Friday, September 21, 2007

Lives Controlled

Still from Educational Film about State Security FilesGoethe Institut
18 September 2007

As part of its Lives Controlled series on the former GDR's system of state security, the GI presented two documentary films on the state security service or Stasi. The feature I Love You All (Aus Liebe zum Volk) (dirs Eyal Sivan, Audrey Maurion) was a German-French co-production using the memoirs of Major S of his time as a Stasi agent, written in 1990 on the occasion of him losing his job after 20 years' service.

The film used a voiceover reading the agent's recollections and his bitterness at his change of circumstances, utterly oblivious to the effects on others of his activities and the distortion of the idea of the people's state. There was much humour in this, with such memorable quotes as "You have to force some people to be happy" and "Trust is good. Control is better".

Then there were the party songs, including such jaunty numbers as the border guards' ode to "so many skulls smashed"; angelic socialist children celebrating joining the People's Army; and the Stasi anthem about being "soldiers of the invisible front", surely a Eurovision anthem in the making.

The film never showed the agent, instead using archive footage and possibly reconstructions of surveillance but it was difficult to tell what was genuine. There was fascinating footage of the people invading Stasi HQ in 1990, demanding to see their files and daubing anti-Stasi graffiti on the walls of the hated building. Major S says very tellingly that the Stasi were more afraid of the people than the other way around.

While I found the film enthralling, others in the audience found it hard going and there was a rush for the exits as soon as the credits rolled. One viewer who remained called it bleak. An interesting point of the film was that surveillance of the population did not end with the fall of the GDR. Indeed, today's population is probably the most watched in history, with security cameras omnipresent and "anti-terrorist" measures still at work.

One of Major S's gripes was the lack of high-tech facilities at the Stasi's disposal, unlike their counterparts in the west. Presumably, this included paper shredders because when they were disbanded, they left behind reams of hastily hand-shredded files on the people they were meant to serve.

The short film which preceded the feature, Educational Film about State Security Files (dir Anke Limprecht), was as unglamourous as its title suggests, but equally gripping. Without dialogue, it showed in black and white the mundane existence of the people who are attempting to reconstruct the shredded Stasi files. Piece by labourious piece emerges from huge sacks, is laid out on a desk and then matched to other fragments.

It is a shockingly low-tech procedure. Not only do the staff not wear gloves, but they appear to be using standard sellotape to piece together the fragments, despite the fact that tape degrades with age. Another curiosity is the use of Pepsi Light boxes to contain the sheets.

Incidentally, in her book Stasiland, Anna Funder quotes the chief of the reconstruction office in Nuremberg as saying at the present rate it will take 375 years to reconstruct the Stasi files. It does make one wonder at the commitment of the reunited government to this project and also just whom it will benefit, once completed. Perhaps the Stasi have had the last laugh, after all.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

The Great Rock 'n' Rollerderby Swindle

Miss Tsunami and Dolly BustHer; photo by Val PhoenixTottenham Green Leisure Centre
8 September 2007

Saturday the 8th dawned as a busy one for sport: cricket one-dayer, Rugby World Cup and Euro 2008 football qualifiers. So it was that I wandered off to Tottenham to check out the UK's first Roller Derby expo, hosted by London Rollergirls.

Somewhere in my memory banks are hazy recollections of roller derby: competitive roller skating, rather violent, a Raquel Welch film? I didn't know the rules and I had no idea what to expect. But, I am ever so glad I attended this debut.

The sport was popular in the 1970s, spawning a professional circuit in the USA, still sadly rare for women's team sports. And it's made a comeback there, as well as branching out to Europe. As Moe YaDown explained to me, "What I love about the sport is it's for women of all sizes, for women of all ages. The crowd can get into it. It's very exciting." She plays for Rat City in Seattle, which is heading to the Nationals soon. "It's very competitive".

Noms de guerre seem to be de rigueur, lending an air of danger and a rock edge to proceedings. Team captains were Correctional Felicity and Kitty DeCapitate and they could count among their teammates the fearsomely named Bambi Manslaughter, Slice Andice, and Belle DeBrawl. N emma sis proved to be a fierce blocker, even in a tutu, and quite a few players sported ripped fishnets. There were quite a few tattoos, as well. Rituals and jargon abound. I picked up on a few terms: jams, whipping, bouts, etc.

The bout was a sell-out and quite a few leagues (as clubs are called) had made the trip to support their colleagues. I spoke to skaters from Glasgow, Birmingham and some guest skaters from Stuttgart. All were excited by the possibilities of roller derby. Ragged Robin of Glasgow Rollergirls said, "It's fantastic. It's really good to see the turnout and the enthusiasm and to watch other team members put the skills in to play that we're so used to practising."

London Rollergirls were divided into Team Black and Team Pink for this bout, which ran in two 25-minute halves, with numerous (I lost count) jams of up to two minutes each. Teams consist of one jammer, who tries to score points by moving through the pack; blockers who defend against her; and a pivot, who seems to be the brains of the operation, setting strategies.

A jam can move quite quickly or slowly, depending on the pace set by the pivot and one really needed to pay attention to know what was going on. There was much no-nonsense blocking, sending the opposition and occasionally teammates flying. One attempted whip sent the jammer sprawling on her bottom toward the crowd. At first the contact produced gasps and the odd involuntary wince but after awhile it became common-place and there was a bit of guilty admiration for the offender's bravado. A penalty box, set up like a jail, kept the officially guilty out of action for 60 seconds, thus reducing their team's strength.

There was much to admire: the jammers seem to be the quickest, most skilled players, and their ability to find spaces to move through was impressive. In particular, Sky Rokit, playing for Team Black, caught the eye, picking up numerous points for her team by becoming lead jammer.

Lead jammer was the coveted position, as each jammer tried to move to the front by legal means. When a lead jammer emerged, the jammer ref would point, much like a hunting dog, at her, as they moved round the track, thus giving her a kind of lap of honour as she raced to make her next move. This got the crowd cheering.

As the bout developed, Team Black moved ahead steadily, eventually winning 100-77. Despite knocking ten bells out of each other during the bout, the players embraced and seemed to enjoy the occasion, whichever side they were on.
Guest player Dolly BustHer, who ended up on the losing side, was unbothered by the result. "It doesn't matter at all because we just want derby to get out there. Because most people didn't even know what derby was up until a half a year ago. The most important thing is to show how fun it is and what a great sport."

Her home team, Stuttgart Valley Rollergirlz, is the only one in continental Europe and she hopes to see the sport expand. "Roller Derby is still a very young sport in Europe and we have a very close connection with the British girls."

Other bouts are planned for Birmingham and London, and many leagues, including LRG, continue to recruit. Visitors I spoke to hope to take some knowledge back to their home leagues to organise their own bouts. Glasgow Rollergirl Mistress Malicious said, "It's about meeting other Rollergirls, to see how they run their bouts".

They also spoke of a sense of community for the fledgling sport. Dolly BustHer said, "It's a very small community and we all have to help each other grow." Her Stuttgart teammate Miss Tsunami, playing with a broken rib, enthused, "Everybody shares information. I like that." (pictured above: Miss Tsunami and Dolly BustHer)

Roller derby is back.

London Rollergirls

Stuttgart Valley Rollergirlz
London Rockin Rollers
Birmingham Blitz Derby Dames