By Jan Willms
Minnesota documentary filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson has managed to capture both the strength and the vulnerability of the roller derby skaters whose story she tells in her film “Minnesota Mean.” The documentary feature will have its world premiere during the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF).
Mikkelson follows the team through its wins and losses as it prepares for championships in the rough and tumble sport.
Introduced to the Minnesota team by one of the roller derby participants, Mikkelson said the fact that she was a woman and close in age to her subjects made the filming somewhat easier.
“I started shooting the film in March 2017, and wrapped up the final interviews in December 2017,” Mikkelson said. “But much like the roller derby players, I have to balance all the elements of my life. I finished the film but did not have the funding to complete it. I was working evenings and weekends and finally quit my day job in 2021. I finished this film and another one I was working on, ‘Finding Her Beat,’ a film about a female Taiko drum performer. These films were my Irish twins, so close to one another. I finished them by focusing on independent film exclusively.”
Mikkelson said that being in the presence of the women she was filming on a constant basis made her a part of the room. “Clearly they are aware that I am there, but at some point it isn’t a novelty. The further we got into the season, the clearer it was to me that the players were comfortable with me.” She said trust was developed between her and her documentary subjects. The fact that her friend from the team introduced her and vouched for her character helped.
She worked with Jim Tuttle, who was director of photography for the film. “Most of the camera work is his. He did a wonderful job,” Mikkelson said. Tuttle died of cancer before the film was completed, but he was able to see a rough cut before he passed.
The music for the film was provided by Dessa, a Minneapolis-based musician. “I was so excited when she said yes,” Mikkelson said.
“My friend joined roller derby when she turned 40,” Mikkelson said. “I remember asking her what she was doing. I told her she was going to break herself.
“But she became a part of this beautiful community of women. And it was different for me to see this level of community support between women. They become like a family.”
Mikkelson follows several team members throughout the film. Each woman selects a team name for herself. There is Kimberly Shivers, Bricklayer, Smokahontas and Diamond Rough.
With her doc, Mikkelson is able to emphasize the toughness of these roller derby players but still touch on their softer sides, their life experiences, dreams and fears. The one-on-one interviews in the film are impactful.
Although the focus of the film is on the female team, Mikkelson also films Chad, the husband of one of the players. He is seen cheering her on at every game. “Chad would cheer for her if she opened a bag of potato chips,” Mikkelson said. “He is a model of a good spouse in my mind, and it was hard not to focus on him during filming.”
Mikkelson said that making the documentary made her feel like she knew the women even more than she actually did. “I spent a very meaningful chunk of time with them, and then the filming is over and they go on with their lives. I am still marinating on their lives in 2017.”
Mikkelson said she has spent over 20 years doing documentaries. “I started in high school editing as a hobbyist. I got a degree in political science and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. From there, it was not a direct route to documentary filmmaking. I took a job with an ABC affiliate in Duluth as a news reporter for a year and fell in love with the longer version of storytelling.”
“Minnesota Mean” is her seventh documentary feature. She also works as a freelancer producing for a PBS affiliate.
“Working on films is all I am doing now, and it has turned out to be a lot,” Mikkelson said. She is simultaneously premiering “Minnesota Mean” and “Finding Her Beat.” She said that when she is not touring she is doing the work of keeping them going.
“I am also producing and editing for Keri Pickett’s film ‘Ribbon Skirt Warriors,’ that is in production. We are working to get that film ready for a fall premiere.”
Mikkelson said she had never thought that what started out as a hobby would turn into a career. “I love the story telling, and making a documentary is where I feel most effective in my social justice work.”
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