Monday, March 24, 2014

BFI Flare: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer
It's been a long wait to see The Punk Singer in the UK, after it premiered at SXSW in 2013, and I had built up huge expectations in the meantime. Kathleen Hanna's story is hugely intriguing to me, for musical and political reasons. Bikini Kill remain one of my favourite bands and my interviews with her are also some of my favourites.

Sini Anderson's doc, shot between 2010 and 2011, crams a lot in, and, with its plethora of interviewees (too many, I suspect), covers a lot of ground, from Hanna's early spoken word (which opens the film) to her diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease (after being ill for five years). I hadn't realised Hanna had been absent from the music scene since 2005, so the film's prolonged tease about what exactly had kept her off-stage didn't work for me as a mystery, but it's still instructive to know more about this illness and its effects (quite dramatic, as one scene shot by her husband at home shows) on her.

As far as those interviewees go, well, there are so many of them, that several don't even merit captions (including Kaia Wilson--I would have liked to have heard what she had to say), and the plethora of hagiographic praise and snapshots of the singer only serves to create a cult of personality around Hanna, something she persistently resisted in her years with Bikini Kill. That's a shame, because while she is in interesting figure, the message of Riot Grrrl and feminism in general has always been to go out and do it yourself, rather than worshiping someone else for doing so. I wonder if the intervening years have diluted that message to the point that it's been lost.

In the house was Lucy Thane, as well as Shirley and Ana from The Raincoats, all of whom came on-stage for a post-film Q &A, appropriate as Thane's It Changed My Life was the opener for the Hanna doc. It's interesting to see how this record of Bikini Kill's UK tour from 1993 has aged. All the energy and graininess of the time is still there, but the audience seemed to find the naivety of the British bands who emerged, such as Skinned Teen, comical. I don't recall that being so when I first viewed it all those years ago. Perhaps there is less tolerance for non-technical playing these days.

I asked the panel about current feminism's preoccupation with responding to pop culture, rather than creating alternatives. Ana replied she'd like to see both, and doesn't mind pop culture if it has something to say. As these films remind us, sometimes the subculture says it louder and better.

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