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    Local Filmmaker Clay Sisk Profiles the Derby City Rollergirls
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    “My road is towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world,” Dziga Vertov said. “Thus I decipher in a new way the world unknown to you.”

    Vertov was one of the pioneers of documentary filmmaking, best known for his stunning 1929 film "Man With a Movie Camera." Film hadn't been around for very long in the '20s, but early enthusiasts quickly realized its usefulness not only for fiction storytelling, but also for nonfiction and informational pieces. Vertov’s film shows images of life in various cities in the Soviet Union. Earlier, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 landmark film "Nanook of the North" took viewers to an Eskimo community in the Arctic. Documentary filmmaking has flourished since then, bringing us all sorts of “fresh perceptions” of “the world unknown” to the viewer.

    Throughout my tenure as local film journalist, I have been privileged to meet filmmakers and attend screenings of films that tackle ideas such as abduction, insanity, LGBT issues and, of course, the occasional zombie film. Much of this product is excellent and shows promise for our city’s filmmaking scene, yet the genre of nonfiction film has been curiously absent from the ranks of our burgeoning auteurs.

    Flying under the radar was filmmaker Clay Sisk, who already has several completed projects to his name. He has just completed a new documentary titled "Derby City Rollergirls," which goes behind the scenes of Louisville’s roller derby team. Sisk, who has a love of documentary film, decided to profile the Rollergirls for a very simple reason: “I’ve always loved roller derby,” he said. “It’s a blast.”

    Sisk, whose day job is with the design hub at the Courier-Journal, started making films around 2006.

    “I’m an artist and illustrator, so it was just another visual medium to me,” he said. When asked what prompted him to make movies in the first place, he was nonchalant. “I just kinda wanted to do ‘em. Did ‘em… I don’t really have anything too deep to say about it other than that it was just another medium to dabble in.”

    This inspiration, Sisk said, comes from a love of movies that stemmed from sources such as "Star Wars" and the work of Steven Spielberg. These were people, he said, who really stood out in terms of craft and style; "Star Wars," in particular, provided an “awakening” as to the potential of film.

    Sisk honed his skills with a whole host of short films, some of which were never completed. Two of his finished films, "Motel" and "Box," are available to view online and show serious thought and skill in the craft.

    Sisk seemed bemused by not only my praise, but by the idea that somebody had actually seen his work. He described fictional filmmaking as somewhat isolating – despite working with actors, he is responsible for writing, shooting, directing and editing. He said this is a large part of why he decided to move to documentary filmmaking. “I’ve always loved documentaries, and I like the interaction," he said. "I like talking to people and experiencing people, and they enjoy seeing it… I don’t like feeling isolated.”

    His first documentary, "Pages, Panels, and Beyond," shines a spotlight on the local comic book community, focusing on writers, illustrators and shop owners who contribute to the local scene. It came about conveniently as an addendum to Sisk's work with the Courier-Journal: the paper wanted to increase online traffic, so Sisk created InLou360, a platform through which to profile “unique people, places and stories in Louisville.”

    Sisk’s work on "Pages, Panels, and Beyond" led naturally to his next project: "Derby City Rollergirls." He already had an in through Brook Hernando, one of the artists featured in "Pages" – who also happens to be a member of the Rollergirls under the moniker Johnnie Knocks’em. (All the women on the team have similarly clever pseudonyms).

    When I remarked that I knew nothing about the sport and hadn’t really heard of it except very tangentially, Sisk said, “Most people haven’t. You think it’s the '70s stuff where they’re hitting on each other, beating each other up, but it’s a little different nowadays.”

    Roller derby is a high-energy sport in which two teams on roller skates speed around a track. One member of each team, called the “jammer,” scores points by lapping the other team, while her teammates block the opposition and try to keep the way open for the jammer. Sisk’s film opens with a concise history of the sport before jumping into the scene now, as shown through Louisville’s team.

    Sisk obtained access to practice sessions, interspersing scenes of skating action with interviews with various team members. One thing is clear: these women all love what they do, and they show great passion in discussing everything from their experiences, their apprehensions, their reasons for playing, their family’s thoughts on the sport and even a bit of philosophizing about the feminist nature of being on the team.

    It’s an intense sport, and while they’re not “beating each other up,” more than one Rollergirl has found herself knocked down, buried at the bottom of a pile of skaters or with dislocated limbs. “It’s a serious sport,” Sisk said. “They’re serious about it, and they work their butts off. They’re athletes…To be on skates and to do all that? I don’t see how they do it.”

    Now that "Rollergirls" is completed, Sisk finds himself open as far as options for his next project. He has been working on a pilot for an animated series entitled Space Station Zero Adventure Team Now! in response to a call for submissions from Adult Swim for a new series. Participating mostly for fun – not really expecting his project to be chosen – he plans to keep making documentaries. “That’s probably where my heart is most,” he said.

    Stay tuned for details on when and where "Derby City Rollergirls" can be seen. In the meantime, see Sisk’s official website – Studio SISKART Productions – to find out further information on the filmmaker and see some of his previous work. Check out the official "Derby City Rollergirls" website for complete details on the team, the rules of the game and a match schedule.

    Image: Rollergirls documentary.

    Allan Day's picture

    About Allan Day

    There are legitimate theories that the Big Bang originated from the collapse of a black hole in a fourth-dimensional universe. This stuff fascinates me, and I love reading about it. I love reading about science. And about anything, for that matter, provided it's interesting - and everything is potentially interesting, so I'm fascinated by a lot of things. I also read a lot of fiction (Kurt Vonnegut deserves deification) and watch a lot of movies (Charlie Chaplin also deserves deification). I've made a few short films myself. I'm also a writer of everything - I'm close to a Bachelor's in English at IUS. My life consists of reading, writing, bartending, and taking care of my daughter full-time. Life is busy and life is stressful, but that's why there's music and art and other forms of relaxation.

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