A little flame in the dark

Erica Tremblay on roller derby, gender, community and In The Turn.

by Jennie Kermode

Crystal meets her heroes
Crystal meets her heroes

Some people make films under the misapprehension that it will make them rich. Some do it because they love telling stories. Erica Tremblay hopes that her latest film will change the way some viewers live their lives. But there’s nothing preachy about In The Turn. Rather, it’s a modest little documentary about a nine year old Canadian girl whose life is transformed when she discovers roller derby and – finally – a community that welcomes her. What’s revolutionary about it is it celebration of the fact that LGBT and queer lives can be happy ones.

“I was tired of the same tragic stories about people being sad in their mom’s basement,” Erica explains. “We wanted to make a film about queer acceptance. It’s important to tell those other stories but we felt it was time to laugh and tell a happy story.”

Roller derby is a sport she has a strong personal connection to, a sport she played for eight years. When she moved to Los Angeles she was excited by the “beautiful stories” she heard about others in the roller derby scene, and realised that she wanted to make a film about it, focusing on queer lives, so she interviewed Mister Sister and Penelope, whose stories are told in the final film, and made a trailer with which to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Then something happened that led her to change her plans.

All's fair in love and roller derby
All's fair in love and roller derby

“We got a letter from Karen about Crystal, who was not supposed to be on the computer, but had scrolled through her mother’s Facebook feed and saw our Kickstarter and watched the video, then ran into the kitchen and said to her mom ‘Please send these people all of this money and ask for donations so they can make this film!’ Karen was on a low income with not lot a to send but the film fired up Crystal’s imagination because she’d never seen anyone like her be able to play sports like this.”

Crystal is transgender and loved sports as a child but had recently been told she wasn’t allowed to play on the girls’ teams at her schools. She was also being bullied and Karen, her mother, was very worried about the impact is was having on her, something that is captured at the start of the film.

“We knew she had a tough time there in Ontario so people quickly befriended Crystal and people were sending her gear,” says Erica. There’s no need for her to spell out that many people in the Lo Angeles community will have had similar experiences in their youth. “Nine months after we found Crystal, Karen called me and said ‘Crystal is talking a lot about maybe being in the film.’ At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was a great storyline but it was such a big responsibility, taking a young child’s story and potentially exploiting it in that way. I’m a cisgender woman and I didn’t know if this was a story I could tell. But we kept talking and Karen assured me that it was something Crystal came up with on her own. It was something that she wanted to do, to tell her story. In the end, seeing her journey through it was the best example of what that culture looks like.”

Erica tackled some of her concerns by including other trans participants in the film so that the burden of explaining what it means to have that experience didn’t all fall on Crystal. She got trans friends to watch the cuts so that they could call her attention to anything problematic, and she made sure that Crystal and Karen were the first to see the final cut, making some last minute adjustments to ensure that they were comfortable with it.

A lot of it came together in the edit, she explains. “At one point we had pre-transition photos that Fifi [one of the other trans participants] readily gave us, but I thought, this is not accurate, it doesn’t reflect how Fifi expresses herself. Being trans is not something she wears on her sleeve, it’s just part of who she is. We wanted the film to reflect what people are like in real life so we didn’t talk about Fifi’s transness until halfway through the film, whereas with Emma [another contributor] it was an exclamation point in her life. It’s so much more organic how there’s a moment in the film where she finds an old photo.” There have been six or seven documentaries made about roller derby already, she says, so she didn’t feel the need to go into detail about the sport itself, especially as it’s a complicated game. She was more interested in exploring the importance of the sport to feminism and the way it has impacted the lives of people playing, capturing a moment in time.

Crystal takes to the track
Crystal takes to the track

“It was mostly shot in 2013 and 2014,” she says, and explains that the featured roller derby collective, the Vagine Regime, has since changed its name because it doesn’t want to sound exclusionary if a person doesn’t have a vagina. “I would have loved to have that conversation in the film as well. I think it’s on the forefront of discussing issues in the construction of sport, what it means to have ownership over your body and how that translates outside of that space, how trans people on the trains shouldn’t be harassed and how trans people shouldn’t be murdered in the streets.”

At least 23 trans people have been murdered this year in the US alone.

“Part of the reason why it’s not more about the sport itself is that as it developed I found I really wanted to focus on Crystal,” she says. “It’s a beautiful story, a tragic story, a narrative I hope will inspire people, whether they’re queer or not. If they’ve ever encountered any push back on their identity in any way at all, they can identify with people in film and their struggles. I hope it can be a little flame in the dark.

“It’s been an amazing experience for me as a filmmaker. I had to learn everything along the way because it was my first feature so when I look at it now there are things I’d do differently,” But she’s pleased with the result, and with audience reactions to it. “It’s been at over 60 film festivals so we’ve been able to fly Crystal to new cities and new countries... I know it’s not going to make a million dollars but I want people to see it because I want it to reach people who may be inspired in their own identity transformation. Then, once I pay back the deferred payments and pay back the crew, who all worked for free, I want to take any proceeds to start a scholarship fund for Crystal. As activists, we didn’t want to just tell her story then be out of Crystal’s life. At the end of the film everybody’s lives carry on but she has to leave LA and that ocean to go back to Ontario, so I hope we can continue to support her.”

In The Turn goes on digital release on 25 October and is now available for pre-order on iTunes.

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