Sophie Mayer chats on Skype to Sini Anderson, American director of The Punk Singer, recent documentary about Kathleen Hanna
Sini Anderson’s favourite song from across Kathleen Hanna’s many incarnations is ‘The The Empty’, from Le Tigre’s first album Le Tigre. It’s a two-minute feminist electropunk blistering critique of celebrity emptiness that ends, in Hanna’s inimitable power drill of a voice:
I sat thru yr movie but I didn’t see anything
I went to yr comedy club and didn’t laugh at all
I went to yr movie and I didn’t hear anything
I went to yr concert and there was nothing was going on
You don’t say, you don’t say,
you don’t say anything…
It might seem ironic, then, that at the end of my interview Anderson generously offers advice for emerging artists (more on this later), including: “Don’t waste your time critiquing the hell out of something somebody is doing.” But Anderson’s film about Hanna, The Punk Singer, like the song itself, isn’t empty critique but a fulsome riposte: a movie where you see, hear, and feel everything because it has everything to say.
Like Hanna, Anderson started out making queer feminist art as a spoken word performer, becoming part of the legendary Sister Spit. “The change from performance to film feels right on track,” she owns. “As a performer, I was working with musicians and making video art to project, so this seems like a natural progression. With film, I get to include all of my favourite things: performance, light, sound – and you do have the opportunity to bring it to a wider audience. As you get older you get the skills to be able to tell a story – and I’m most interested in other people’s stories.” A long-term friend and Mr. Lady labelmate of Hanna’s, she says that the film came about as “a bit of a double dare: for me to say, ‘I think it’s time for you to tell your story,’ and for her to say, ‘I think it’s time for you to make your first feature!'”
Part of the prompt was Hanna’s diagnosis with late stage Lyme disease, a diagnosis she shares with Anderson, which is central to the narrative of the film. “It was important to both of us that her diagnosis be included in the film – she held off talking about it publicly until the US release, in the hope her announcement could get more attention for the film.”
The film makes clear that Hanna has become an activist against the medical-industrial complex through a history of misdiagnosis, including doctors refusing to believe that she had an organic disease and attributing the complex, multi-system symptoms to hysteria. For both Hanna and Anderson, this raises a fearful history of the psychiatrisation of the female, and particularly queer female, mindbody to dismiss the realities of both physical and mental illness, and also feminist rage. “There’s a strong feminist aspect: a lot of doctors are telling women that what they’re experiencing is all in their head [because of the complex symptomatology Hanna describes in the film – SM]. Both me & Kathleen were told to see psychiatrists, as were the other 17 feminist artists who were diagnosed during the making of the film,” and who are the focus of Anderson’s current documentary in production.
A committed communitarian, Anderson has been thrilled by the response to the film in the US, which saw the IFC‘s distribution plan expand from an initial three cities to a massive 75, followed by a month in the Favorites on Netflix US. “I knew that people who knew who Kathleen was and were fans, feminists, punks: they would find the film,” Anderson says, adding: “My biggest hope was for the film to find people who had no idea – and that’s my favourite thing to hear.”
The film’s broad reach is crucial, because it says something that remains as urgent now as it did when Hanna founded Bikini Kill in 1991. “I’m blown away by the sexism in the entertainment industry. This fourth wave of feminism is about media and that’s exactly where it needs to be. I see female directors, producers, writers and artists of all kinds putting themselves out there, having reach and being heard like they haven’t before.” Her experience raising post-production funds via Kickstarter showed the potential of the internet: “This is feminism on steroids,” she laughs, “via a technology we didn’t have when riot grrrl was just starting out!”
But – as the documentary shows for Hanna in the music industry – there are economic pitfalls. Particularly, Anderson says, “It’s really common for queer feminist working class artists to not demand the things you need when negotiating contracts. My biggest learning experience on this film has been: Fuck you, if you want my film, you’ll show up for it.” The flipside of that is the ongoing question – “Huge, the most important question in my life” – of how to make a feminist art practice economically sustainable and, at the same time, to be unafraid to start an ambitious project. “There’s a real problem for women, feeling like we have to be at perfection before we release anything, and that means we aren’t getting the work out there.”
Helping emerging artists through the multiple conundrums of speaking from the margins is part of Anderson’s project, and The Punk Singer is full of positive examples of rough-and-ready feminist community art in action, including producer Tamra Davis’ earlier film No Alternative Girls. “Take the actions and don’t fixate on the result!” is Anderson’s punk advice. “Just keep making the work – stop freaking out about the future and focus on the work in front of you.”
One of the loveliest aspects of the film is its warm sense of continuity, as a whole range of feminist artists look back on the raw, startling, very young moment of riot grrrl. Anderson, who was there, sums it up beautifully: “For me it’s always been: I’ve wanted to not feel alone. The beautiful thing about getting older is you start becoming proud of the things you did when younger. That’s not about ego, it’s more about love and self-respect. I was really trying to do something good!”
Then and now, Anderson’s work reaches out passionately, cutting the bullshit of standard rock hagiography to show us a person who “is really in process… she has vulnerability and the strength you can get from vulnerability, that’s her emotional intelligence. She has the ability to help people that traditionally haven’t felt heard to be heard. That’s how she gathered a movement.” If that movement is re-gathering, it’s in part because The Punk Singer fills “the the empty” with loud and proud feminist noize.
The picture is of Sini Anderson’s face on the screen in the dark cinema, taken on 15 May 2014 at London RichMix, during Skype Q&A after the screening of The Punk Singer. Used with permission.
The Punk Singer is currently in UK and Irish cinemas and can also be downloaded or streamed, see Dogwoof website for details.