The Bravado of Storytelling by Alix Towler Salt ’17
Wheels click in staccato rhythms and rubber stoppers shriek against the slick wooden floor of the track. Strapped head to toe in protective pads and helmets, 10 women on rollerskates jockey for position, huddling in groups, bracing and pushing. Two nimble skaters—jammers—race each other as they try to score points for their teams while avoiding the clusters of the opponent’s blockers.
It’s a Saturday night in September—the opening bout of the 2017 Maine Roller Derby season. The RIP Tides are battling the Calamity Janes at Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland, Maine. I am trying to be nimble myself as I dart from this corner to that, my camera and tripod in tow. I chose roller derby as the subject for my short documentary film project at Salt because I’ve always loved the pageantry of the sport: the campy derby nicknames like Cabbage Smash Kid and Stella Moves, and the displays of bravado and high drama on the track. But as I circle the players trying to get footage, trying not to get hit, I’m still not sure of the story I want to tell.
Later, at the after-party, under glowing strings of lights on the rooftop ofBayside Bowl, I asked some of the skaters sitting near me, “What should my focus be? What is the real story here?” One of the newer skaters spoke up quickly. She looked younger than most of the other skaters, and her long limbs, speed, and agility made her a natural jammer. During the bout, she looked almost like she was tiptoeing as she fought her way through the opposing team’s blockers—a mix of determination and uncertainty. She shared her own story: like other gay women on the team, she’d found not only a community that is notoriously inclusive, but she’d also met women who’d been out for some time and were living the kinds of lives she hoped for herself. I thought about my own experiences as a gay person, how I sought out places where I could be around other LGBT people, how reassuring it felt to see those older community members and think, “I’m going to be okay.” Her story stuck with me all weekend.
The following week, I asked if she would share her story in my film, and she reluctantly agreed. She was nervous about being on camera, afraid she might say the wrong thing; she didn’t really want the spotlight.That week, she allowed me to film her at practice, gliding around the track, chatting with teammates, but the following evening, when it was time to sit down for the interview, she texted me apologetically. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to share her story, to open herself up to judgment and scrutiny. I told her I understood, but I was crushed. I wasn’t sure that I could make the film without her story.
Before I came to MECA, I buzzed with anticipation through the spring and summer, knowing that I would soon be leaving a job that had become heavy and stale. I knew I would spend the last four months of the year far from home, learning to make documentaries while surrounded by other students chasing the same dream. But during the second week of classes, when we turned in our first assignments, I realized that I was afraid to share my work with the class. I had studied photojournalism as an undergrad a decade ago, but in the years between had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is to create something so personal and then put it up on a screen for others to judge. I couldn’t fault the young skater for being scared of how I might tell her story or for her fear of what others might think.
I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries.
In the weeks after our failed interview, I wrestled with my disappointment, but I knew I just wasn’t done with roller derby yet. I thought about the other people I’d met sitting on the rooftop at that after-party. There’d been a young man there who had met a skater at a record store just
days before. After he’d confided in her that he really didn’t have many friends and was lonely, she’d invited him to the bout and he had decided to come. And there’d been all those other skaters: each had their own story of what had brought them to the sport, and each had stayed with it because they’d found a community that welcomed them and accepted them as they were. I decided to continue with the project, to gather as many of their stories as I could and try to capture that sense of community.
I also thought about my own story. I realized that I came to Salt, to MECA, to Maine, chasing a sense of belonging as much as a dream of making documentaries. All my classmates have their own story of what brought them to Salt, but we’ve all been welcomed into a community here, and it makes me think of what I find most wonderful about the documentary: the feeling of connection to someone or something you didn’t know before.
Alix Towler Salt '17 is a writer, artist, and documentary filmmaker from North Carolina. A former forensic social worker, Alix focuses primarily on issues of social justice but is also drawn to document the quirky, the novel, and the charming. She came to Portland as an inaugural member of the fall class of Salt at MECA.
Images in Header: Photos by Alix Towler Salt '17, except for upper right photo by Rick Stark Salt '17