Director: Alma Tabernero
Running time: 20mins
Roller-skates and I are not friends. Each time I have tried it has been equally disastrous – just with the toll it takes on my ageing body multiplied a little every time. For a few moments I find a way to jerkily shuffle about, until I have enough momentum for both legs to suddenly sweep themselves from beneath me, and I fall on my arse.
For this reason, much of my time watching Women on a Roll was taken up with me gazing in awe at the numerous subjects who make skating look so simple – and so fun. Alma Tabernero’s documentary oozes an infectious joy, that makes it very easy to understand why people would want to devote their spare time to something many more of us are not directly familiar with. That is the key essence of a sports documentary; films like Senna or Alex Higgins: The People’s Champion can draw us into the worlds of Formula 1, or professional snooker – worlds that to me, at least, could not seem more boring – by building a relationship with their human components.
The brilliance and flaws of the people that make up a sport, as well as the emotional highs and lows that those elicit, help us relate to them primarily, but also to the activities that they care so much about. The footage of these skaters is vibrant and lively (even if the use of slow-motion is far too liberal) – but it’s the human stories that are most important. Tabernero has assembled an effervescent assortment of skaters from across Amsterdam – from older individuals who pushed boundaries in the 80s, finding spaces to skate in the squatters’ movement; to young migrants who revel in a skating scene very different to their countries of origin; to LGBT+ and Black skaters finding new ways to help their communities express themselves.
All of them have interesting and diverse stories to tell – enthusiastically sharing experiences that carry us along for the ride – but the common thread between them is that they are all women. According to several of the skaters, the Netherlands’ roller-skating scene is markedly different to any other in Europe, because in most other countries it is a pastime dominated by men. With the gender balance more heavily weighted toward women in the Netherlands, it has developed as a shared safe space, where they can enjoy freedom of expression.
Perhaps this is also why there are so few venues for roller-skating. While sports which have been stereotypically dominated by men in the country are very well catered for – every neighbourhood has a football court – Women on a Roll flags up the fact there is “no dedicated place” for roller-skating in Amsterdam. Even Norwich has a roller-skating rink, so to me, coming from the back-end of nowhere to a European capital city, that seems insane. But the nearest decent rink is in Rotterdam, according to several of the talking heads here.
It is here that Women on a Roll falls a little flat, though. Having helped us identify with a number of skaters, and empathise with their belief that it is an important sport and / or art-form, Tabernero does little to put that energy to use with a call to action. There was much, much more room here for the film to campaign on behalf of the women who are at its heart. While some of them make suggestions that Amsterdam might give them a venue – anything, “as long as it has a flat floor” – there is nothing to confirm who would be accountable for failing to do that, or how viewers could pressure them to do so.
Tabernero does not feature in the documentary; there is no narration or subtitling – and a light-touch approach to documentary-making is generally commendable. But it does feel like it leaves some of the film’s potential unfulfilled, as presumably there is no call to action here because the interviews didn’t yield one. Not being in the film, and not steering it are two different things though – by virtue of making a film, you are already creating certain narratives, so you might as well be a bit more proactive about it when appropriate. So, sure, don’t add in a voice-over, but if the interviewees were not forthcoming with information we can act on, it would have been an idea for the interviewer to ask them to put it into their own words.
This also applies to the film’s light-touch approach to some of the more complex issues it briefly touches upon. While roller-skating is more often taken up by women in the Netherlands, one of the skaters – originally from the UK – points out that it’s also less common for Black or minority ethnic communities to participate. Why that might be is left hanging – even when Tabernero does briefly speak to a Black woman who is part of a diverse roller-skating group. Again, it might not have come up in what she wanted to talk about, but it was incumbent on the director to ask less comfortable questions here. Why in Amsterdam – an incredibly diverse, global city – is skating apparently so white? Is it due to wider social schisms, and again, are there ways we could help to change this?
While it seems from the film at least that the LGBT+ community is well represented in skating, meanwhile, it might have been interesting to hear why that is. What about skating helps LGBT+ individuals to connect to it – and are there lessons we could take from that into wider society to boost their inclusion? There are no attempts to examine that.
This reluctance to show less-enjoyable sides of life do make the film seem a little too shiny and produced. The film is also guilty of that when it comes to showcasing skating as a whole – it is wonderful to watch, yes, but also for anyone else who has given up after falling over a few times, it is not especially relatable. We hear about how grim it is to skate outdoors in the winter, without seeing why. We hear how even these amazing athletes and dancers fell on their first try – there are poems about broken bones – but never see anyone so much as wobble.
It’s all a little timid – and considering viewers are going to be so on board with the positivity and grace of the subjects, it seems needlessly risk-averse. This is a nicely put-together vignette, then, but it could afford to take more risks. It could do with showing a more warts-and-all view of the world of skating – both by showing more of the adversity these women face and maybe by showing someone falling on their arse once in a while.
All-in-all, Women on a Roll is a fun and well-paced glimpse into the world of Amsterdam’s roller-skating women. It is visually accomplished and does a good job of introducing us to relatable individuals from a diverse cross-section of the community. Tabernero’s bio notes that she is a self-taught filmmaker – and going by this film, she has taught herself very well. However, her work can hit another level altogether if it is willing to sacrifice a little of its polish, in favour of asking some more challenging questions.