Hands up if you knew that there was a cheerleading squad that trained on Belfast’s Sandy Row? It was a couple of months ago that I first heard about the documentary Prods and Pom Poms that had followed the Sandy Row Falcons squad through their training for St Patrick’s Day parade last February and the Scottish regional championships in June 2008.
And so it was back up to the quirky Studio Cinema above Belfast Exposed on Saturday afternoon to catch a rare screening of the local documentary as part of the Belfast Film Festival. If it’s used as a venue next year, the organisers will need to think about getting proper black out curtains ... the orangey-red glow as the late afternoon sun streamed in the back windows and onto the screen was less than ideal.
The 55 minute film followed the journey of the coaches Lesley and Julie, along with the cheerleading squads as they train and perform. Lesley and Julie throw an enormous amount of energy into training up three age groups, the (strangely named) Pee Wees, Juniors and Seniors. Differing abilities, forgetfulness, absenteeism, as well as toddlers wandering across the practice hall all add to their stress and frustration.
And the tension and feeling of impending doom ratchets up significantly as the industrially spray-tanned squads meet up early on a June Sunday morning to board a bus to the ferry and then up to the Braehead Arena just outside Glasgow: a venue packed out with more than a hundred cheerleading squads and hangers on.
“There’s bound to be people worse than us!”
Will they make it to the venue on time? Will they fall out over platting each other’s hair? Will they make it to the stage on time for the first routine. Will their preparation pay off? Will they win any trophies?
Their fund raising and fundraising and sponsorship obviously didn’t extend to going over the night before and being there for the full day; neither did it allow them to stay long enough at the arena to hear the results. So instead, they make a series of incredibly frustrating and comedic tense phone calls from the ferry to the hapless organiser … by the end of which they’re still none the wiser about the result.
“... we came fifth or sixth in something ...”
You’ll have to watch through to the end of the film to find out just how well they did!
Prods and Pom-Poms from Höoptedoodle Films on Vimeo.
The Sandy Row Falcons stuck out amongst the other competitors. They were a more honest squad, reflecting their community: it seemed unusual that the Belfast girls weren’t all pencil thin and blond haired like the Scottish squads.
Enthused and encouraged by the routines performed by the other competitors in 2008, the Falcons will be heading back across to Scotland in 2009. If you’re on a ferry on Sunday 21 June and spot a squad of bumblebee tracksuits, that’s them. Wish them luck.
After that, maybe they’ll end up cheering in front of an Orange lodge in the Belfast parade this July? Surely a more colourful and cheaper alternative to some of the bands? And as we saw in an informal moment during the film, they have the beginnings of a routine to accompany the Sash.
As well as the cheerleading, the film also starts to follow the journey that the Sandy Row community are on in their relationship with the rest of Belfast. Imagery of painted bollards, murals and terrace housing sits alongside new apartment blocks and hotels sprouting up in the predominantly loyalist community. The squad’s decision to join in the city centre St Patrick’s Day parade now perceived to be neutral, but previously deemed too republican to watch, seemed significant. But if the film is lacking anything, it is a desire to explore more deeply the issues and tensions on the Sandy Row as it feels its way in a changing Belfast.
Like another recent local documentary which looked at a North Belfast ladies darts team, Prods and Pom Poms is a compelling insight into a rarely exposed and little understood community.
There are laughs, tears and much angst. Yet the film makers never seem to be taking advantage of or joking at the expense of the Falcons. It’s respectful, if honest.
I can only imagine emotion and the atmosphere at the Belfast première of the film in January, when most of the squad turned up at the QFT to see themselves on the big screen. The squad should be proud of what they’ve achieved; the coaches should receive the city’s thanks (as well as New Years Honours); and the film makers Ben Jones and Paul Hutchinson from the intriguingly named Höoptedoodle Films should continue to hawk their documentary around film festivals and local broadcasters to ensure that a wider audience get to soak in the atmosphere and passion on the Sandy Row.
Update - airing on UTV on Friday 6 November 2009 at 10.35pm