“I’m your worst nightmare come to life,” screams punk icon and feminist Kathleen Hanna, as she stomps out spoken word in front of a captivated audience. “I’m a girl who can’t shut up…I’m going to tell everyone what you did to me….I’m not going to shut up. I’m going to tell everyone. Everyone.”
Speaking what is unspoken, screaming out what has been silenced, Hanna was told that she should give up spoken word and join a band, “Nobody goes to see spoken word. They go to see bands.” She took that advice, became the front woman of the legendary Bikini Kill, later the influential Le Tigre, and the rest is history.
Twenty years later, director Sini Anderson has made one of the most buzzed about music docs in years. The Punk Singer provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and career of this revolutionary woman, feminist, and artist. Riveting and triumphant, it definitively places Hanna in history as one of the ground-breaking artists of our time.
Sini Anderson and I met during Hot Docs to talk about the Hanna influence, fourth wave-feminism, and the importance of documenting our female heroes while they’re still changing the world. Chaka V.
CV: What made you decide to do this documentary?
SA: Kathleen is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for a little over 10 years. In New York City, where we live, I was working at a post-production house and Kathleen would stop by and say hi. One day she came by to talk to me about working on the Le Tigre film that they were going to make, and during our conversation I said, “Kathleen, you really need to tell your story. The story of Le Tigre is awesome. You guys are going to make it and it’s going to be totally amazing. But your own personal story and how you got to Le Tigre is really interesting too. I don’t think you should wait to do that.”
She called me a couple weeks later and said, “You know, I thought a lot about what you said and it makes me incredibly nervous and I’m scared but I think you’re right. I will tell my story if you make it.”
That was the beginning of our pact to make the film.
CV: Were you a fan of Kathleen’s when she was in Bikini Kill?
SA: I knew of Bikini Kill and I knew of Kathleen. I was living in San Francisco and doing my own thing, which, at the time, I didn’t even know was a feminist collective thing. I just thought we were chicks reinventing the wheel. [Anderson is one of the founding members of the spoken word collective, Sister Spit]. I was a fan of the band but I didn’t sit around and listen to Bikini Kill music. I was a fan of what they were doing.
I became a fan of her music much later, probably in my late 20’s and then I was just blown away by her work. So when we met and we became friends, I didn’t have this fan kind of thing going on. I actually became a much bigger fan of her work as the friendship grew.
CV: You say that when you were part of female collective, you didn’t initially identify it as a feminist project. Do you think there will come a time where we don’t need to label women’s projects as feminist?
SA: I don’t think that’s going to happen in our life-time. (Laughs). I think that, of course, it’s up to women and their personal choice but I hope we do continue to label art, feminist art. And women continue to identify their work as feminist work.
In the U.S. there’s still not an Equal Rights Amendment. So the idea that we’re all “one” is a ridiculous statement. It’s still very straight white male, dominated and run. I think that the people in positions of power would love us to believe that we’re post-need-to-identify.
And even if we did get to a place where everything was equal in the spectrum of sexism, it would be kind of cool if we were still making art and labelling it feminist because we’d be paying tribute to what was made before.
CV: I ask that question because artists of colour often question if they should identify as a black film maker, or Latina painter, rather than simply a film maker or painter because we’re still so neglected in regards to access and recognition.
SA: Right. And why not, you know what I mean? Where’s the shame? I’m not a film maker of colour so I don’t exactly know but what I witness is that there’s a lot of embarrassment and not wanting to identify as a feminist artist. And it’s actually really rad and cool to identify that way. There’s something about embracing where you come from that’s incredibly powerful.
I identify as a film maker who didn’t go to high school. Who didn’t go to film school. And I have a lot of pride in that because I think younger people need to see that it is not this impossible thing to do. So feminism, class, race, sexuality, all of it applies in this way where it’s like, “Don’t we have some pride about this?”
CV: You shot the film on a bare budget. What kept you motivated to continue even with no assurances that it would ever be seen?
SA: I never thought I would shoot it and nobody would see it. I am really really really driven.
I can produce in the way of putting things together but I can’t produce in terms of how to fund-raise for an entire film. If I sat around and waited to raise the money to start the production, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. So I had to just figure out how to move quickly forward. I got a really amazing crew that showed up for free because they wanted to make this film as well. We made something that was quite expensive in the end and we were able to get through the production part of that by people just pulling together. That was amazing.
But I always knew. I never doubted. I think that if I would have doubted that people might ever see it, I wouldn’t have had the energy to make it. So I always believed that it would finish and that as many people as possible would see it.
CV: Without Kickstarter do you think this would have been possible?
SA: No. No.
CV: Kickstarter is doing so much for independent artists.
SA: Absolutely. Listen, Kickstarter does so many things for artists that are making work. Not only is it making it possible for these people to make productions or in our case post production. We didn’t make it all the way through post production on that money but we got pretty far and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without all the 5 and 10 and 15 dollar donations that happened there. Not only that but it is giving an opportunity for people who are a fan of the work or topic to feel like they’re a part of it.
As the artist making the work, you feel like you’re in collaboration and you don’t feel as alone. It’s this fantastic thing.
CV: It’s also very fitting because when Kathleen was making music in the 90’s and co-creating the riot grrrl movement, community support was crucial to its success. Now twenty years later, Kickstarter is here and, once again, the community was able to get this project out into the world.
SA: Community is always going to be the underdog’s key to success in art. It’s community. That’s what it is?
CV: Was there footage that you had to edit out that you wish you could have kept in?
SA: Oh, yeah. This could have been a ten part history series. (Laughs) There was really really amazing beautiful footage. It’s heartbreaking to try and get it down to 80 minutes. It’s really hard to let go of the amazing interviews that we had. But in the end Tamra Davis, who is one of the producers, and Bo Mehrad [one of the editors] really did a lot of work at just hacking away at the story and getting the structure down, and they did a fantastic job.
CV: Since third-wave feminism (coined by Rebecca Walker) do you think another major wave has occurred or will occur? And what new issues does the next major wave need to address?
SA: Has there been a fourth-wave? Yes. I think we’re in it right now. I think we just started it. The thing about the waves and identifying with the waves, Rebecca Walker did come forward and say, because her mother Alice Walker is part of the second-wave, “This is how to link our history. I’m not going to separate from my mother and the people that were working with my mother to make second-wave possible. That’s great. Let’s make this third-wave.” Other than Rebecca, I don’t think that they really recognized that they were living third-wave feminism. Sometimes you have to get on the other side of that history to realize that that’s what it was. My thought right now is that nobody is identifying as fourth-wave feminists but I think that’s exactly what’s happening.
CV: Right. And what are we fighting for now?
SA: Sadly, we’re fighting for the same exact things we’ve been fighting for in the past. The same things. As long as there is not equal rights. As long as sexism continues to exist. As long as oppression continues to exist. As long as children are being molested and women are being raped and men are being raped, there’s going to be a need for feminism.
There’s a real underlining trauma that happens and it’s still happening. It’s not going away. There needs to be real tougher laws on sexual assault. Let’s start there. Two years in jail for rape is not acceptable. Rapist will rape again.
So that complaint of, “Why are we always talking about rape or incest?” It’s because this is our home, our bodies. And if we can’t feel safe here than we can’t do any activist work in the world. We will turn against our own selves. That piece of it is still really important to continue to talk about because they’re such heavy topics, and it provides the potential for healing. If we can start to not only talk about how to stop it but how to heal it, then we’re balancing it out and we’re taking our own destiny back in way.
CV: I wholeheartedly agree with you. When you see films like Spring Breakers? I don’t know if you saw it…
CV: (Laughing) What does that make you think of the current state of female representation in media? Hanna owned her sexuality in a very powerful way but do you think young women today understand how to embrace and not exploit their sexuality? Do you see a disconnect happening?
SA: I do, and I think there has always been a disconnect happening but I don’t blame it on the women that are growing up in this world. If there was more people identifying as feminist artists that were really in touch with their sexuality and hot and holding it all together then maybe girls would be more inspired and they would be able to hold it a little bit more. It’s about holding it and not giving it away. That is a hot balance. If young women knew how hot that was they would probably be doing it.
The funny thing is is that our film premiered in SXSW in Austin this year and the opening night of our film was in direct competition with Spring Breakers. In our film [The Punk Singer] Kathleen appears in the film [footage from the 90’s] with a ski mask when she was doing a media blackout. Pussy Riot, twenty years later with their ski masks, inspired by the riot grrrl movement. How beautiful that inspiration from twenty years ago was. Then looking at Harmony Korine’s poster, where he’s taking the ski mask and putting them on his actresses with bikinis and six-packs and guns, I was just like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
This festival is showing the Kathleen Hanna documentary. It’s showing the Pussy Riot documentary. And it’s showing the Harmony Korine film. Actually I wish that we would have had a conversation about it because it would have been fascinating. That’s actually the gift of free speech. I just want more women to be like… [Punches her palm]
CV: Kathleen empowered girls with her ‘Girls to the front’ stance. Recently Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is telling women they must ‘Sit at the table.’ How do we get this message to girls to be at the front and sit at the table?
SA: I think we get it to them in a million ways and we have to figure out what those million ways are. My way is to make a film about Kathleen Hanna. Your way is to write this article and to talk about it. Another person’s way is going to be through parenting. There’s a million different ways for us to empower young women. We just have to realize that we have the power. You can’t sit around and wait until you’re enlightened or perfect to make change. You just have to make the change where you can and then that adds up.
My piece is a small piece. My contribution is a small contribution. But I can see that it’s part of the collective that will heal and empower.
CV: Do you think a woman had to tell Kathleen’s story in order for it to get made?
SA: I don’t know. But what’s special about the film is the ease that Kathleen had in telling her story to me and my crew. There’s something special about the intimacy of that that people actually need to see and feel. It’s different than if a film crew came in from the BBC, or something like that, to follow her around. She probably wouldn’t have been relaxed enough to get to the truth of things. But the thing is, Kathleen is a truth teller. And the truth is not that popular all the time.
CV: Kathleen and Kurt Cobain were great friends and both highly influential. But so much is written about him and much less about her. Why is that?
SA: Part of what was happening in the Pacific North West in the 90’s was Nirvana was blowing up and exploding. But Bikini Kill was not willing to sign to a major label. They were offered. They probably would have had to tone down their message and they wouldn’t. They’re singing about things like incest and rape and politics and that’s not what major labels want to sell. (Laughs)
CV: Do you see Kathleen’s influence in current artists? If so, who?
SA: I feel like there’s countless artists [influenced by Hanna]. The amazing thing is that since the film has come out, and this is only the second city that we’re showing it in, I am blown away by how many women are reaching out, and men are reaching out, to say, “Kathleen Hanna changed my life.” As her friend and an artist that makes work, I knew that that was the story but to actually hear people be so inspired to see the film, I’m not surprised but it’s so inspiring.
There was a woman from the Hollywood Reporter that was at SXSW, who came into our press day. She walked in and started crying. She was like, “Oh my God, I’m being so unprofessional right now but I don’t care.” She said to Kathleen, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” And I was like, “Holy Crap that is amazing.”
I think Kathleen changed popular culture for women.
CV: Kathleen allowed you to show candid footage of her dealing with the effects of late stage Lyme disease. It was very brave. You also have late stage Lyme disease. Was it difficult to watch these scenes? How is she doing and how are you doing now?
SA: Yes. I do have it. I think it’s very important to discuss it because Lyme disease is a very political disease. So it’s really ironic in a sense. I feel like there’s some serendipity in that and I hope to do some activist work in regards to it when I get on the other side of trying to get this film out there.
It was emotional to watch. It was difficult to see Kathleen so sick. I was really sick myself. I was so sick. You know it sounds like a bad senior thesis project that your subject would have Lyme disease and then a month later you would be diagnosed with Lyme disease and end up in an emergency room. Kathleen just posted about this on Facebook the other day, we know 10 feminist artists, our same age that have late stage Lyme disease and are in treatment for it right now. And we all have PICC lines, I’m post PICC line now, but we all have PICC lines through our major arteries, through our hearts for this.
Part of the reason that late stage Lyme disease is so devastating is that you don’t get a diagnosis early on so you miss it. The feminist angle of this is that doctors don’t know enough about Lyme disease so when people are coming in with these symptoms they’re telling them that they’re just having anxiety attacks. They’re telling them that it is emotional, hysterical. That it’s not really happening. That there’s no way that could happen. And then they’re giving them diagnoses that are miss diagnosis, like chronic fatigue, Fibromyalgia. So a lot of people are getting miss diagnosed and then years later they’re getting incredibly sick. It’s a little bit mind blowing and I think unfortunately it’s a disease that’s going to have to blow up, and it is blowing up, before something is going to be done about it. At least in the States, companies don’t want to pay for the treatment. That’s why nobody really knows about it.
CV: So much work to do.
SA: There’s a lot of fun to be had too. In all of this intense work, I wouldn’t change my life. If I had a hundred opportunities to look in another direction, I wouldn’t switch it. I feel right where I’m supposed to be. With all of this work and a lot of hardships and struggles, I have so much gratitude for it.
CV: You have been very vocal and active in the LGBT community, how do you feel about the political shifts happening in the U.S.?
SA: I personally am for gay marriage. There are people in the Queer community who are not because they oppose the institution of marriage. I want to be able to get married if I want to get married. I want the people who are being denied this basic human right to have that option. So for me it is a big step forward. There’s so many things to fight for and that’s the thing that activist will say, “There’s so many things to fight for. Why are we fighting for gay marriage?” But everyone has the opportunity to be powerful.
This is what ties into what I was saying before. Every woman that has a choice can inspire another woman on how to have that choice. Every activist can pick what it is they’re passionate about. We don’t all have to fight for the same things and I think Kathleen actually has gotten a lot of slack for that in the past. The underdogs and those of us on the fringes of society really saw how powerful her voice was and we wanted her to stand up for everything. And it’s impossible. She actually has stood up for, and will continue to stand up for, so much but not one person can do it all. And thank God. (Laughs) There’s plenty of us to go around and spread out the work that needs to be done.
CV: This was your first feature length project? What are you doing next and what subjects are you longing to turn a lens on?
SA: I’m working on a narrative feature script with a friend of mine in New York. I’m also trying to get into the Directors Guild, which is an incredibly difficult union to get into. I would love to direct episodic TV. I would like to be able to make a good living as a director and when I’m not doing that, make the passion projects that I will never be able to get paid for. That creates a little bit of a balance.
I have a list of documentaries about women that I would like to make. I’m 43 right now and I started making the Punk Singer when I was 40, 39, so ideally between the ages of 40 and 60, I would make as many documentaries about as many women that inspire me as possible.
CV: Any names?
SA: You know, I’ll feel jinxed about it if I mention it.
CV: Would you consider doing a documentary about Lillian Roxon? She wrote, Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia in 1969. She died at 42. There was a doc about her a few years ago but you could bring a different angle to it.
SA: I’m so glad that you mentioned this because it allows me to bring this point up. You said that this woman died at a really young age. We need to be making films about the people that inspire us while they’re still alive, especially the women. And while they’re mid-career, so not only can they give energy to the community and the activists that need the energy and the fun but it can also give the artist the energy to make more work. Because I do believe that not only is this film so good for people who need to see it and get inspired and motivated, it’s really good for Kathleen.
Pussy Riot Photo by Igor Mukhin