Friday, November 5, 2010
Kathleen Hanna Documentary, Who Told You Christmas Wasn't Cool? aka The Punk Singer
"Suck my left one!" The words echoed from my stereo at the tender, soul-searching age of 15 and struck a chord. It was an echo that resonated in my mind, pitched a tent and made a home. It was the voice of Kathleen Hanna, the then-singer of Olympia/DC based punk band Bikini Kill. And it was the start of my discovery of the land where punk rock and feminism merged, a land otherwise known as riot grrrl -- a movement synonymous with Kathleen Hanna. From her early days of spoken word on Kill Rock Stars Records to the spark of a revolution with Bikini Kill to the anthemic, electro-punk trio Le Tigre, she has been an endlessly inspired creator. Known for her powerful voice, confrontational lyrics and unapologetically feminist message, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Kathleen is currently the subject of a documentary tentatively titled The Kathleen Hanna Project, a.k.a. Who Told You Christmas Wasn't Cool?, directed by Sister Spit alumni, Sini Anderson. Sini has a long history with film and performance art, but this is her first stab at directing a feature film. "I've helped a lot of filmmakers as an assistant director and consultant, but this is the first feature that I’ve directed. Fate kind of dropped into my path...I've always known that I would direct features; it was just a question of when."
The documentary explores exactly what makes people react so strongly to Kathleen Hanna’s work. "She's been an immeasurably inspiring, but also somewhat divisive figure. There's a lot of [girl] bands that were making history in the 90's, -- like Heavens to Betsy, L7 --that were happening around the same time, but for some reason the focus has always pulled toward Kathleen. Her aesthetic style and energy are inherently compelling and unique, but there's something much deeper that has to do with her drive and passion and process that makes people listen when she talks. That X-factor is really what the film is getting at."
While the film centers specifically on Kathleen, her personal motives and perspective on the scene she's been a part of for 20 years, "there’s also a lot of context: the history, the musicians, the other people who were part of that movement." The film is also about perseverance in the face of personal attacks, even from those within one’s own marginalized community. "Kathleen took an enormous amount of shit. She ate a lot of dirt along the way." And Anderson wants to know, "when people are so busy trying to take you down, how do you keep on creating?"
Anderson presented this question in the early stages of filming. "[Kathleen] was talking about being in her early 20s and feeling really isolated and thinking to herself, 'What am I gonna do? Am I gonna let this shit take me down right now and just quit, and not make music anymore? Or am I going to try and picture myself twenty years from now and try to make a difference in the larger context of feminist history?' She made a decision, and it was an incredibly strong vision to have so early in one’s career: no matter what, I'm gonna make history, and I'm gonna take all of the haters and I'm gonna put 'em on the side. Even through all of the hate, she got on stage and continued to make work."
Although Kathleen was conspiring to make history, it was always less about her and more about her communities. "It's been more of a 'we' thing than an 'I' thing [throughout her career]. She's been really amazing about pulling the creative people that she loves in and making work with them.”
The process of filming has largely been an intimate one. Developing the style and aesthetic was done in a bubble for the first six months because Anderson wanted "to make something that wasn’t just meaningful in terms of content, but also beautiful.” Anderson, “wanted to keep the project really tight and small until I got to a place where I was comfortable opening it to other people. I'm really just getting to that place now, and it's pretty exciting to talk to people whom I’d ideally like to work with.”
The film will showcase a lot of never before seen archival footage, illustrating the trajectory of the riot grrrl movement. But a bigger part of what drives the film is the question of "what's behind the political views?” It's also, “a conversation between two friends. So it goes a lot deeper than typical interviews. We do have a shoot coming up that's a lot more public, a live tribute show that's happening in New York on December 11th. So that's where the production opens up even more."
Sini and Kathleen make great collaborators because they come from similar communities and have been long committed to similar political, cultural, and artistic ideals. Part of the message behind the film’s title is about dispelling myths regarding what people deign cool and uncool (Christmas being considered "uncool"). “Kathleen and I are both big cheeseballs and we're both really into supporting people, especially artists, as much as we possibly can. I think we're both into saying things that may be uncool, and not afraid to appreciate what is earnest and honest. Like ‘I love you,’ or ‘I like Christmas,’ or ‘I feel scared.’”
"It's a lot about how young people inform themselves and how they decide what's cool. When you're young and you're impressionable and you're trying to act cool and trying to be the next great thing, things can go pretty awry and you can lose yourself. So the idea of Who Told You Christmas Wasn't Cool? was: what do you believe? What do you hold onto? Just keep holding on to it; it's okay.
Sini is also collaborating with Samual Topiary, on a documentary entitled, I Spit On Your Country: Sister Spit. She is also set to direct a music video for Jolie Holland, and just directed a trailer for Melissa Febos' memoir Whip Smart, which was recently optioned to be made into a TV series.
Who Told You Christmas Wasn't Cool? and I Spit On Your Country are two of several feminist art documentaries that have been gestating in the past few years, akin to Radical Act and Don't Need You. Sini's take on the importance of archiving feminist history is that "it's crucial to any type of feminist art that this stuff be documented and made really well and not in a hurry, so that it gets put out there in the world to a wider audience, so it can reach more people. Feminist art is not just this academic thing that needs to stay in a classroom; it's a real action. Contrary to popular belief, there's a lot of hilarity, pathos, and fun in it."
Who Told You Christmas Wasn't Cool? is scheduled to finish in fall 2011.