'In the Turn' Takes Us Inside the World of Queer Roller Derby

We chat with director Erica Tremblay about her documentary and the importance roller derby plays in queer culture.

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Nov 23 2016, 12:00am

Photo courtesy of In the Turn

Erica Tremblay is a filmmaker and roller derby athlete known as GoGo Gidget. When she began searching for a topic for her next project after completing her first feature documentary, 2012's Heartland: a Portrait of Survival, the merging of her two biggest passions felt like a natural fit for her. The result is In the Turn, "a queer roller derby documentary."

The film follows Crystal, a ten-year-old trans girl from a small town in Canada, as she finds acceptance and empowerment in a queer roller derby collective. For Tremblay, who says the sport helped her find a feminist awakening as well as the safety and security to come out as queer, the opportunity to highlight the community felt like something she had to do. In the Turn introduces us to incredible athletes who have found happiness through living lives authentic to who they are—and it shows this reality through the eyes of a child.

The film has been screened at more than 50 film festivals and won one of the top prizes at the Atlanta Film Festival, achieving the impressive task of a niche film finding success with a mainstream audience. This month, it's available on iTunes, Amazon, and other on-demand players. VICE called Tremblay at her home in New York City to discuss the film, queerness, and why images of marginalized communities are so important. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Can you tell me a bit about how this film came to be?
Erica Tremblay: I knew I wanted to [make a film] around queer culture, so I decided I'd do a film on queer roller derby because I'd been playing for about seven years at that point, and roller derby had a huge impact on my self-actualization. I decided to focus on the Vagine Regime, [a queer roller derby collective]. Crystal didn't come into play until about six months into shooting. We'd created a Kickstarter video that showcased some of the athletes you see in the film, and one of them was Fifi Nomenon, who is an out trans skater. Crystal was scrolling through [her mom] Karen's feed on Facebook, and she found that video. She went running into the kitchen and was like, "Mom! They're making this movie, and there's this person called Fifi Nomenon who's just like me."

Karen and Crystal sent us an open letter, which you hear read in the film. At that point, we still didn't think we were going to pull Crystal into this film—and then, about six months into shooting, Crystal called me and was like, "Can I be in the film?" She really wanted to tell her story, and Karen ultimately left it up to Crystal.

Filmmaker Erica Tremblay

One of the things in the story, and one of the things I hadn't considered for trans kids, is that she couldn't play sports anymore once she transitioned.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was really into sports, and I remember not even knowing I was queer at the time. These girls were snickering in the locker room, and they wouldn't change in front of me—they were all laughing and said, "You're a dyke." I didn't even know what that was. I was 15, growing up in the Midwest in the 90s. I quit playing sports after that day. I think a lot of people who have been drawn to [roller derby] can relate. So when the community heard this young person talking about how she wasn't able to play sports because of her gender identity, in some way, we were able to identify with that.

Which speaks to the inclusivity of the Vagine Regime that we see in the film. It has "vagina" in the name, but you don't have to have a vagina to be included.
The Vagine Regime is actually going through a rebranding of sorts—it's now referred to as the VR, to be inclusive of other body parts. When you talk to Injure Rogers, [who founded the Vagine Regime], it started out as a lesbian safe space in roller derby. But over the past 15 years, queer culture has changed, and we realized that [the VR] needed to expand. The community continues to evolve, and I think this film had a lot to do with opening up people to other experiences.

What do you think the biggest takeaway from your film is?
When you see the impact that discrimination, bigotry, transphobia, and homophobia have on a young person, you can't turn away from it. [It's about] being able to understand that the things we say, the things that we do, the policies that are enacted, and the people that we vote for really do have an impact on our children. I don't think you have to be queer or from a marginalized group to watch Crystal's story and understand that we need to be listening and inclusive.

I don't think you have to be queer or be from a marginalized group to watch Crystal's story and understand that we need to be listening.

I really felt a sense of palpable joy while watching the film.
We wanted to make a film that celebrates queerness, transness, and these amazing athletes who have a positive story to tell—as opposed to the tragic stories that we hear a lot about from the queer community. We wanted to take all of the tragic sadness and put it in the very front of the film, so we open in this stark region where there's a [tough] daily life that this young girl is living. Past the credits, we wanted to show where we go from there and have it be an upward arc. We wanted to humanize these groups of people who have so often been dehumanized.

Did you know that this was going to end up on iTunes and Amazon?
We almost signed a contract with a larger distribution company that probably could've taken our film even further, but in our first meetings, they continued to misgender Crystal. On the day we were supposed to sign the contract, I called my producing partner, Bernard Parham, and was like, "I can't take this film that we've made and put it into the hands of people who don't understand what we're doing." So we walked away from that deal, and it took us another seven months to find a small boutique company that would take us on while really understanding and getting our film. We felt a responsibility to Crystal. It doesn't stop when the cameras are put down: You think you've reached success, and then you find out that these people are rotten all the way up to the top.

Do you know what Crystal is up to now?
She's still very isolated in Timmons, [Ontario]. They screened the film twice in Timmons, so the community got to see it, and she's able to participate in sports now—but these other kids have now been playing sports for four years longer than she has. Even though this film was able to make a positive impact in Crystal's life, there are thousands of kids out there just like Crystal who didn't get to go to the roller derby camp and didn't have Karen as a mother. It's tough to see that even though Crystal has had some progress, there's still so much more she needs.

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