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Revolution Girl Style Now: the Life and Times of a Pioneering Punk Singer
14 / 02 / 2014
Few people are more synonymous with ‘90s feminism than pioneering musician frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. Hanna was the reluctant figurehead of underground punk movement Riot Grrrl, which was epitomised by the mantra ‘Revolution Girl Style Now!’ the title of the first cassette released by Hanna’s legendary band Bikini Kill. With a DIY philosophy built on homemade zines and hastily scrawled feminist manifestos, Riot Grrrl propelled itself from an underground scene in Olympia, Washington, to worldwide recognition in glossy music mags and the pages of university Women’s Studies text books.
Best known for her squalling vocals in the groundbreaking Bikini Kill and electro-punk act Le Tigre, the musician/activist is now being lionized in recent documentary, ‘The Punk Singer’, directed by Sini Anderson. After withdrawing from the limelight for the better part of a decade due to a struggle with long-term illness, the film coincides with Hanna’s return to the public eye, with the singer recently touring Australia with new band The Julie Ruin.
In true DIY style, the project was initially financed by a groundswell of support on crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter, and has since been screening worldwide to a growing chorus of praise. ‘The Punk Singer’ provides a revealing and personal look into the life and legacy of a controversial and beloved feminist icon, with illuminating interviews and observations on feminism, activism and art.
Tamra Davis, who features in the documentary along with Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein and Tavi Gevinson, came on board as a producer and editor of the film when Anderson asked for her help. Davis is a critically acclaimed filmmaker who has directed film clips for the likes of Sonic Youth, Husker Du, N.W.A. and Black Flag. She also introduced Hanna to her partner of 18 years, the Beastie Boys MC Adam Horovitz (Davis has been married to Beastie Boys MC “Mike D” for more than 20 years).
Feminist presenter, commentator and educator Karen Pickering spoke with Davis ahead of a special screening of ‘The Punk Singer’ last month, who provided generous insight into the documentary’s creative process, Hanna’s legacy, and the obstacles women face in the entertainment industry.
Karen Pickering [KP]: Obviously, first, congratulations on the amazing film that you made. You, and such a great team, I really love it. I’ve seen it a few times and it gives me a lot of very strong feelings! It’s really beautiful.
Have you found that there is a lot of love for this movie?
Tamra Davis [TD]: Yes, definitely! I just love Kathleen so much, so I had the love while making the film. And then, you know, she’s not like the most popular person, but there are people that are big fans of her. But what I found is that when we showed it, it didn’t matter if people had never heard about her, or were her long-time fans, somehow her voice was able to reach all these different people. So yeah, we were really excited about that.
KP: And yeah, you’ve got pretty much the ultimate charismatic subject in Kathleen, really. She’s pretty magnetic in that way!
TD: [laughing] Yeah, I mean, she’s fascinating!
KP: And just that incredible connection and warmth that comes across in the movie, is something that I think a lot of people who are or were Riot Grrrl fans, who might’ve loved her for different reasons, like how fierce and crazy and fearless she seemed, maybe could now see this warm, vulnerable person?
TD: Yeah, yeah. And in fact, the film shows such a sensitive and personal side of her, so it was really important to me that that was pure, but also that she was, at the same time, protected.
KP: Absolutely, that seemed clear. Especially as the film takes us on that journey of her illness, that would’ve been really important. That’s one of the other questions I had for you, actually! In deciding what to include and what to leave out, which I guess is every documentarian’s core quandary, but as her friend how did you walk that line of protecting her and making sure that she was not too exposed?
TD: Well, I think that’s where you’re right – that a documentary is made in the edit room, and I had the interviews that Sini had done (which were very vulnerable, because she was sick at the time, so she had a lot of different emotions), and then I had so much archival, so it was really about cutting that together. And also you’re realising, I don’t know, in that fantasy moment thinking “This is the message that she’s trying to say.” So that if I showed it to her – knowing that I’m going to be sitting next to Kathleen Hanna and having her watch it, I wanted to make sure that she would be happy with how I had manipulated that story, or that voice. Because, you know, that’s what you do when you’re in the edit room.
KP: And maybe even sometimes skirting really close to the edge of something that she might’ve thought, “Ohhh, I wouldn’t have put that in myself, but I’m really glad someone else did.”
TD: Yeah! And you know, telling the truth, but not saying things that are too much, and having that level of protection. And with her, I felt like that was really important.
KP: I was thinking how this film is about Kathleen Hanna, but it’s also about so much more, and that’s obviously down to you and Sini and the team. It seems to also be about the nature of celebrity, and what happens to women in the public eye, and what happens when a movement is artistic as well as political. It seems to cover some really huge questions – was that a conscious decision along the way for you guys?
TD: For me, yeah. When I got a hold of the footage, I had already made out a path of the story of how things went down, like in a timeline. Like I knew “this is when the band gets together,” you know, so I could see when things happened. I had all these little three by five cards taped on the wall showing that. And then you deal with what happens to Kathleen emotionally, and I always try to make sure those elements have a narrative and a dramatic impact, so like when they play the show in Washington DC and everybody just talked about, you know, whether they shaved their legs or not – that she thinks she’s making this big political statement, and they turn it into this weird media thing. You know, I wanted to show the drama in that, or showing what happened dramatically with her when she got famous but people started attacking her, and how that personally affects you.
Because I’ve seen it – I saw that it happened to her, but I’ve also seen that that happens. And I wanted to show what that could feel like, to be the person that people have this rage towards, but at the same time you’re saving people. So to really see what happens to that individual who’s going through that.
KP: Yeah, absolutely. In some cases, people were literally attacking her, like the Courtney Love story!
TD: Yeah, it was creepy!
KP: You really show that, how insane that animosity was towards Kathleen because of her message and her confidence, and that it even extended to other powerful women in the same milieu. But maybe Courtney was an outlier in that sense, among others!
TD: Yeah, Courtney’s…you can never…I wouldn’t put…she’s a unique person! [laughs]
KP: [laughing] Yes! So you talked about that experience that women often have when they’re thrust into the public spotlight, or because they’re just trying to do something that’s important to them and it becomes a public process. I’m wondering about your experience as well, as a producer and director. You’re in an industry that is obviously pretty hard on women, in terms of the way women are perceived and what kind of work you can get, as well. So there’s kind of twin-edged thing that if you’re a woman filmmaker who’s also making content that focuses on women’s experience, it seems like a double whammy. So have you found that it was ever hard to get people interested in a documentary that was about a woman, made by women?
TD: It’s interesting for me, coming onto the film at a later stage, because Sini had shot the footage, like the interviews with Kathleen, and the other live, present-day interviews, but then she was unable to put the film together. She couldn’t figure out how to put it all together, so that’s when I took all the footage from her, and made the film. So, at that point she had raised money through Kickstarter, and she got the money that she needed to shoot all the interviews, and she’d spent all the money that she had raised through Kickstarter but she wasn’t able to make a film.
So when I came on, there wasn’t a need to get investors and stuff. My whole point was that I thought I could get the film to a place where it could be shown at a film festival, a festival cut, and then you could see if somebody would buy it there. That was my goal. I felt that I could get the film to that place. And that’s what we did. Kathleen and I went to South by Southwest and we were able to sell the film to IFC there.
KP: What about throughout your career, have you ever had difficulty? Like if you’re consciously a female filmmaker, have you ever found that that makes life difficult for you?
TD: I think really to be fair to everybody it’s actually almost impossible to get films made! In all honesty, it is a miracle if you are a working director. I don’t care if you’re black, white, white-male-forty-year-old-guy, it doesn’t matter, it’s really hard. So amazing kudos to anybody that is actually working and has a career. But um, I definitely feel that it’s harder to be a woman. You know, if you look at any of the statistics, you see how many shows are made by women, how many films are made by women, and what the opportunities are. I mean, there are statistics – I don’t have to say “Oh, I find it hard!”, I just want to say “Look at the numbers.” The numbers tell you how hard it is for a woman to work in this industry.
But I feel that we are just as talented, we have such a strong voice, we have great opinions, and you know, our voices should never be silenced. Some of the best writers are women, some of the best producers are women. Being a director takes an insane amount of confidence and I feel like you almost have to be not that thing which has been beat down on girls so bad – that politeness of being a girl. You have to really be bold. You can’t just always be polite. You have to really speak your mind and say what you mean, and be really straightforward if you want to direct. You have to be bossy! And girls are really put down for being bossy.
But if you can figure out a way to do it where you’re not just bossy, but actually you’re a collaborator, and you’re excited to work with other people. So you’re not thinking, “Oh I’m being so bossy” but instead you’re thinking, “Wow, this is how you get things done!” and when somebody is in control they say what to do and everybody works together. So I don’t know, I think it’s hard for girls to do that. Somehow there’s just not a big percentage of girls that are directors and I wish there would be. Because girls can be really good at multitasking and they can be perfectionists!
KP: Well, it’s like you said, that collaborative approach that says I’m powerful and I’m in charge but I also want to hear what you have to say because it might make everything really great.
TD: Yeah! And to have that ability to work with other people and be excited about that, I feel like girls are really good at that – they’re really good at being inclusive and being more proud of what, say, your DP [Director of Photography] can do, or what your wardrobe person can do, or sound person, or, on camera, your actor.
KP: Well, doing my research for this interview I read that Drew Barrymore actually said that you were one of her favourite directors to work with for that reason! Like that it’s not always a process where you’re listened to, but with you it always was.
TD: Did she say that? Oh, that’s so sweet!
KP: A lot of what you’re saying reminds me of the story of Kathleen through the movie, of being a woman who wants to be really powerful and assertive, and who’s in charge of something – herself, her body, her political awakening or progression, and her performance. She really suffered a huge backlash from that and it really hurt her. So for the benefit of people who are watching who sometimes feel like that too, like that people want to step on them because they’re stepping up, did you feel a responsibility to show how she coped with that, or that it made her stronger?
TD: Well, I think something so great is that after she got taken down with Bikini Kill, she created Julie Ruin. And we really made a point of writing in the film that she made it by herself, in her apartment. That, to me, was so amazing. So I feel like we showed that sometimes things happen to you that might put you in the place where, for Kathleen, she was able to create this amazing sound – and electronic music at that time, I mean, nobody was really doing that at the time, especially like a young girl.
So I think that that pushed her forward and really challenged her and made her a better musician. And that became Le Tigre, which also grew her as an artist. So somebody like Kathleen is inspiring in that sense, that instead of getting beat down by something that happens to you in life. How to turn that into your art, and how to make it have value other than just taking you down. Find a way to process it and make art out of it.
KP: Yeah, yeah. And she also goes into that towards the very end of the doco as well. Talking about that connection with other women, and how that can make you stronger as well, and that you can hold each other up sometimes.
TD: Yeah, definitely.
KP: I think this movie will, for a lot of people our age, unlock a lot of nostalgia. You know, Bikini Kill was a band that I listened to when I was in high school, and I didn’t have any idea that it was so epic at the time, like that it was part of this global feminist flashpoint. And this film really shows me that. So I’m just curious, how did this process of making the film make you feel about that time, about Riot Grrrl and the movement, and where you were in the early ’90s? Has it made you feel like we’ve come a long way, or has it made you nostalgic for that time?
TD: I think that, for me, in a weird sense I was there. You know, I had the footage and while I was editing I went back to Los Angeles and found all this Australian footage, and that was one of the first places that Kathleen and Adam had fallen in love. There’s like some backstage stuff and then there’s lots of stuff on her on tour, that I shot of her in Australia. So I definitely feel all that nostalgia, and remembering what it felt like to watch her on stage. It was so fantastic and new, and she had such a huge impact on me.
But you know, I think that’s something people really respond to as well, is that they have their own memories of where they were at that time. And you know, that’s something that I think is wonderful, to evoke those memories in people, to evoke an emotional response in them, because they have their own connection to it. I think that’s definitely really important with the film.
To me, because that voice was so specific at that time, it’s so important that it’s never forgotten – what she did, what those girls were doing at that time – they started a movement that took us to where we’re at now. Whereas I can meet a girl now, who’s like 19 or 20, and she dresses the way she wants to dress, to go to work, and she’s bold and she has confidence, and she’s cool and she’s sexy but she’s in control. And all that came because of the women who were before her. And she may not know that. And so when I showed that girl this movie her whole life changed. She was like “Oh my god, I had no idea that that’s why I can be this girl that I am! It’s because she did that then!”
So I feel like she needs to reminded in the same way that we needed to be reminded of the women that came before us. That’s why it was also so important to really call back those women from another generation who carried Women’s Lib and did things in earlier times to get us to where we’re at. So it’s definitely also an homage to the women that came before us.
KP: It really, really feels like that! And thank you so much. It really feels like such a beautiful tribute to feminists everywhere. So it’s the story of one woman, who for a little while seemed to have the whole feminist movement swirling around her, which is extraordinary for just one little human in the early nineties. But it reminds us that feminism will go on, and that as long as women have been around we’ve always been fighting. Thank you so much.
For more information visit: http://www.thepunksinger.com/. The film is available now through iTunes, and stay tuned for future screenings locally.
Karen Pickering is a feminist presenter, commentator and educator. She is the creator and host of Cherchez la Femme, a feminist talkshow of pop culture and current affairs, held on the first Tuesday of every month at the Duke of Wellington Hotel in the city. She can be found @ThatPickering or mskarenpickering.com.au.