“Take Down the Patriarchy in Whatever Small Way I Can”: Sylvia Sichel and Dolly Hall on the Riot Grrrl Classic All Over Me
Last spring, my last Riot Grrrl fantasy unceremoniously came and went. Third-wave feminist trailblazers Bikini Kill reunited to play a few shows in Los Angeles, New York and London—their first time playing together since I was three years old in 1997—and I couldn’t finagle my way into getting a single ticket. They sold out in literally one second, and the original $40-$50 ticket price was already a huge chunk of change for me, not considering that tickets were selling for quadruple times the face value on StubHub. Even after additional dates were added in order to combat the rush of scalpers that bought out tickets by the dozen in order to exploit the rabid nostalgia of Riot Grrrls old and new, I was still shit out of luck.
As a consolation, I picked up a Bikini Kill t-shirt at Amoeba Records while visiting LA, right down the street from the Hollywood Palladium, where they were to kick off their tour the next day. While my purchase was being rung up, I thought: “Can we really preserve what being a Riot Grrrl even meant?”
Ironically, director Alex Sichel, her screenwriting sister Sylvia, and producer Dolly Hall had this exact thought in the waning years of Bikini Kill’s existence in the ’90s. They were inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement, where they were on the fringe—not quite young enough to submerge themselves in the raucous, rebellious scene, but all heavily engaged in feminist praxis.
Thus, they created the tenderly gritty All Over Me, which explores the budding sexuality of a young wannabe guitarist, Claude, and her complicated feelings for troubled best friend Ellen. The backdrop of New York City does not prove to be a safe haven for the few explicitly LGBT characters in the film, and a violent hate-based murder only heightens the anxiety for all involved. When Claude meets Lucy (a pre-The L Word Leisha Hailey), a pink-haired, full-fledged Riot Grrrl lesbian, she musters up the courage to renounce the pressures of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and her response to those who criticize her divergence could be summarized in Kathleen Hannah’s words: “Suck my left one.”
Alex Sichel died of breast cancer in 2014 (she made one final collaborative film), but her sister Sylvia and producer Dolly Hall spoke with me about the messy process of getting this picture made, the inspiration for the characters, and whether or not music today can offer liberation from oppression. All Over Me screens Tuesday, August 27 at Quad Cinema on 35mm as part of their “Coming Out Again” series co-presented with NewFest.
Filmmaker: The film obviously owes a lot to the Riot Grrrl scene of the ‘90s—Sleater-Kinney seeps through Claude’s headphones, and artists such as Ani DiFranco or The Amps seem to be featured in the film as if Claude herself was curating the soundtrack to her life. How did the soundtrack selection come about?
Sichel: We would have to give that to Bill Cohen, the music director. For some of the music—like the Patti Smith song that was a huge thing to get—there was a lot of generosity from the bands. We would write them and ask if we could use their songs. Ani DiFranco was so generous with her song, that kind of thing.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the budget, what was the process of raising money for this film like?
Hall: Insane. We had some initial investors—I was one of them—for pre-production. Another filmmaker colleague had met some people at a bar in Washington, D.C., and they ponied up another part of the money. There was this art collector, a patron saint of the arts guy, who brought in the final piece of the money. He was brought to us by one of the rich guys who was hanging out in New York in the ‘90s, who were putting pieces of money together for artists. It was a super classical ‘90s financing plan—there was never any fucking plan.
Sichel: But Dolly had a track record with The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, Maria Maggenti’s movie. Without that, the money would have been a lot harder to come by.
Filmmaker: Sylvia, what was it like working with your sister, Alex, on this film? Did you both develop the idea together?
Sichel: She was in film school at Columbia and wanted to do a thesis. I was playwriting in New York and had started this off-off-off-Broadway company with a friend. She asked if I would help collaborate on this doc-style piece on Riot Grrrl. Originally, it was this 20 minute movie about Riot Grrrl. After working on it very intensely, we realized that she really wanted to do something about Riot Grrrl, and I wanted to do something about how the first love relationship of my life was my best friend. Over the year that we were working and writing together, the two ideas started to meld. We had a few drafts of this other script that I was writing called Girl World, which was based on Riot Grrrl and on a lot of different characters who are already in Riot Grrrl, but the origin story of a Riot Grrrl sort of started to take place with Claude.
Filmmaker: The Riot Grrrl aspect of the film seemed integral to the story, but also it seems as if it could have been much more heavy-handed in the film. However, the unspoken power of this genre giving Claude the strength to do the right thing and also be comfortable in her own skin is very much like the experience I had when I first started to listen to this music when I was 19. What was the process of writing this subdued origin story like?
Sichel: For Alex, the reason why she was so attracted to the Riot Grrrl aspect is because we didn’t have it. We missed it because we’re too old. So, it was this idea of, “God, I wish I had that.” I wish I had this group of girls that were comfortable in their own skin, not living under the eyes of patriarchy all the time. Claude wasn’t quite a Riot Grrrl yet, but she definitely is after the movie is over. We were working at this coffee shop on Fifth Avenue—it’s no longer there anymore—but going to meet each other one morning, Alex had passed a crime scene where this gay guy had been killed. So, the stuff that was going on around us in New York also found its way into the story.
Filmmaker: Something I found incredibly fascinating is that in the film, New York City is not an idealized place of acceptance and freedom—these girls wish to escape it! There is violent homophobia that leaves LBGT youth at risk of dying. Was this departure from the rose-colored glasses version of New York as the great epicenter for gay life intentional?
Hall: Sylvia, Alex and I grew up in New York. We are New York City kids, so the three of us brought this feeling that all home-grown New Yorkers have that is completely not seen through rose-colored glasses. I used to come home from school, and all of my friends would get mugged.
Sichel: Because of when we grew up, it was a bit more grungy. Iit was definitely an intentional process picking Hell’s Kitchen [as the location for the film]. We went through every neighborhood and thought, “Which neighborhood is holding onto these old values and hasn’t caught up to the rest of New York?” Hell’s Kitchen really did have at the time all the mom-and-pop stores, kind of like Carroll Gardens. Not to say anything bad about Hell’s Kitchen, but there was this feeling that there could be a lot of bigotry there. There could be violence there that could feel more small town, in a way. When you’re a girl, New York is a different playground when you’re walking home at 1am—you feel as if you don’t own the streets. Danger lurks around the corner, and that comes from the fact that you are not in power.
Filmmaker: The film is, in my reading of it, an unequivocal condemnation of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and particularly how these dominant social forces oppress women and LGBT people in particular—the straight people in the film are so downright annoying, inconsiderate and, to some capacity, evil! Like Mark, Ellen’s boyfriend. What was the intention of exploring an almost completely negative portrayal of heterosexuality? It’s kind of thrilling.
Hall: It has been my secret mission, but now I’m really out of the closet in my mission to take down the patriarchy in whatever small way I can. I didn’t look at those characters as being evil, but rather just completely broken. It is their brokenness, their three-dimensionality that I found to be so heartbreaking and terrifying. That was really as much a part of the story that I was interested in telling as the first love/love is blind aspect of teenage girls.
Sichel: I wish I could say that I have been trying to take down the patriarchy my whole life, because that’s so fucking cool! But if you look at Claude’s mom, she is so trapped by the patriarchy—so trapped by her own need to fit in and work within the rules that were given to her. The mom and daughter relationship, I can definitely say I brought 99.99% of that feeling by just watching my own beloved mom—who I’m not dissing at all, but just when I was young, it felt like, what the fuck are you doing? You’re just trying to lose weight and wear the right dress, and trying to perform in a certain way for the right guy. Actually, the character who has a crush on Claude, the straight boy, we were trying to say that he’s very sweet, but also very clueless. You know, there are a lot of Marks in the world. It didn’t feel like we were trying to find the one evil guy, we were trying to tell the story of how Ellen loses herself because of this guy, and also by following Claude’s mom.
The second part of my answer—I just have to kick this one to my beloved sister, may she rest in peace, because she was such a badass feminist! She was like Dolly, who wanted to take down the patriarchy and saw all of this stuff that I never saw in the social structures of everything. She was just pissed! As a teenager and a young woman—all of that good stuff is because of Alex, in my mind.
Filmmaker: I’m sure a lot of my friends now—who have come out as lesbians in their mid-20s—would be so jealous of the awakening that Claude had. As a 15-year-old, it’s extremely impressive to be able to lift the burden of femininity, shrug off your mom’s comment about how no man would want a woman who eats ice cream, and then go off and share an ice cream cone with a pink-haired girl! I think a lot of us were still too scared to grapple with that desire as teenagers.
Sichel: I think that really comes back to Riot Grrrl. We were going to do a documentary on Riot Grrrl in Seattle—there was some stuff going on in the East Village, but we were kind of old, so it would have been weird for us to go and sit in on these teenagers’ meetings. So, there was this feeling of being inspired by what we knew about Riot Grrrl, and how brave these girls were for doing exactly what you said—shrugging off the fear, and what they have been told that they should want, and just going for it. So it’s a little bit of that pure fantasy: a character living the life you wished that you lived, inspired by girls who were definitely doing that.
Filmmaker: I also have to say, the scene where Claude is singing along and crying to Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” is one of the most beautiful and relatable scenes in the film, though it is a definite break from the Riot Grrrl soundtrack. Was this a way of saying, “We wouldn’t be here without Patti Smith?”
Sichel: Absolutely! Without any doubt. We worked so hard to get that song for the film.
Hall: Obviously, in order to do the scene, we needed all the rights way in advance. We did the analog version of “This is how important it is for us to have this scene in the movie, because you changed our fucking lives. You changed music and the way women are looked at and seen and absorbed in music.” Patti Smith did that in a way that no one else did—not Janis [Joplin], not any of the other precursors. She was so totally balled out—and also because she was a poet!
Sichel: Alison [Folland] was really nervous to do that scene. I might be remembering this through rose-colored glasses, but I think she just took two takes and nailed it. She didn’t want Alex talking to her before it—she just brought so much vulnerability to that moment.
Filmmaker: The relationship between Claude and Ellen was so tender and saccharine at times, but was ultimately deemed unhealthy and toxic in the same way many straight relationships are exposed to be. What was the process of developing their relationship?
Sichel: That’s something I was very invested in. I was channeling two particular relationships that had a huge affect on my life. I’m a straight woman, and I love straight women, but there is this moment when you’re growing up and your friend is everything, and you get thrown under the bus for a guy. This was a way of having that on steroids, because the guy is so toxic as well. I think Claude and Ellen started off as a “straight” relationship, and then Claude found herself falling in love with her best friend, and realizing that her sexuality is not quite what she thought it was.
Filmmaker: Do you believe that any other genre of music has empowered women in the same way that Riot Grrrl did in the ‘90s?
Hall: I mean, look: Beyoncé. The social media piece of how current female artists, like Taylor Swift—
Sichel: I would say Lizzo!
Hall: Exactly! I don’t listen to any of those people who have 20 million followers—
Sichel: I listen to all of them!
Hall: Okay, great! You can clarify once I stumble through this. I think that due to the social media aspect, and this certain historical moment where there is no personal life—nobody, unless you had Just Kids, would ever know all of this shit about Patti Smith. Young women now feel connected and feel as if their lives have changed through this connection that they have to artists who are writing poetry and putting that into a song that makes them feel like, “You are singing about me. You know my life.” Like Lady Gaga. So yes, contemporary artists have changed people’s lives in the way that Riot Grrrl did. But for me, it does feel like we had to work a little bit harder. I had to work to get into CBGB’s, I had to go and do all that shit. When I started to get into punk, even before the Riot Grrrl movement, it felt more important because it was not easy. Everyone hated me, and everyone hated all of that music. Like, Talking what?
Sichel: The only thing I want to add is that I feel like the film really holds up. It was made with no cynicism, just caring about this girl and her story so much, and all three of us just really wanting to bring this girl’s story to the screen. This is what happens when a bunch of female filmmakers get together. Good things happen.