It’s 1993. Bikini Kill are on tour in the UK with English “boy/girl revolutionaries” Huggy Bear, and clubs from London to Leeds are teeming with angry girls having the best night of their lives. Director Lucy Thane is following the band, recording everything with borrowed film equipment. “For fuck’s sake, I’m a female and I can do this!” exclaims a young woman in Glasgow, realizing her musical aspirations don’t have to be limited to playing tambourine in a boy’s band. Shot in profile, a metal flower barrette holding back her bob, she looks like she’s about to cry from gratitude.
Thane’s resulting documentary, It Changed My Life (1993), screens this month as part of Spectacle Theater’s monthlong series “Grrrl Germs: A Visual History of Riot Grrrl.” The 25-minute film is a giddily paced love letter to a movement that was reaching critical mass, but even more illuminating are the 90 minutes of Thane’s outtakes that Spectacle’s curators have smartly paired with the finished film. In these quieter scenes, the musicians open up about the misogyny of the music press and reflect on the aggressive harassment that followed them from venue to venue. Kathleen Hanna recalls a group of men at a show shouting, “You fucking sluts! You fucking bitches!” and explains, in another outtake, that Bikini Kill’s now-famous “girls to the front” policy was as much for her own safety as the audience’s.
By highlighting these kinds of ironies and documenting the lives of a diverse group of participants, the series provides rare visual documentation of a movement that was mostly recorded musically and on paper. “Grrrl Germs” also expands riot grrrl’s legacy beyond a handful of famous names, archiving performances by forgotten artists that never even released an album — Google “Elitria Frye” or “Laito Lychee” (the band that brought Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori together) and see how little information you find.
Another entry in the series, also by Lucy Thane, is devoted entirely to queer women, whose participation in riot grrrl was often marginalized or erased. She’s Real (Worse Than Queer) profiles queer women in punk, from Tribe 8 and Team Dresch to lesser-known bands such as Sta-Prest and Cypher in the Snow, and the film is equally valuable for the way it documents the struggles of nonwhite voices in the scene. Riot grrrl’s overwhelming whiteness has been an enduring stain on its legacy; She’s Real makes the women of color who were present visible, while also underlining their critiques. “Lesbian nation or Aryan nation?” sings Cypher in the Snow as their lyrics flash across the scene. “In the dark it’s hard to tell.”
Documentation was not the only way riot grrrl addressed these sorts of issues. Its filmmakers also turned to narrative, and the series’s shorts program, “This Is Not a Test,” spotlights women making DIY, feminist films on minuscule budgets. Myra Paci’s Transeltown (1992), a sci-fi and horror–inflected hallucination, whose vision of gender dysphoria and fluidity now seems years ahead of its time. Jennifer Reeves’s Monsters in the Closet (1993), shot largely in black-and-white with intertitles that resemble cut-and-pasted typewriter text, is like a riot grrrl zine set in motion, pairing images of childhood and adult life with coming-of-age stories about sexual exploration and sexual violence, homophobia and bisexual stigma. The best-known of the shorts is I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993), which follows a nineteen-year-old so enraged by abuse and misogyny that she starts killing men. A vindication of feminist rage, it’s also a polemic on the need for women to tell their own stories. Writer/director Sarah Jacobson, the influential underground filmmaker who died of cancer at 32, was barely out of her teens when she made the film.
Not that her age made Jacobson an exception in the world of riot grrrl. What’s most striking about these films is how young everyone looks, bands in their early twenties getting real with crowds of girls just a few years their juniors. Recent works like Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer (2013), a documentary that traces the life and work of Kathleen Hanna, and Sara Marcus’ book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010) bring necessary historical perspective to a movement that passed too quickly to inspire much meaningful reflection in its own time. But from the distance of two decades in which riot grrrl has become a legend, it can be easy to forget that even its leaders were just starting to figure shit out for themselves.
Spectacle’s retrospective freezes those figures in time, capturing their highs and lows as they happened, and revealing that they were just as conflicted about their achievements then as we are about those achievements now. Beyond the boldface names, “Grrrl Germs” celebrates the contributions of a more diverse group than tends to be represented in official histories. As documented in these films, the daily lives of the riot grrrls suggest neither a heterosexist, white-feminist conspiracy nor heroism on a messianic scale, but the same thoughtful, messy ambivalence with which we approach the movement to this day.
“Grrrl Germs” continues through May 28. Click here for more info.