After several months of planning, Friday 3rd February rolled around (no pun intended), and it was time for Leicester’s RAI Film Festival screening. It was brilliant to co-host the event with the skater, coaches, officials and supporters of Roller Derby Leicester (RDL).
Before applying to be a 2017 RAI Film Festival ambassador, I contacted RDL to ask if they would be interested in supporting a screening of the film. I had spotted Gaea Girls on the list of the RAI Film Festival archive films, and it appealed to my interests in Japanese language and culture, and women’s sports. I thought with it being focussed on women’s wrestling – another tough, high-contact sport – that RDL members might find some parallels and be interested in it too. Thankfully, I was right! With that, the application went in, was luckily approved, and our screening became one of 17 around the UK.
In the heart of Leicester’s Cultural Quarter, we had a lovely cosy screening room at The Exchange bar. With the welcome screen flickering quietly in the background, we were able to grab drinks, pizzas and seats by candlelight. Not forgetting the raffle tickets too! RDL had helped to organise a great little raffle for The Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of a former teammate), featuring a few Japanese pop culture favourites, such as Hello Kitty, Gudetama and Studio Ghibli characters. It had caused much excitement on the event page, so we were hoping to save the draw until after the film.
“A film about courage, transformation and dreams in the extraordinary world of Japanese women’s wrestling. Gaea Girls focuses on the hopes and fears of the beleaguered Gaea Japan squad, whose reputation hangs by a thread after a series of setbacks in the ring. There is the spindly 16-year old who spent three years persuading her parents to let her join, the new recruit who ran away but has returned begging for a second chance, and the rookie desperate to make her debut in the ring. At the centre of the film is the tough but popular trainer who – with her own very particular philosophy and personal history – rules the girls, trying to fashion them in her own image.” – The RAI website.
With everything in place, it was time for the film itself. Now, I had read a few reviews and had a sneaky watch of parts of the film, so I knew I needed to give a bit of detail about the film in advance. One, was that the trainer in the film is extremely hard on the trainees, which makes it tough watching in place. Two, was that the film can be described equally as shocking, exciting (in the match event scenes), intriguing and powerful.
It was all of those things, and despite having watched some of it in advance, the film still managed to surprise me. There were a number of humorous exchanges early on in the film, but as training became more strenuous and the trainer’s behaviour became more extreme, the documentary became a gripping watch. By the end, I felt I had followed trainee Takeuchi’s journey with my heart in my mouth. We spoke afterwards about the film and during the discussion, I mentioned that I was surprised Gaea had any trainees left, given the challenges they faced. Takeuchi’s resilience and determination under the punishing training regime was quite incredible.
Alongside Takeuchi’s personal story, we saw different sides to trainer Chigusa Nagayo too. On the promotional trail, and in the wrestling ring, she was a tough character, declaring her name and reputation were on the line with each match. She carried through that toughness, although with less showiness, into the small, rural Gaea wrestling ring where she oversaw the trainees. However, in between these scenes, we also saw Nagayo talk about how she feels like a mother to them, revealing her personal philosophy and background in the process.
Not wanting to spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I won’t give much more away… Gaea Girls was definitely a fascinating, powerful and revealing insight into the Gaea world. Roller Derby Leicester skaters were amazed and inspired by the trainees’ determination, and I’m sure, very grateful for their own lovely and supportive coaches by the end of the film. It was great to be able to watch and discuss the film together, and to be part of the 2017 RAI Film Festival screenings around the UK.