Firstly, great title. Actually everything about this movie is really classy and well-paced. Which is excellent because the subject matter is kind of surprisingly difficult to get your head around once you start watching. It’s about women, and aggression, and teamwork, and sisterhood, and judgement, and violence, and not fitting in and trying to find a place to fit in.
(I should also admit here that a very good friend of mine, the lovely Prisca Bouchet, edited the film along with Monica – but I promise I didn’t pick it as my first film to review just because I knew the editor- I picked it because it was the most interesting film on the plane to watch that was directed by a woman. Oh and also, credit to Air New Zealand as they actually had a fairly large number of films directed by women as part of their selection. Well, by large I mean 5 or 6 but hey that’s 5 or 6 more than is showing in Melbourne at the moment. Most of them were rom-coms which I wasn’t really in the mood for, but I think that’s less to do with Air New Zealand’s programmers and more to do with the kinds of films that women get hired to make in general. Anyway, back to the matter at hand…)
‘Pretty Brutal’ is a film about roller derby, the first roller derby league in New Zealand to be exact, and the women who helped establish it. The women are only identified by their Derby names and we get to follow three of them; Pieces of Hate, Kid Vile and Naki Kronic throughout their daily lives, sometimes visiting their jobs as well as on the court, watching them deal with the dichotomy of trying to fit in as a woman in our world where there is really a very rigid definition of How To Be A Woman (dainty, sparkly, pretty, demure, thin, softly spoken, sexy but not slutty, etc) and then working within this whole other set of rules they’re trying to assimilate into their world. Derby girls are strong, Derby girls aren’t afraid to get hurt, Derby girls know what they want, Derby girls push to get what they want.
First-time director Monica De Alwis has a really nice light touch, where she just follows a few characters and lets them tell their own stories. She shot the film pretty much by herself and spent several years hanging out and observing the film’s subject matter and gaining their trust. As a result she gets a lot of very nice frank interviews and candid footage of organisational meetings. In fact, for me, the group meetings were the most interesting and uncomfortable part of the film. All these strong, opinionated women just shouting at each other and trying SO HARD to make this thing work. All of these different points of view meeting and clashing, and there is occasional bitchiness, and sometimes pure genuine argumentativeness and it is just incredibly refreshing. These were great set pieces in direct contrast to the controlled aggression on the Roller Derby court (is it a court? Maybe it’s a track?). And really lends a nice push for the films central questions around women and aggression. Why should women be polite and diplomatic and ‘feminine’ around the meeting table? Why can’t they be loud, and bitchy, and passionate and angry? That’s part of womanhood too.
De Alwis’s camerawork is basic but eloquent, you get the feel for the chaos of a derby match with the rules explained sporadically throughout- you have to figure it out for yourself like you would if you were really there. The energy of the matches are interspersed with the stillness of her interviews, where the camera sits back and moves little. She intercuts her interviews with stills of bright graffiti and street art. The whole film has a gritty, natural feel to it and meanders from topic to topic without feeling too preachy or cliché.
There’s a real attempt here to discuss issues of aggression and feminity in an intelligent way, one of the characters works in a men’s rugby club by day and does women’s roller derby by night. And the way that she talks about sports and women and men and violence is quite frankly, fascinating and very articulate. And then there’s the constant need to manage the way the press talk about Roller Derby as a sport, should they use the word ‘smash’ to describe what they do or does that minimize the technical and tactical aspects of the game? Every piece of press coverage they get ends up painting Roller Derby as ‘Hot Chicks Smashing Each Other’. Why do we feel the need to sexualize women’s sports in such a way? Nobody ever described men’s rugby as ‘Hot Dudes Pounding Each Other’ did they?
All in all this is a really great watch which raises some excellent questions and follows some really compelling characters.
I’d recommend it to anyone, and I can’t wait to see what Monica De Alwis does next.