The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer (aka the Kathleen Hanna doc) had its first screening outside of the US Monday night in Toronto as part of Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. The night brought me back to a similar evening last year at this time that drew a crowd of people who were excited to see an element of feminist zine and punk history documented on screen through Kevin Hegge’s She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column. What’s more, just this past weekend zinester Erin Oh presented “a weekend of zines and feminism” which featured a keynote where GB Jones and Caroline Azar talked in depth about their experiences making zines in Toronto during the ’70s and ’80s.

I was excited about the Kathleen Hanna doc as soon as I realized it was coming to Hot Docs, and yet it managed to exceed my expectations.

For those who don’t know her, Kathleen Hanna is the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the sole talent behind Julie Ruin, the singer of Le Tigre and the oft-cited driving force behind the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl. Part of what made this documentary work so well was that it didn’t assume anything. It didn’t assume its audience knew anything about Hanna, it didn’t assume we knew what fanzines were and it defined the difference between first, second and third wave feminism. But it didn’t do it in a way that was tedious to those who were there to celebrate their idol. Beyond defining and explaining these concepts and events, it illustrates them by showing them in action through the creation of bands and zines that continue to be important to so many people, even many who may never have heard of Kathleen Hanna.

“I just think there’s a certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and, as a woman, when I go to tell the truth I always have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived…” — Kathleen Hanna

And for those who came to this film to see the birth of Riot Grrrl, it’s all there too. The Punk Singer features amazing footage of the making of the early Bikini Kill fanzines as well as the first Riot Grrrl meeting at Positive Force house (an activist space) in Arlington, Virginia, and gains amazing access to Hanna’s own story as she describes why she started demanding that girls come to the front at her shows in the ’90s.

Above all, this documentary is compelling because it is the story of an incredibly charismatic, passionate and interesting person. The film keeps up with the captivating energy of its subject (seriously, she’s a force), and when detailing the time period or the story of her bands and relationships, it strikes just the right balance so that none of it — not even interviews with other powerful females such as Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon, Sleater-Kinney‘s Corin Tucker and Joan Jett — overpowers the story of Hanna herself.

In 80 minutes, director Sini Anderson — a friend of Hanna — lets Hanna tell the story of being a feminist in a male dominated music scene, the weirdness of falling in love and marrying Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (“a guy who wrote ‘Girls Girls Girls to do my laundry’ in the ’80s”) and becoming an activist for a mysterious illness that forced her to lose the power over her own body.

If you live anywhere near Toronto you can catch the film tonight at 8pm at Hart House Theatre or Friday May 3 at 6:30pm at Scotiabank Theatre. For those of you who are just too far away, keep your eye on The Punk Singer‘s website for details on future screenings.

“I don’t care if people don’t think feminism’s important because I know it is… my problem is when people get in the way of feminism…” — Kathleen Hanna


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