Documentary – The Punk Singer

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As yet another installment of the Beat Film Festival, the documentary The Punk Singer, directed by filmmaker Sini Anderson, was shown to a Moscow audience on June 7th. The film tells the story of the founder of the riot grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna. As a fan of Kathleen Hanna’s work in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre I was very curious to get an intimate insight into the life of the feminist idol. I still remember when my very cool University room-mate from D.C introduced me to riot grrrl music and I became hooked. Kathleen’s music became an integral part of my college experience and my American feminist education.

The film begins by showing footage of Kathleen’s beginning in spoken word performance poetry and shows how powerful her voice and her writing were from the very beginning of her career on stage. Hanna had a very strong desire to be heard, and soon after she became the front-woman of Bikini Kill. Bikini Kill may not have been the 1st band to be lead by an outspoken female but they were unique in striving to create a female safe place which many punk concerts lacked. Kathleen encouraged women to come to the front and not be pushed or bullied around. During in the late 80s and early 90s that the momentum of the feminist movement had seemed to be on the decline and a new voice of the generation was greatly needed. It was at that time that Kathleen Hanna had stepped up to the plate as the voice of 3rd wave feminism and became one of the pioneers of the movement. As Bikini Kill gained more exposure, journalists hungered for interviews with Kathleen and her bandmates. Much of the media quoted Hanna out of context and printed misinterpretations that greatly angered Bikini Kill and their fans. Subsequently Bikini Kill called for a “media black-out” and refused to interact with any of the press. The only direct communication between Bikini Kill and their fans was through their DYI zines which addressed various social issues.

The director, Sini Anderson, showed a variety of archive footage of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre performances as well as interviews of Kathleen Hanna from 2010 onward. Additionally Adam Horovitz, Kathleen’s husband, as well as friends of the band were interviewed. Feminist icons such as Jennifer Baumgardner (whom I’ve met!), Kim Gordon, and Joan Jett amongst others were also interviewed showing their support for Kathleen and the impact her career had on feminism and music. The account of how Kathleen had accidentally coined the phrase the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Kurt Cobain is also mentioned with a wink and a smile, reminding the audience that Kurt too had come from the feminism punk scene.

In the interviews with Kathleen, she discusses how Bikini Kill disbanded in 1996 after tensions and exhaustion of constant touring had taken their toll. During her break during bands, Hanna created a solo project in her bedroom called “Julie Ruin.” She later formed her current group under the same name. Kathleen made a comeback in 1998 by forming the group Le Tigre. Le Tigre incorporated electronic music with sociopolitical lyrics and became an even bigger success than Bikini Kill. Le Tigre continued touring until 2005 when Kathleen realized that she was no longer capable of putting her body through the stress of being on stage every night. It was at that point that she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Hanna mentions in one of the interviews how upsetting and difficult it was for her to admit that she needed help. Watching Kathleen break down on camera, it is hard not to feel for her and start crying in the cinema as well. While Kathleen had been struggling with Lyme disease since 2005, it was in this documentary that Hanna first admitted it publicly. In 2005, she had told her Le Tigre bandmates that she was finished as a singer/songwriter and she had written all she ever intended to write but that had not been true. The film was also the first public revelation of certain details of Hanna’s childhood and her marriage.

The combination of the archival footage and the more recent interviews strikes a most delicate documentary balance. The old concert videos show how Kathleen progressively grew as a person and a performer and Kathleen’s commentary place those videos into the context of her life and her relationships. One felt a true connection with Hanna as she explained the struggles she had overcome, and when she became teary-eyed. Adam Horovitz also speaks strongly supporting his wife, especially when her Lyme disease was at her worst.

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After watching the Punk Singer, I remembered just how powerful and important the riot grrrl movement had been. 3rd wave feminist would not have been the same and neither would the music scene. I remembered why the movement had spoken so strongly to me as a young female fighting for her own voice to be heard. Much like Kathleen, I feel that even in the 21st century the feminist movement is necessary for our society as long as women’s views are not seen as serious as men’s. Also, it can also be hard to admit one’s own limits and accept the help of others, which is something I continue to learn on a daily basis. Thank you Kathleen Hanna for existing and for making your voice be heard.

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