In the Turn is what the roller derby empowerment film Whip It could have been, had it explored any of the queerness that many would argue is at the very heart of the sport. The documentary emerged out of debates within the roller derby movement regarding trans-inclusion, an issue that has historically been met with much tension in many so-called feminist and lesbian spaces. The film however positions itself after-the-fact, it does not follow the dramatic struggle for acceptance itself, but rather celebrates the banal beauty in the fallout. All of the subjects have already come out and thus In the Turn casts its gaze on the day to day realities of their lives and the enrichment they find through community, rendering it the “It Gets Better” film of 2015. The pain and tragedy, that marks many a queer and trans experience is a mediated here by retrospect and exists predominantly in the anecdotes of trans people who are not only surviving but thriving, in the lives they have carved out for themselves. As one of the women affectionately remarks, “It is a boring life at the end of the rainbow.”
In the Turn frames its exploration of the trans derby community around the story of Crystal, a ten-year-old Canadian trans girl living in the regional city of Timmins Ontario. Crystal’s story, relayed by her supportive single mother Karen, speaks of the all-too familiar discrimination trans youth face at the hands of violent classmates and incompetent school administrators. When Crystal’s love of sport is stifled by not being allowed to play on girl’s teams, her mother, who herself found solace in the woman-power of derby, reaches out to the Vagine Regime, an international queer roller derby network.
Crystal’s journey is interwoven with the stories of veteran derby player and trans woman Fefe Nomenon, trans man Mister Sister, derby refugee and DJ, and Emmazing Grace, a trans woman and eager newbie to the game. It is this multitude of perspectives that ensures the film does not prescribe one specific trans experience. The documentary represents trans people in relationships they identify as heterosexual and those they identify as queer. We see trans people who revel in traditional gender roles and those who reject them, those who choose to undergo surgery and make physical changes, and those who do not, such as Mister Sister who quips that he does not want to lose his vagina after having “spent so much time touching it”. This plural portrait of trans North America is threaded together with the dual experiences of alterity and community. There are commonalities in both the alienation they have endured and the sanctuary of surrogate families they have found within queer spaces. Their reflections and the communal rallying around Crystal’s cause are fuelled by a hope for future generations, a hope that enables a healing of their own childhood traumas. The film’s dénouement in which Crystal finally learns to skate, gingerly at first and then with striding confidence, operates as a touching metaphor for the trans experience.
Erica Tremblay, a derby girl herself, crafts a fast-paced and poppy documentary using a fun rock soundtrack that pays homage to the Riot Girl aesthetics that are still alive and well in much of the queer female culture of North America. The documentary progresses from the initial string of wide shots that isolate Crystal in the frame; the sequence in which she walks up and down empty church pews in a silence being the most painfully evocative, to more fluid camerawork and snappy editing. All the interviews are grounded in the mundane and domestic, with intimate scenes of couples cooking together, doing housework, bowling and taking walks; forever on the move. Some of Tremblay’s choices, however, do feel cheesy and overly sentimental; with the soft-focus sequence where a group of women in colourful attire pass a sparkler to one another seeming eerily like a corporate advertisement for a diversity initiative.
At times the film’s rhetoric of ‘queer people are just like everyone else’ does feels a little heavy-handed. ‘Normal’ is equated with happy, and there is an emphasis on romantic relationships as a necessity for living full queer lives. That being said, we still live in a climate where trans youth like Leelah Alcorn are ending their own lives as they fear that no positive trans adult experience is possible. In the Turn takes its necessary place as the film that every queer and question adolescent should have the opportunity to see and every parent be required to.