The documentary Jam has the novelty factor going for it in terms of its choice of subject matter: roller derby. And I’d say it’s at least fairly well done.

Roller derby had a brief heyday of a decade or less when I was a child, but has had little visible presence before or after that. Actually, according to the background provided in the movie, as far as attendance and such it was quite a bit bigger in that heyday than I remembered.

The film covers one of the periodic attempts to revive the “sport,” spanning several years starting in the late 1990s. Judging by just about everything shown in the movie, that attempt was largely a flop, though the film does try to end on a more positive note with a caption claiming that since then roller derby actually has come back a bit, with more attendance and such than any time since that boom period that ended in the 1970s. (It’s been so dead since then that that’s probably not saying much. For what it’s worth, I doubt I’ve even heard the term “roller derby” more than a half dozen times since I was a kid, so whatever “revival” it’s experiencing is certainly below my radar.)

The film focuses much more on the people involved in this one specific attempt to bring back roller derby than it does on the activity itself. At the start of the movie, I didn’t even know the rules or the way it’s played beyond a very rudimentary level—they skate around in a circle and try to get past each other—and at the end of the movie I knew basically the same amount.

Because of that focus, one thing the movie doesn’t go into in any deep way is the fake nature of roller derby itself. Like professional wrestling, roller derby is an exhibition where for entertainment purposes people pretend that they’re engaged in a sport.

For much of the movie, it seems to be avoiding that aspect of things entirely, treating roller derby like it’s a real sport. Then eventually things are dropped in here and there hinting or implying what’s going on. (Players lament not having enough time to rehearse for a given match, a player complains that another player isn’t properly following the storyline, a promoter explains why it’s important for one team to present itself as good guys and the other as bad guys, an interviewee remarks that fights should be between people of different races so as to fire up the crowd, etc.)

But the film still never really addresses that issue head on. It’s not quite dishonest enough to present roller derby as unambiguously a legitimate sport, but it cooperates to some extent in the illusion by not focusing its attention there.

I found that mildly disappointing, because that’s the aspect of things I’d be most curious about. For example, was roller derby always that way, or did it start as a real sport? What is it about some “sports” that steers them into this category of staged exhibitions in the first place? For instance, obviously there’s “real” wrestling—collegiate, Olympic, etc.—why couldn’t there be a professional wrestling sport instead of what there is now? Is there, or could there be, a version of roller derby as a real sport? Would it require a somewhat different format or different rules?

But Jam skates around this issue of phoniness—without denying it—so it can’t really pursue questions like these. (Did you catch what I did with “skates” there?)

One thing that crossed my mind, by the way, is that that may have been a condition of getting people to cooperate. Probably this documentary was either made by the roller derby people themselves for promotional purposes, or more likely even if the filmmakers were independent to some degree, the people profiled only agreed to participate if they were promised the film would tread lightly in this area.

Anyway, aside from the “sport,” the people part is handled well. I was never fully drawn in and fascinated by the movie, but I’d say it held my interest moderately well in the way it takes you into these people’s lives and helps you to better understand them and their motivations.

It’s interesting how many people involved in roller derby—or this version at least—are sort of outcast types. Almost all the promoters and participants are some combination of gay, overweight, not conventionally attractive or even average, poor, or way too old to be athletes in a legitimate sport (the average age of the participants is probably in the 50s—the bulk of them are big “names” from when roller derby was at its peak thirty years or whatever earlier).

But the movie doesn’t hold them up for ridicule or make them out to be pitiful. The tone is actually very respectful and sympathetic toward them. The main promoter is HIV positive, and his partner has full blown AIDS, and that whole subject area is handled with sensitivity. Really the promoter embodies what I take to be the main theme of the film, which is that when people have passion and are pursuing their dreams, it’s not so much the object of their passion that’s necessarily admirable or anything special, but the passion itself. As he recounts, his dream from when he was an ungainly effeminate teen geek has been to be involved in roller derby, and now he’s totally throwing his labor, his money, and his heart into reviving it.

No one in the movie seems to have the attitude that this is all pretty silly but we have no other skills, or we’ll do this until something better comes along, or anything like that. Instead, one after another they speak of their love for it, and how much it’s come to mean in their life. (They better love it, because none of them seems to make any real money from it. The promoters evidently keep having to pump more of their own money into it, and the participants take whatever, if anything, they’re offered.)

And that’s clearly what’s intended to be inspirational in the movie. Whatever you think of the activity itself, it’s provided an odd kind of meaning to these people’s lives, up to and including giving HIV positive people something to try to maintain their health for and to live for when they could easily succumb to hopelessness and grief.

I don’t know that I found the people profiled to be on the whole all that likable, but I connected with them a little bit, due to the approach the filmmakers chose.

Interestingly, I found myself reacting with mild distaste when the fan base was talked about. (There’s little or nothing in the way of direct interviews with fans, just random shots of them yelling in the stands. When there are any fans, that is. For some matches virtually no one shows up.) This particular roller derby attempted revival is in San Francisco, and while some of the people they draw fit the demographics one might expect in other areas of the country (stereotypical redneck professional wrestling/NASCAR fans), as the main promoter notes there are also a fair number (which he hopes to grow) of what I might call “ironic” fans. That is, trendy, artsy, intellectual, young, gay, feminist, etc. types who are drawn to the campy aspects of roller derby.

These are the sort of people who look down their nose at conventional sports and conventional sports fans, and who would go to events like roller derby as a form of mockery, as a self-conscious, ironic appreciation for the very over-the-top phoniness of roller derby and its contrast with the sports that lesser folk (mostly straight males) take so ridiculously seriously.

If roller derby were legitimate, then even if I didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t have a problem with people who get into it. But something about the “postmodern” sports fans who get off on being “in on the joke” that it’s not legitimate rubs me the wrong way.

On the whole, as I say, the movie held my interest somewhat, and I thought some of the human elements were worthwhile to examine. It didn’t win me over at all as far as roller derby itself though, and I don’t know that I can give more than a mild recommendation.

Jam is decent if you like documentaries about offbeat subjects.

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