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SXSW Interview with Sini Anderson, Tamra Davis and Kathleen Hanna of The Punk Singer

SXSW Interview with Sini Anderson, Tamra Davis and Kathleen Hanna of The Punk Singer

I can’t write about Sini Anderson’s great documentary The Punk Singer without mentioning that Kathleen Hanna has been one of my life-long heroes. When I was sixteen a friend gave me my first Bikini Kill CD, I had never heard anything like it, and feminism wasn’t something that was remotely on my radar. I dove into Hanna’s music and read everything I could about riot grrrl, even doing a presentation on it for a high school class where I received quizzical looks from the other students. Hanna always seemed larger than life to me–a musically inclined revolutionary badass.

Anderson’s The Punk Singer encapsulates Hanna in this way, documenting her “origin stories”, her childhood, her time in Bikini Kill and the riot grrrl movement, and her time in Le Tigre. Hanna ruminates on these periods of her life and feminism, interspersed with archival footage of Bikini Kill performing, Le Tigre on tour and Hanna giving speeches at feminist rallies. She is eloquent, accessible, inspirational and remains exactly the woman that I (and many others) idolize.

However, Anderson also captures Hanna vulnerably–an unexpected romance with her now husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys to her sudden exit from performing in 2005, a move that confused fans, friends and even Hanna’s bandmates. The cause was unknown at the time but it was a health issue, a diagnosis of Lyme disease which had gone undetected for years.

Anderson gives a fascinating portrait of an endlessly inspirational woman, telling Hanna’s story on her own terms. And while I’ll always consider Hanna as a feminist superhero, she’s also a woman–who deals with the same things we all do. Seeing everything that Hanna has thus far accomplished leaves the audience with the feeling that you can start your own revolution. The Sixteen year old me would be happy to know that Hanna, both in the documentary and face to face, lives up to everything I’d hoped.

I spoke with director, Sini Anderson; producer, Tamra Davis and Kathleen Hanna about the film.

Women and Hollywood: What drew all of you to decide to do this project?

Kathleen Hanna: My band Le Tigre was making a tour documentary. And we needed a director and I knew Sini was interested in filmmaking. We had talked a lot about filmmaking, so I approached her. And she was like, “No.” And then two weeks later, we were hanging out and she was like, “Hey, I don’t want to do that project, but I would be really interested in doing a movie about your life and your work. Think about it.” I thought about it and said yes.

Sini Anderson: I was really excited the Le Tigre film, but my heart was just like, “When are you going to tell your story?” So, I asked Kathleen “When do you think you are going to be ready to tell your story? Because I know that people really need to hear it.” Kathleen was like, “Oh, I don’t know.”  Then she called me and said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said.  I don’t know if I’m ready to do this, but if we are going to do it, let’s do it.” That was a really exciting moment, to hear somebody be ready to say, “Yeah, you can do this. I’ll tell my story.”

Tamra Davis: I was working on Basquiat at the time. Sini came to me.  I love mentoring young filmmakers and girl filmmakers. So, we talked about her making the film. Then three years later she came to me while she was editing. She had hit a roadblock.  She had this amazing interview with Kathleen.  What I saw in her footage was this amazing story but it was complicated to weave everything together. I came on and helped structure the film and made a story out of it in the edit room.

We all came back together and made sure that we all felt good about the story. For me, also, I love Kathleen’s story so much and it was so important to me that it was told right. It was so overwhelming because not only was there all of Sini’s footage, there were also hundreds of hours of this archival materials that was just massive. The goal was trying to figure out how to weave it together. For me, it was amazing to see Kathleen’s life and try to structure an emotional story out of it. And we all worked together as a team. Both Sini and I love Kathleen so much, we really just wanted to make sure that that film represented her. Because it’s her life.

WaH: Sini, the movie was funded by Kickstarter and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that process. 

SA: We are in this great place where people can pick up cameras and tell stories. That being said, it still costs a lot of money. And, I’m not somebody who comes from money. We were able to purchase a camera. You need a good camera if you want a beautiful film.  That was something that I cared very much about, that the aesthetic look good. We had people willing to show up and work for free, but hard drives cost money, travel costs money, feeding your crew costs money. So, it was a real struggle. 

We got to the point of editing and I thought I don’t know what we are going to do without asking for help. So, we went to Kickstarter. I’m a huge fan. Not only is it such a great idea, they are really amazing people. They are really willing to show up and say, ‘What do you need? How can we help you?  Having that model and putting it out there for people is really making all of these films and projects and books and albums possible. 

It was scary and fun to put it out there. But, I knew, if we put it out there, Kathleen’s fans would come forward. People were so excited about it.  Kathleen did an update for us that was just like, “Thanks, you guys. This was so great.” And people were just excited to see her. It gave the film a lot of interest before we even started editing. All of those people from Kickstarter are still asking for updates and it’s amazing.

WaH: One thing that really came up for me during the film was the whole idea of documentation.  How difficult was it to collect and gather these things? I’m assuming you have a pretty big personal archive.

KH: A kind of serendipitous thing happened. My friend who used to be my roommate back in Olympia was very much present for the whole Riot Grrrl thing. She took one of the photo sets that’s in the movie of me and Tobi [Vail] and Kathi [Wilcox], right when we are talking about the band breaking up.  Lisa Darms, who is the archivist who now does the Riot Grrrl archive at NYU has been a close friend of mine for years and years and years. We went to a panel at the NYU archive, the Fales Archive, where now the archive is located, together. They were talking about the downtown archive and Richard Heil and stuff. I was like, I need a place to put my filing cabinet. I’ve been dragging that thing around for fucking ever. I wish somebody would start the Riot Grrrl archive. At the time, she wasn’t working at NYU, she had a different job. She got a call a couple of weeks later where they were like, “Do you wanna come work here?” The first thing she said was that “I want to do a Riot Grrrl archive.” It was almost a joke and then it started happening.

I got interns who helped me decide what was going to go in and what wasn’t–those were all really almost political decisions. Decisions that ended up being in this film of “how much do you share” and “how much do you hold back.” You want to share enough of your stuff that isn’t necessarily attractive, that people see themselves in it because we’re not all perfect. But, you also don’t want to be somebody with no boundaries who doesn’t protect yourself. I think that kind of negotiation, I learned from doing the archive stuff. The serendipitous part besides that was that I got to give them all the videotapes I had and I got to ask other people for videotapes. They started putting them all onto DVDs and digitized them all. The film really benefitted from that. There’s just a stack of things that have already been digitized instead of having to get VHS players.

SA: It would have been another year at least without that work being done.

TD: It was just amazing that that access was there and you just had already so much on DVD.

SA: Kathleen was a pre-production demon.

TD: I was looking through my files and I saw this footage and it was all this great footage of Bikini Kill live, but it was also of her and Adam.

KH: It was us falling in love on her camera because we were all on tour together.

TD: It’s another one of these tapes hidden in my basement. And I was sitting in the editing room looking at it with this weird feeling that Kathleen mentions, where she is looking at herself and it’s like a seeing a different person. Looking at it, it’s like Kathleen, Adam and I–and I don’t even remember any of that. And, here is all of this beautiful, beautiful footage. So, I just can’t even imagine. Are there other people out there that have this footage somewhere lying around?

KH: They definitely don’t have that kind of footage because they weren’t backstage.

TD: But, the archive is just so amazing. It was so exciting that she had done so much of that work.

WaH: I remember that you put something on your blog or Twitter, calling people to submit stuff. Did a lot of people reach out to you?

KH: It really ended up being friends. Also, I wrote to a lot of people on YouTube. I just would find a clip on YouTube and a lot of times I couldn’t even watch it, but I know that that show was big. It was a turning point for us or a really messed up show. I would email that person and be like, “Hey!” Some people actually didn’t believe it was me. I would do the, this is horrible, the kidnap victim thing of holding up a newspaper and taking a picture of myself and sending it. It’s hilarious.

WaH: One thing that I think is really important with women and women’s careers is having mentors, idols or people who’ve helped you in your careers. I was just wondering if all of you could talk about that. 

SA: I think it’s really really important. One of the things when I was making the film, when I was starting out, I thought over and over again was who are the women in the industry, in telling Kathleen’s story–who are the smartest feminists that I want to see this film to give me honest feedback about what I’m missing? Who are the smartest women in music that I want to watch this film before it’s finished and let me know musically what is missing? Tamra is who I thought of for film. I really wanted to talk with Tamra Davis.

So, I had a conversation with Tamra before we ever started production. She was open to that and had me over to her place and talked to me about it. She said you should try this and try this,  and just gave me great advice. It was something that was on the forefront of my mind because I’m not an expert.  It was really amazing to have Tamra come back and finish the project when she was the person I went to when I started it.

TD: For me, when I started out, I wanted to direct in the 80s and there were so few females making films, and not all of them were very approachable. You have so many questions and you need somebody to look at your work and help you. It’s an incredibly valuable thing and there should be more women as role models and also as mentors. It helps inspire a whole new generation. We have to build that next generation because those stories are so important.  Sini put such energy into making this film because the story had to be told.  I was just really excited to be involved with it. So, hopefully, it inspires other women to mentor in whatever field and hopefully other directors too.

KH: So, in a way, I’m going to speak for you, I think what Tamra is trying to say is that maybe you looked for a mentor that wasn’t there. Then, you became the mentor that you wish that you would have had.

WaH: Kathleen, what about you?

KH: What? I did it all myself! I don’t need any mentors! President of Riot Grrrl! Created feminism! Created punk rock as a genre! No, I mean, Simone de Beauvoir, and a ton of writers just totally changed my life. She was a real early one for me. I was like, “Whoah! I’m oppressed? What!” 

Other feminist thinkers and writers likeKathy Acker, Julia Kristeva, a lot of the French feminists were really influential to me and artists that were in the film and others who weren’t, like Karen Finley, Leslie Gore. bell hooks, obviously.  I totally ripped off her whole thing, turned her whole thing into songs. But in general for me it was just feminism. These were my people. This is my life raft and I want to get on this life raft because I’m sick of feeling like sexism is my own personal affliction because it’s not. It’s something that different people are experiencing at the same time and we need to help each other out instead of internalizing it to the point of externalizing it onto each other.

SA: And on that note, I would like to say that I think that we are at a place where we can have these mentors, and we can also find them. They are more accessible than we really believe. I think it’s really important that young women know that. Go after the people that you really want to be your mentors, but also look at your best friend. There is a lot in there.

Dream big and just ask. People want to help.

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