The lead the singer for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre left the stage for early retirement in 2005. This was after what would have already been a full career playing punk rock and electronic music, as well as promoting and participating in feminist activism–much of it through the riot grrrl movement she helped start in the early ’90s, (about which two new films are currently in production.)
However, as Sini Anderson’s new documentary The Punk Singer explains, Hanna’s premature exit from the spotlight was due to a battle with a mysterious and often debilitating illness that was finally diagnosed after several years as advanced-stage Lyme disease.
Shot on a micro-budget, The Punk Singer‘s energy hits hard and fast. Anderson’s finely tuned directorial debut tightly weaves together the musical, political, and personal components of the 45-year-old feminist icon’s life–one that has impacted a generation of women. It is an unsentimental treatment that is equally moving, funny, and inspiring. Vintage footage of rowdy punk shows and intimate, candid interviews with Hanna and her peers evenly layer the film.
Hanna’s past, complete with accomplishments and embarrassment, is concisely contextualized and thoughtfully catalogued by Anderson, (who, coincidentally, was also diagnosed with advanced stage Lyme disease during production and is now shooting a new doc about the disease). Hanna’s present is unflinchingly open to the camera. This includes poignant footage of her at home experiencing the severe neurological symptoms of her disease, shot by her husband, Adam Horovitz, of the Beastie Boys.
With her health regained, the release of Run Fast from her new band, the Julie Ruin, and another new project co-writing a show with her husband for Comedy Central starring comedian Bridget Everett, Hanna’s future beyond the film looks to be the exact opposite of retirement.
We spoke to Kathleen Hanna and director Sini Anderson about making The Punk Singer.
Why did you make this film now?
Kathleen Hanna: I was very, very sick, I didn’t know what I had. I got diagnosed during the filming. Sini came to me and I was kind of taken aback because I wanted her to work on the Le Tigre concert movie and she rejected me. Then she came back a few weeks later and said, ‘I want to do a film about you.’ And I was like, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to be set apart. Then I thought about it and was like, ‘This could be my last chance.’
I’m getting sicker and sicker, but there were still these windows where I was well enough to do interviews. I was like it’s now or never. There’s so many times in your life where you get an opportunity and you say, ‘This is the worst time this could happen because I was planning to do x, y, and z and then you’re like…fuck it. I should just do it.’ And I knew with her that I could have the trust level to really, really open up and not bullshit and do the ‘press lines.’ I’m going to be able to talk in a real way.
Sini Anderson: I thought it was a good time because we were just about twenty years out of the beginning of her career and the start of 3rd wave feminism. I have this philosophy that we, feminists, should be documenting our history and sharing them before the end of our careers. The idea is not waiting until somebody is gone.
At the start of the production, it felt like we were in a dry spell of feminist activism and during the production a few things happened–the Pussy Riot thing, the slutwalks in Toronto, the Sandra Fluke incident–that were starting to shake things up a little bit. But right before we had started the production (in July 2010) it just didn’t feel like we were hearing any noise. And Kathleen’s really great–for making noise.
KH: I sort of as a grown-up knew that it’s better to give too much information than not enough. I was a photography major and I remember my teacher, Steve Davis, telling me–when I would shoot I always shot everything really high contrast because that’s what I’m drawn to–and he was like, ‘Look, you can print in high contrast, but shoot to get as many grays as you can. Then you can make that decision later.’ I remember thinking that about working with Sini. I know she’ll ‘print’ [this film] in high contrast, but, because of the trust I have in her, I can put as much gray in there as is humanly possible.
Right, the film comes off incredibly truthful. Does it ever scare you to be that truthful?
KH: I mean, there are some things that are off limits. In an 80-minute movie everything can’t be in there. So there’s still so much that’s mine. I don’t really feel like what I gave away informationally in that movie is a threat to me at all. And you really do realize when you’re very ill that life is incredibly short and it’s like, ‘I don’t really matter.’ Do you know what I mean? I matter, we all matter, but life just is too short…
Given your long-time friendship, Sini, were you surprised by anything you learned about Kathleen during the film?
SA: One of the last scenes in the film where Kathleen says, ‘I have no idea what the story of my life is–no idea.’ And I was pretty surprised by that. It was pretty incredible to have Kathleen be willing enough to figure things out when she was on camera with us and not just have stock answers for everything. So, some of the new things that I found out about her were also new to her. So we were kind of learning more information together in some way.
When you have somebody who’s a really strong feminist icon like Kathleen, you kind of expect her to know it all. I think one of the most inspiring things about the production is that she didn’t have it all figured out. She didn’t pretend to have it all figured out. And she was really willing to say, ‘I don’t have it all figured out.’ I think that makes it more tangible for us to say, ‘I can do what she’s doing as well.’
A lot of people think, ‘I can’t make my work until I have it figured out.’ And the big trick is nobody has it figured out. So it’s really important to see people like Kathleen be unresolved about issues that they’re so passionate about. In my book, that’s the definition of feminism: being willing to sit across from somebody, being willing to be a hypocrite, being willing to be wrong, being willing to be unresolved and to know that there’s a lot of strength in that. That’s feminism to me, so it was cool.
Kathleen, did you learn anything new about yourself while watching the film?
KH: I guess the biggest surprise for me was watching the footage from Bikini Kill. I’ll show a clip off Youtube during a lecture, but I’ve never been somebody who watched footage of myself. At the time it was happening, people would give us videotapes, but I never watched them. I never even listened to the records. I’ve only seen this movie once in the theater and all of my best friends were there. They would look at me and be like, ‘Are you okay?’
So I think the biggest shock for me was seeing how crazy I was, like, how much energy I had on stage. And that was really difficult to watch when I was sick. Because I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll never have that again. I’ll never have that again.’ So for me that was the revelation.
I didn’t really learn anything other than that. That is because I really watch it at a distance as if it’s another character. With anything that I’ve ever done when I see myself perform I’m like, ‘That’s me?’ It doesn’t feel like me when it’s on film.
How are you feeling?
KH: I’m doing really well. I’m a little bit exhausted because I just came back from a short tour, then I did TV, so I was like nervous all day, and we played on WNYC radio yesterday, so I’m a bit exhausted. I’m still jet-lagged. So I’m just tired like a normal person. I have a couple more intense treatments to go through and then hopefully my doctor says I’m going to be on a maintenance plan, but it’s taken a lot longer than we thought.
Was there ever a point after your original decision to go forward that, given your illness, you questioned the decision to allow the documentary to be made?
Yeah, the whole time! Like why am I doing this? This is really crazy. But I knew Sini was getting good stuff. I knew that even a lot of the B-roll stuff was going to be really beautiful. There’s this one scene during the illness part and I’m going to a lecture, I think. The shot takes you from an Amtrak train, out of the window, and into the subway. It’s really beautiful. I had confidence in that. I just really went by faith.
I just trusted in the process. It’s not my movie; I was just interviewed for it. So I just have to remember that. Ultimately, good review or bad review, it’s not about me. It’s about the filmmakers; it’s their work. It’s always going to be a part of their story.
The Punk Singer opens this Friday at the IFC Center.