping into the car with a camera and going off to follow people around. I love being the kind of person in the room who is just observing. You just get to see so much.

“I play a bit of hockey, we have a lesbian hockey club and during build up to the referendum for marriage equality, I saw the hockey club and thought ‘oh my god, it’ll make such an interesting documentary’ to follow the girls as they all campaign for marriage equality.

But then I thought: ‘At this point, I’m actually going to be part of the group and do it myself, as opposed to make a documentary about it.’ You are on the sidelines (for documentaries) and no matter how much you’re there and how much you feel part of it, you’re not. So it’s interesting to be able to stand back and just kind of observe. I just like watching things and especially within groups as well.

“When I finished shooting and editing the film, I thought most of the work was done. What I didn’t realise is that there was a hell of a lot more work ahead of me and a huge part of my job now was to make sure that this film got to an audience.

Films are made and you are tired. You do think: ‘How much more energy do I have in the tank?’ Or: ‘How much longer can I spend on this film?’ You’re fighting to get it out there, to get people to sit up and be interested in it. I had to push it hard and I didn’t realise the work was only starting.

“Now it’s at this great stage where I get to talk about it and I can’t wait for it to be on in the IFI opening on the 30th — I’m really nervous, I’m actually trying not to think about it.”

Zola hug Amanda R. Wagner Amanda R. Wagner

Yet regardless of who does and doesn’t see it, McGann can reflect on being part of a memorable experience and one in which she is immensely proud and grateful to have witnessed at close quarters, enabling her to tell the story of how a burgeoning sport allowed a select few lucky participants to dream big despite living in a place and time in which hope and ambition was relatively thin on the ground.

We came to the point in the film where I realised that each of our three characters, compared to where they had started, were now in a completely different place. They had come to a natural resolution of all the obstacles they had come up against when I met them,” McGann recalls.

“They had found their resolution. And sometimes it wasn’t quite what they thought it would be, but they were happy. The film was clear in my head and I felt like it had meaning.

That was a highlight (of the process) — when I saw the film in my head with a beginning, middle and end, and I thought it was an important story.

“The low point was probably just before that when I didn’t have a full picture of how it was going to resolve itself and I felt: ‘Am I going to be making this film for the rest of my life?’

“And that’s tough with docs, because these are real people’s lives — you don’t get to write it.”

To find out more about Revolutions and where it’s playing in the coming days, you can visit its official website –

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