I Heart Guitarz

'Girls Rock!' chronicles a camp where girls do just that

Laura in <i>Girls Rock!</i>
Laura in Girls Rock! (Photo by Nicole Weingart)

Palace, a precocious 7-year-old vocalist at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., looks into the camera and says in earnest that singing "gets all the negative energy out of me." Amelia, an 8-year-old bespectacled guitarist who cites Ramones and Sonic Youth as her influences, ticks off a list of kids at school who don't like her. "It's hard to be me," she says. Laura, a 15-year-old Korean-American from Oklahoma City, wonders why girls don't start their own bands more often. "That's a lot cooler than having a boyfriend in a band," she says.

Girls Rock!, the new documentary from (male) filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King, which opens in Austin on Friday, is not simply a portrait of a camp where girls go to write songs and learn to play rock & roll; it is also an inadvertent testament to the sometimes harmful impact of media, men, and mean girls on the young female psyche. When Johnson and King began shooting, they didn't expect to run into these issues, but as they continued their interviews, "It became our own sort of personal mission to tell this story," Johnson says. "I think a lot of girls carry around these assumptions about the way they are treated, things they've been battling their whole lives that a lot of guys don't see. For us, it was a real eye-opener. These girls were our tour guides."

It's the summer of 2005, and the camp is hosting 100 girls, ages 7 to 18. After five days of writing songs and learning instruments with their newly formed bands, the girls will perform for 700 people at the annual showcase. It's not a gathering of your typical playground clique. Amelia forms a band with Raven and Sunshine called P.L.A.I.D. "Do you know what that means?" Sunshine asks her bandmates. She translates: "People Lying Around in Dirt." Later, during practice, Amelia belts out one of her own pieces. "How do you tune a taco?! How do you tune a taco?!" she sings/screams with abandon into the microphone, assaulting her guitar like a professional. Misty, 17, came to the camp after 10 months in a lockdown facility and a life spent periodically in foster homes. "Bulimia, anorexia, drug use, just everything," she says. "It was all out there, and it was crazy." She's learning an instrument for the first time, the bass guitar. Laura loves death metal and laments the fact that boys don't welcome girls into their bands, one of the likely sources of her low self-esteem. "I just accept that I hate myself and don't really think about," she says, shrugging.

To break the ice, the campers stand in a circle on the first day and take turns screaming. Some shriek loudly and fall to the floor; others find themselves barely able to make a sound. Next they divide up into bands according to musical preference, a process akin to grade-school team selection. Girls wander self-consciously around the room, wanting to be included, unsure of how to assert themselves. "We all remember what it was like to be an adolescent," says Jennifer Agosta, a counselor, "and I think we all hope we can give them what we needed at that time. I mean, our whole program is about that."

Watching this film, I was reminded of the sore tropes of adolescence: the anguish of having no one to sit with at lunch, the tremendous desire to be liked and resistance to follow, the exhaustive list that I, too, kept of classmates I believed despised me. These emotions are genderless and universal to the point of being clichéd, but to the individual experiencing them, their resonance is profound. And girls seem to have it worse. The age at which it's no longer okay not to be self-aware, to just be a kid, is setting in sooner than adolescence. In the film, Palace's mother expresses concern about her 7-year-old daughter's attention to clothing; Palace herself reveals that she has only one friend at school. It doesn't help that girls, driven by unrealistic depictions of women in magazines and on television, often make it worse for one another. "Girls can punish each other for being empowered," says Stevie, the camp's self-defense instructor.

"It was a really powerful experience," says Johnson, "to sit in a room with a 13-year-old girl and hear her talk about how it made her feel in her body and how seeing these ads made her feel and what she wanted to do with her life and what she felt she couldn't do because she was a girl. There were several times during interviews where I had to take a breather, where I was all choked-up and didn't know what to say. I started realizing how much I was participating in this culture without knowing about it."

One wonders if the group ethic empowers all of the campers, if at some point the enthusiasm for embracing the unconventional becomes its own convention. It occurred to me that some of these delightfully skeptical girls might feel alienated by the gusto. Or that their skepticism is, of course, a form of self-protection. The latter seems to be the case, and it's enlivening to watch little Palace in self-defense class, fervently kicking a punching bag and yelling, "No! No! No!" In another scene, Palace, during her band's first practice, takes a deep breath and howls like a maniac, "Are you ready to rock & roll, Portland?" These are girls who aren't dwelling on their outfits or whether they should shave their legs and wear make-up. The most prevailing effect of the camp is perhaps its ability to teach young women, through the mostly male-dominated medium of rock & roll, how to let their self-consciousness go and how to focus on themselves rather than the judgments of others.

The Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls is growing more popular, and iterations have cropped up in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California, North Carolina, D.C., and elsewhere, including Austin. Many girls return year after year. "In rock camp that's just what happens," Amelia says. "You can never forget anybody."

Cynics may dismiss the impacts of rock camp on young girls as fleeting, but it's difficult to deny that, whether momentary or lasting, they are real. "I've been waiting for so long to finally admit to myself that I'm amazing," Laura says near the end of the film. "And I really am. Everyone is beautiful in their own way, and they get even better when they decide to be powerful and decide to rock."  

Girls Rock! opens in Austin on Friday.

There will be a benefit screening of Girls Rock! on Saturday, March 22, at 3pm at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz; preceding the screening, bands formed from and inspired by Girls Rock Camp Austin will perform. For more information on the benefit or Girls Rock Camp Austin, contact Emily Marks at 809-7799 or at director@girlsrockcampaustin.org.

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