Kathleen Hanna, Sini Anderson and Tamra Davis Talk The Punk Singer

Kathleen Hanna. Photo: Aliya Naumoff. Kathleen Hanna. Photo: Aliya Naumoff.

Originally published following The Punk Singer‘s premiere at SXSW, this interview with director Sini Anderson, subject Kathleen Hanna and executive producer Tamra Davis is being rerun today as the documentary opens in New York at IFC Center. Hanna will be doing Q&A’s with Lizz Winstead of The Daily Show and signing copies of her new Julie Ruin record. Check the IFC page for times.

In Greil Marcus’s punk-rock critical opus Lipstick Traces, the writer describes a kind of magic created by the sneering music of the Sex Pistols: “… the pop magic in which the connection of certain social facts with certain sounds creates irresistible symbols of the transformation of social reality…” Marcus goes on to write about “that voice,” the sardonic howl of Johnny Rotten but also singers like Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex (“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard/But I think, oh bondage up yours!”)

Marcus’s history ends in the ’80s, but were it to be updated it would have to include Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, which featured again that voice and produced that same magic. This time, however, the critique was less generalized and Marcusian (as in Herbert). Instead, the very specific issues were sexism, sexual harassment, reproductive rights and the redefinition of feminism for a new generation. The riot grrrl movement would, wrote another Marcus, Sarah, in her history of the movement, Girls to the Front, make “feminism cool for teenage girls.”

Perhaps, though, in this consideration of The Punk Singer, the debut feature by performance poet, producer and director Sini Anderson, I’m misleading by quoting both of these Marcuses in my opening paragraph. That’s because this documentary about Kathleen Hanna, founder of Bikini Kill and a central figure in the riot grrrl movement, doesn’t rely on outside critical voices to certify the singer’s place in the rock and protest pantheon. It does that quite capably, thank you, with ferocious performance footage as well as compelling first-person testimony by the charismatic Hanna herself. And while there are plenty of other talking heads here besides the documentary’s subject, few of them are the kind of outsider voices shoehorned into most non-fiction films as authority figures. There is no old rock critic bloviating and there are no precocious Pitchforkers anywhere in sight. In addition to the female Marcus, who earned her bona fides with the book, interviewees include influential older musicians like Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, author and activist Jennifer Baumgardner, Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman, and allied musicians like Carrie Brownstein — all people with authentic connections to the movement and its ideals.

Anderson — aided by executive producer Tamra Davis, who recently completed her own artist documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child — tells Hanna’s story with a swiftly unfolding cinematic momentum. Beginning pre-Bikini Kill with Hanna’s home life and education (including a college fashion show featuring “rape dress”), the film speeds through the ’90s riot grrrl era, Hanna’s friendship with Kurt Cobain, her subsequent work with Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin, her marriage to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and, finally, the reasons for her retreat from the public eye in the mid-’00s. The latter is tied to her diagnosis with Lyme disease in 2010 — revealed here for the first time in public — and the documentary draws parallels between the invisibility of female artists and the invisibility of sufferers of a disease not yet fully embraced by the medical establishment.

I spoke with Hanna, Anderson and Davis at SXSW last month about today’s young female protest art, alternative media and why YouTube can be dangerous.

Filmmaker: The Punk Singer is a portrait of you, Kathleen, but it’s also a portrait of a movement. What were the challenges of making a film that is both an entertaining music documentary as wll as historical document?

Hanna: Damn, that’s for the filmmakers to answer!

Anderson: It was a huge undertaking, and Tamra’s expertise really came in handy. I was really focused on Kathleen’s personal story and was at a place where I was like, “I gotta get the music and history in there.” It took a lot of people thinking about how it was all going to happen in an hour and a half. Because it’s a big story, you know? There’s a lot to tell.

Hanna: You could make a whole movie about the radical movement, and luckily someone is making a movie about that right now. And someone wrote a book about it. So, I think that sort of freed us up to be like, “I don’t have to do that.” You know what I mean? I think, the film really benefitted from not begun bogged down by those ideas [of being a historical document]. And by not being bogged down by those ideas, it ends up being a sort of historical document. It wasn’t trying to be. As for me, I was really excited to be presented as a feminist artist who has had a really long career that I am really proud of and who is connected to feminists who came before me and feminists who are much younger.

Davis: For me, [Kathleen’s] story is so important. I just wanted to make sure that it was a film that reached people emotionally, that it had an act structure and had different places to go. I had just done that with the [Jean-Michel] Basquiat film, and I felt that, in a way, her story had a lot of similarities. There was responsibility to the art world and to the music world, but you also had to tell their stories.

Filmmaker: How do you think the cultural space for female bands and activists has opened up, or not opened up, since the time of Bikini Kill?

Hanna: Well, I have definitely seen it be less of an issue. When I first started going to shows, me and my two girlfriends would be the only girls at a punk show. Girls now have never known that reality. That became really apparent when I was being interviewed for Sarah Marcus’s book, Girls to the Front, years ago. I was talking about a lot of the violence that happened at our shows and she was like, “What? Really?” I was like, “Yeah! We had chains thrown at our heads and stuff like that.” She just thought everybody was just like, “Yay! You brought feminism to punk rock!” I was like, “No, it actually totally sucked and was not fun.” So that makes me realize things have really changed — that people today can’t even imagine that reality. And I’m psyched that they can’t imagine that reality. I’m psyched that there are so many more female bands and they don’t have to write about sexism. They can write about whatever they want.

Filmmaker: You see in the movie a clear line between the alternative media of the ‘90s like zines and the social media of today. But is today’s social media really accomplishing the same thing? Are these new tools helping or not helping people have an authentic engagement around issues like feminism?

Hanna: That’s really interesting, and a similar question also came up last night [at the Q&A]. I’ve noticed that a lot of younger people — people in their twenties — are really craving not only the ‘90s being back and in focus again but for this one-on-one interaction they’re not finding on the internet and in chat rooms. They’re craving handmade objects. I had an intern who was making mixtapes on cassette. I was like, “You have the internet! Why are you making mixtapes?” It’s like kind of a smorgasbord of tactics that people can use [now] for political ideas or artistic stuff. And in 2013 it’s a different decision to make a zine when you could do a blog or a website. It’s a decision to have a specific object that people can touch and open. A zine has almost become an art object or an art chap book and less what it was originally because now you have these other options of getting your message across on the internet, also in visually interesting ways. Making something that’s handmade that you give to somebody at a show — as Rebecca [Walker] says in the movie, there is an aspect of performance in that. The act of handing something to somebody and watching them read it, or seeing the maker, seeing the person who made the object they’re giving you — a lot of people are craving that. But I always reject the idea that what we did was more authentic just because we were using different tools, or didn’t have cell phones.

Filmmaker: It seems to me that the tools must shape the message in a sort of way. A zine has to have communicated differently than, say, a Facebook group.

Hanna: [Here’s] the thing that scares me about social media. In the film we are talking about issues of sexual abuse. You grow up in less than healthy families and then you have no boundaries. Guess what social media is great for — people with no boundaries! What happens if you are a sexual abuse survivor who turned off your intuition to survive your family life? And now you’ve got a camera and you can put yourself on YouTube. It’s kind of a scary situation if you’re somebody who hasn’t developed a healthy relationship with trust, where you can get to know somebody, or where you say, “The internet is not a safe place for me to share information, or show my boobs or my butt.”

Filmmaker: What are you seeing as political inspiration for a new generation of twentysomething female artists? Obviously, Pussy Riot is reacting to their own very specific political climate.

Hanna: Occupy Wall Street.

Davis: It’s so international. Girls in India are getting attacked and dragged into busses and killed. Or, in other countries they are speaking out about trying to get an education. That message that maybe came out of the United States, of women having a voice — that’s the message we hope resonates not only here in America [but around the world], because one in five women are still being sexually abused. That’s a terrifying statistic. This message has to still keep getting out. I think it was so important to open [the film] with Kathleen’s message of, “I’m the girl you can’t shut up, I’m gonna tell everybody what you did to me.” That’s the message that we have to talk about because that’s what’s going to change the world. When those girls from all over the world speak out that means that the people who tormented them can’t do it again because now they’re caught. Things like [abuse] can only happen in secret. It’s an international revolution, and I think that we’re seeing it also creatively, even going from Lena Dunham to Taylor Swift. I think girls are controlling their destiny, creating the art they want to put out there.

Hanna: And suffering a huge backlash as a result!

Anderson: I do think we are in a specific time right now. A bunch of things are coming together [to demonstrate] the potential for feminism on an international level — to use creativity to inspire multi-generational, different forms of feminism, and have that not be just an academic idea. With media and social media the way that it is right now, there is a lot of opportunity to all come together as an international feminist community and have the revolution that we’ve been talking about for a really long time. It’s more possible now than it’s ever been before. It needs to happen.

Filmmaker: Kathleen, when you say at the end of the movie that you want people to get out of your way, who are you talking about?

Hanna: I guess the doctors who told me I was crazy. “Get the fuck out of my way.” The male musicians who were supposed to be my friends and my peers who said that my work was just therapy. And I said “Yeah, what is yours? You’re writing bad songs about how much you hate your fucking ex-girlfriend. How is that more interesting? Isn’t that therapy for you?” Well, my therapy is talking about racism, sexism and classism and how that affects my life, or my situation in terms of my privilege.

Davis: I think there’s also just that feeling that even if there isn’t somebody there, we sometimes think there is that thing that’s there. I think her message is, “Get out there, spread that message, I’m about to say what I have to say. Whether it is a father or a teacher or a brother or sister, get out of my way. I’m gonna say this and you’re not going to hold me back.” [And the film is] just showing that she’s brave enough to say that.

Hanna: And sometimes I internalize sexism. Like sometimes I’m my worst enemy, you know what I mean? I’m in my own way, I don’t believe in myself or I don’t believe that what I have to say is important. I’m the one who minimizes what’s going on in my life, whether it’s a health issue or a violence issue or an emotional issue. It doesn’t even have to be some corporation or a man or whatever. We have so internalized these messages that we don’t even need to reach for the stars because we don’t think we can do it. So I’m telling myself to get out of my way.

Anderson: Kathleen is a really prolific artist, and not many of us are lucky to continue to make art with that sort of drive. And that’s the amazing message of the film, that it is possible to push the naysayers out of the way. You have better things to do and work to make. That’s what’s really happening at the end of the film. Getting a glimpse of an artist with a lot to say and a lot of work to make.

Filmmaker: Kathleen, how do you think Lyme disease is going to change or affect your work going forward?

Hanna: Well, I’m a lot more grateful for everything that I have. Going through the illness has definitely shown me what a wonderful person my husband is on a whole new level, physically taking care of me for eight months at a time. I don’t know, I’ve gotten so much out of it, but, I mean, it’s been absolutely horrible and miserable. The past two years of my life have been the worst two years of my life. I’ve been in a remission for three or four months now and it’s nice to just be here and now and able to do interviews. I can be jet lagged and still walk up stairs.

Filmmaker: The movie draws an implicit parallel between the invisibilty of being a female artist and having a disease not fully embraced by the medical profession.

Davis: Yeah, it’s having a disease where people are like, “Oh it doesn’t really exist, it’s just in your mind.”

Anderson: The lines from Kathleen’s career from the beginning to where she is now, those lines were really clear to me when I was taking a look at her life or doing the interviews. The scene where she says, “Actually I am sick and these symptoms exist” was the same message she was giving when she was 21 and saying, “Actually that’s sexism and sexual abuse exists. I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable, I’m going to say it.” So to watch Kathleen’s lines spread out like that was—it’s giving me goose bumps right now. Those are the lines we need to draw. It’s the same kind of truth telling.

Hanna: And here’s to ten years of not having fucked up shit I have to make art about!