Kathleen Hanna Kills It
'The Punk Singer' turns up the volume on riot grrrl pioneer's passion, politics, and devastating illness
Bikini Kill's 1992 eponymous EP, which celebrated its 20th anniversary reissue last fall, marked a pivotal moment not just for music, but for a movement. The segue from "Suck My Left One" into "Feels Blind" perfectly illustrates the Olympia, Wash., punk band's balance of subversion and empowerment, which pushed the third wave of feminism into action. Singer Kathleen Hanna delivers the latter song's gut-punch expertly: "As a woman I was taught to always be hungry. Women are well-acquainted with thirst."
The riot grrrl movement, which sprang from Bikini Kill's live shows, zines, and activism, was fundamentally linked to the music of that time, but its message has evolved along with the fourth wave of feminism, and its influence has been far-reaching: Hanna is a vocal advocate for Pussy Riot, the band of Russian artists and activists who were arrested last winter for performing in a Moscow cathedral; riot grrrl's history is now part of the curriculum of Girls Rock Camps across the country.
For a bit more context on that pivotal moment, filmmaker Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer focuses the lens on Hanna. After gathering footage for a Le Tigre concert doc three years ago, Hanna asked Anderson if she would do a proper documentary. Anderson had another angle. "Kathleen started making work 20 years ago," she says. "I thought she should tell her story."
So Anderson quit her full-time job and started filming with no outside funding, "scraping pennies together to get hard drives." Anderson visited with Hanna seasonally, starting in the summer, then fall, then spring, then summer again. She also made good use of NYU's Riot Grrrl Collection – compiled by Hanna in 2011 for the Fales Library – for archival footage and ephemera. The film explores the press blackout after riot grrrl became a buzz word, the breakup of Bikini Kill in 1997, and Hanna's subsequent relocation to NYC and formation of Julie Ruin and Le Tigre, cut with live footage and interviews.
"When I watch myself on camera, in any capacity – being interviewed, performing, 20 years ago or yesterday – there's a part of me that really doesn't grasp that it's me," Hanna says when asked if it was strange to revisit her younger self. "I'm not like Sasha Fierce or something. I just have a chip in my brain that makes me feel divorced from my recorded image."
By the time we get to Hanna's days with Le Tigre, her "feminist party band" of the early Aughts, her increasing health issues are becoming a barrier from performing, and Anderson captures Hanna's frustration elegantly. This pivots the film into its second half, when Hanna eventually receives a diagnosis of Lyme disease in 2010, and subsequently reforms Julie Ruin, now known as the Julie Ruin. Anderson shows us good days of creativity and bad days, hazy with medications.
"I never knew how much making music meant to me until I got sick," Hanna says. "I remember laying in bed and thinking who would be in my dream band, and it was [Julie Ruin's] Carmine, Kathi, Sara, and Kenny. At that point I was pretty sick, but there were times when I was functional and I started thinking this is maybe the only time I even have these functional windows, so I started my dream band. Sometimes I would show up at practice barely able to make it up the subway stairs, just feeling totally terrible, but once we started playing I felt normal again. I wasn't the illness anymore; I was me, and to be honest, I hadn't seen me for a long, long time.
"I did write one of the best songs on the record with an IV sticking out of my arm, which I'm pretty proud of."
Anderson's decadelong friendship with Hanna eases the more emotional parts of the film, the postproduction of which was funded quite successfully via Kickstarter. She is careful not to step on her subject's toes, letting Hanna tell the story. Anderson also has Lyme disease, so there is an empathy to the storyline, shading the doubt, confusion, and fear, as well as the irony of the situation: This artist, so engaged in feminism and activism, could not fight off this particular attacker.
"It was intense," Anderson says. "The way the disease works, there are flare-ups, and there were periods of time when I would just not hear from her. But also, it's like, that's my friend. And I've never met someone who shows up as much for the cause as Kathleen."
That idea is the core of The Punk Singer; Hanna is still a rallying force, but she is not her illness. That Anderson made this film on a very DIY level, with contributions from fans and friends, emphasizes the support Hanna has and reinforces the impact of her art, not just in queer and feminist circles.
"I was just writing whatever and letting it be," Hanna says of the new Julie Ruin material. "I can tell now that I was channeling my anger, fear, and sadness about my illness into it, but also letting go of all the toxic people in my life that I didn't have the energy to deal with anymore. Once I got sick, I had no patience for petty bullshit or toxic people, and I think that fueled my creativity as much as anything."
The Punk Singer
24 Beats Per Second, World Premiere
Sunday, March 10, 10pm, Vimeo
Monday, March 11, 9:15pm, Alamo Ritz
Tuesday, March 12, 7:15pm, Alamo Village
Wednesday, March 13, 7pm, Stateside