SIFF: Rat City Rollergirls on Film!

"I'd been in Seattle for one week and, literally, Rat City Rollergirls came up three times. In one week! I was like, 'What is this?'" That's how Lacey Leavitt, co-director of Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls, recalls her first encounter with the now-ubiquitous local group. It was the spring of 2004, and she'd recently returned to her hometown from New York, where she'd worked on The Squid and the Whale. Back in Seattle, she began filming a documentary about meth addiction with Lainy Bagwell. The two women had originally met while working at film festivals, including SIFF, where Bagwell started more than 12 years ago. But meth proved to be an overwhelmingly depressing topic, so Leavitt and Bagwell set that project aside for another, more cheerful subject for their debut film. And one closer to home, since a fellow SIFF staffer, Corey Arnold, was a member of the Rat City Rollergirls (RCRG) league just then being established. She helped introduce the filmmakers to what was then one of a handful of Roller Derby revival teams in the world. Says Bagwell, "I was a big fan of old Roller Derby, and the revival of it really interested me. I used to watch it on TV when I was a kid in the late '70s with my family and loved it! I didn't know it had come back. I thought it would make a great subject for a documentary." Certainly it's cinematic, as we see in Blood, which has its world premiere this weekend. The four teams of the RCRG dress in provocative uniforms, short skirts, vintage skates, ripped fishnets, and gruesome face paint as they flash around the rink. Fans, and the filmmakers, are treated to a close-up view of careening, crashing, body-checking competitors in near-constant motion. Competitors take monikers like Burnett Down, Basket Casey, and Drew Blood. The league was started here by co-founder Lilly Warner (aka Hurricane Lilly), who'd fallen in love with the sport in Austin, Texas, after meeting some local rollergirls at the SXSW music festival. Bagwell and Leavitt began filming soon thereafter. What they found were the newly minted Seattle league's four teams: the Derby Liberation Front, Grave Danger, the Sockit Wenches, and the Throttle Rockets (each with about 18 members). They initially competed at the Southgate skating rink in White Center—aka "Rat City." Points are scored by lapping members of the opposing team, with five women each allowed on the track at one time. Each skater has a specific role to play—pivot, jammer, blocker—during two 30-minute periods. All of which, for Bagwell and Leavitt, was new and foreign. But undeniably popular: The action, indie T&A vibe, rock shows at halftime, plus cheap beer and barbecue all helped spread the sport like a Hollywood Hills wildfire in August. RCRG bouts have since moved to a larger facility at Magnuson Park, and more than 4,500 recently saw the teams at Everett Events Center. Some 20,000 fans attended a competition among eight teams from across the country at Bumbershoot last year. Financing out of pocket, Bagwell and Leavitt continued to film over the following two years, meanwhile working temp jobs and for SIFF. So, did Bagwell's exposure to so many past SIFF documentaries help with shaping Blood? "To be honest," she says with a laugh, "working for the festival means you're so busy that you don't really get the chance to actually see many of the films." (As a former festival employee myself, that's been my experience, too.) Last year, the filmmakers traveled to Tucson, Ariz., where a RCRG all-star selection team competed in the national championships. This spring, even as Blood was being frantically edited down from 250 hours of footage to be considered for SIFF, the all-star team beat the reigning national champions, Austin's Texecutioners, providing a nice coda to the film. How does Bagwell feel about getting her first movie into SIFF? "I have never done a short, or anything, and for it to get into a film festival—this one especially—is pretty incredible." This year she'll wear two kinds of passes around her neck—both as filmmaker and employee. Just don't expect her to have time to see many movies.

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