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Hell on Wheels

Austin-based director Bob Ray and his roller derby documentary will be at The Grand Cinema

In this article I will compare roller derby to professional wrestling.

Trust me when I say the comparison not only fits, but is complimentary.

Bob Ray's documentary Hell on Wheels reminds me at times very much of Beyond the Mat, the similarly gritty, honest, shoe-string budgeted documentary about pro wrestling in the late ‘90s. In both sports, beneath all of the showmanship, the training, and the learning how to fall, ultimately these people are consummate athletes that have made the decision to give themselves over completely to an activity many people could not or would not ever do.

Yes, it's a grand spectacle. The competitors adopt characters and the punishment for breaking a rule may be to skate along a "Spank Alley," but beneath it all (as both Hell on Wheels and Beyond the Mat show us), there are broken bones, politicking, infighting, and an overwhelmingly deep love and respect for - and commitment to - something that really is an art form.

Bob Ray spent several years with the Austin, TX roller girls, starting in 2001 and going until roughly 2004. In Hell on Wheels, we follow the progression of a roller derby club called Bad Girl, Good Woman (BGGW) as the founders slowly assemble a group of 80 women, learn the ropes of the game, suffer financial and personal hardships, and eventually become a success. A visit from comedian Dave Attell's late-night travelogue show, Insomniac, helps further bolster their success.

The film mostly focuses on the gradual splintering of BGGW, as the competitors get increasingly frustrated with business practices they believe aren't in their best interests. An injury at a venue with a concrete rink that turns out to not be covered by BGGW's insurance helps speed up a mutiny.

But there's a moment toward the end of the film that seems to sum up what Hell on Wheels - and the entire roller derby phenomenon - is really about. A woman is talking about how roller derby is a bunch of loners spending time together. It's an outlet for outcasts: women who don't subscribe to the social norm, who enjoy sporting tattoos instead of dresses, who strive to be individuals.

Bob Ray seems to have a place in his heart for these outsiders, as further evidenced in his later doc, Total Badass, which delves into the Austin underground of music and arts.

We outsiders need support, too. And who better to support us than ourselves?

Director Bob Ray will be at The Grand Cinema in Tacoma Tuesday, July 27 screening Hell on Wheels, part of a DIY tour for the Austin director. The event starts at 7 p.m.

Hell on Wheels

Tuesday, July 27, 7 p.m., $8.50, $6.50 senior, $7 members, $6 senior members
The Grand Cinema, 606 South Fawcett Ave., Tacoma

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