Director's Cut: Sini Anderson on 'The Punk Singer'

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It's difficult for documentarians to stay objective about their subjects, but director Sini Anderson never intended to hold "The Punk Singer" at arm's length. Anderson's first feature-length film is about her friend Kathleen Hanna, a firecracker who blew open the punk rock boy's club with her band Bikini Kill. The proto-riot grrrl band embraced DIY aesthetics in its mission to expose the sexism, racism, and abuse swept under the rugs of suburban living rooms.

"The Punk Singer" is a chronicle of Hanna's work so far, but it's also a side of the artist that many have never seen, the private life of a person who's lived most of her life in public. Hanna left her band Le Tigre in 2005 for reasons that have only recently been made public; after suffering for years from terrifying symptoms that stumped medical professionals, Hanna was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. "The Punk Singer" chronicles Hanna's life from her roots as a young feminist to her life with Lyme disease, and her future with her new band, The Julie Ruin.

Anderson is the co-founder of spoken word troupe Sister Spit, a traveling group of awesomely outspoken performance queer feminist artists and writers. She's been an instrumental force in queer arts and culture in San Francisco, and now in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a documentary on Lyme disease.

FILM.COM: I understand Kathleen first approached you to do "Who Took the Bomp?" but when did you first meet Kathleen? Was it through your Sister Spit days and all that good stuff?

SINI ANDERSON: Yeah, Sister Spit and Le Tigre were both on Mr. Lady Records. And I think Kathleen and I knew of each other, but we had never actually met. But we shared a best friend in common, and that's Tammy Rae Carland, who used to run Mr. Lady. So, I think it was 2000, maybe, at the Michigan's Women's Festival, we were introduced finally there. And we just hit it off. That's how we met.

So, you came back and just said, well, I'd like to do a documentary on you. 

She said do you want to work on the Le Tigre doc, and I was like, oh, wow, that sounds so fun and cool. And then in that moment I was just like — but here is another example of people not getting Kathleen's full story. People have only gotten little bits and pieces of her for a really long time. I thought it was probably time for people to know her personal story more than just her story within bands.

The footage is just amazing. How do you even go about culling and figuring out how to piece together that much footage? I mean, even just the archival stuff? 

I mean, it was really difficult. It was really difficult. And I think that there was so much of the current — we shot for a year with her. And there was so much that I didn't want to let go of, you know? It was super difficult. But she kind of revealed her story, as it turned out, chronological, and so it made sense for it to go in the direction that it did. But Tamara Davis was our producer who came on last, and she did a really incredible job of sitting with our editor, Bo Mehrad, and really picking apart that archival footage and placing that in Kathleen's chronological story. So, Tamara did a really great job in working with that and the pacing of that. And the archival footage — we have a lot of really rich material in that, but they're actually isn't a ton of archival footage, so all of it was really special.

I was just so overwhelmed and moved by hearing — by seeing the footage of — I mean, I have the first Bikini Kill, the live tracks. And seeing it I was just like, oh, my God, it's amazing. 

Yeah, it was like gold when we found it. There's a filmmaker in the U.K. — her name is Lucy Thane and she followed Bikini Kill in the '90s when they were on tour with Huggy Bear. And some of the really, really beautiful archival footage that's in there was shot by Lucy Thane. She had had it for 20 years. As it turns out, we used to be friends and I helped out with some of her films when she was living in San Francisco. A lot of people have not been able to get Lucy to let go of that footage. And I was like, "Hey, Lucy, it's me, your pal. [laughs] I'm making this film about Kathleen and I really want to use the footage."

To get access to the footage and the intimacy of the things that Kathleen reveals, it makes sense you would have to be a trusted friend and ally, someone who's not going to — especially with someone like Kathleen Hanna, people feel so — if you love her, like love her, it's super protective. 

Yeah. And if you don't like her, you really don't like her. Yeah, she provokes that in people. Like a lot of love or a lot of dislike. I mean, it was definitely an advantage that we had a personal relationship, and it made it a real piece of feminist art to go through that process together. There was a lot of trust. And there were a lot of moments that Kathleen wasn't super on point the way that she can be, and I found a lot of strength in those moments, when she was willing to sit with some of the questions and the conversations that we are having and really think about them and come to a conclusion in a way that maybe there wouldn't have been time to do that had it been somebody who wasn't so personally connected with her. They would have been like, "Okay, she doesn't have an answer for that. Let's move on. The next question is…" And what we were doing was more of a conversation.

We have some outtakes that are hilarious where she was just like, "Is this therapy, or are we making a film?" And I was like, is there a difference? She was willing to be unresolved. And I really wanted to be able to show that part of her because I think that when we have heroes, and especially strong feminist heroes like that, we think that they have it all figured out. And, sure, they can be inspiring, but I feel like it's so much more powerful when we know that they're still in process.

The narrative reveals something surprising as it goes along, her battle with figuring out what was up with her Lyme disease.

Like I said, there was trust and there was a willingness to let the truth reveal itself. There wasn't a panic and an agenda with the information that I was trying to get. I knew that her story was enough, no matter what was going to be revealed. We didn't know what was going on with her health, and she was diagnosed halfway through the film. So, she also became really willing. And once we found that that it was late-stage Lyme disease, of course, what we know now is that it's a super political disease.

And there are a lot of people getting really sick, but there's actually a lot more women that are getting very sick with this, because doctors are just brushing them off and saying that it's emotional. So, her willingness to be really open about her illness and allowing us to get footage of her being sick and asking her husband, Adam, if he would be willing to film her as she was going through some of this; it felt pretty radical.

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I was definitely surprised, and it was incredibly intimate and moving to see your hero be vulnerable and scared. Was there any moment a thought like, okay, maybe we should just put a pin in it and just revisit this documentary in a year once things are — 

No. Mm mm. I was super focused with the timeframe. I really, really in my gut knew that this film, I wanted it to come out now. It was super important to me, the timing of it just in terms of what's happening in the political feminist landscape. So, I really wanted it to stay on its timeframe. And Kathleen was really willing to do that as well. I mean, had we had to do it we would have. But there was no moment where we thought, okay, this is too much. We're just going to walk away. It was more like, she's a really hard worker and she committed to something and she's going to continue to show up for that. And let's check in and see where she's at in her treatment and in which week is a better week to go and film.

And then in fact after we finished production with her, she actually got much sicker and her illnesses got — the Lyme disease and the co-infections were much worse after we stopped filming. So, then she went through — when we were in post-production for a year, she was going through a lot more intense treatment and had gotten a lot sicker. And now is getting a lot better.

And then by coincidence you also find out that you had Lyme disease. 

Right.

If you want to talk about that or not, that's okay. I mean, was that when you were in post-production? 

No. It was six weeks after she was diagnosed. I mean, I'm not a huge believer in coincidences. Honestly, I think what was happening is she was diagnosed and I was like, "Lyme disease? Isn't that from a tick? Oh, yeah, like she's going to take some antibiotics and it's going to be fine. What's the big deal?" And then I got incredibly sick, and I was like, oh, holy sh*t. I know what the big deal is. I think it allowed me to look at the part of what was happening with her health and the Lyme disease in a completely different light.

For instance, showing some of the earlier cuts to people, people were like, "Should we just leave this Lyme disease part of it out?" And for me at that point, I was also really sick and I had to separate my own experience from hers, but I was like I think, it's really important that we leave it in. I'm working on a documentary about Lyme disease now that's with a feminist perspective, so it's kind of a continuation. I just wanted to be able to wrap up her story, have her talk about her experience with that illness and how it's a political disease, and then move on to the next project.

When you were deciding and shaping it and editing, even figuring out what to ask during your interviews, was there any thought of like, okay, let's pull back from the super personal versus public. For instance, the footage of her and Adam Horovitz is heartwarming. At what point is it too personal?  Was that a concern? Was it hard to separate as her friend?

No. It wasn't a concern of mine ever, and it wasn't that big a concern of hers. And I feel like that's why we got to something that's special, because had those guards been up around that kind of thing — I mean, in a lot of ways I feel really, really lucky because I know that not — I mean, the film couldn't have been made in such an intimate way by just anybody so I feel really lucky about that. We had a relationship that was established. And I think that we knew that we would put everything in the center, and in the end make those decisions about what was too personal.

But you have to remember that this is the artist that coined the phrase, "The personal is political," and so neither of us are afraid of those kind of personal truths. We, I think, both hold a value that there's a lot of strength in that vulnerability.

So, let's talk about Lyme disease as a feminist issue and the question of women being diagnosed, doctors not taking it seriously, the, "What are you? Hysterical?" mentality. 

Totally. I mean, it's appalling. It's shocking. And I'm really pissed off about it. I mean, this is also a disease that if — well, it's a treatment of luxury. If you do not have money, you're pretty screwed. You're really pretty screwed. I mean, my treatment was paid for through one of my best friends, Tammy Rae Carland, and my ex, Melissa Febos, put an IndiGoGo [campaign] together. But my doctors were telling me, if you don't do this treatment, you're just creating more and more brain damage, and so I could not get well without this treatment. Well, that treatment is like $50,000 out of pocket. There are a lot of people out there that cannot afford that. So, bringing awareness to it I feel like is super, super important. And I also feel like, it feels crazy making. I was saying before that from the time we started the documentary to the time we finished it, Kathleen and I knew 17 other feminist artists that were diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.

So, within that short period of time, there were 17 other people that we know that were diagnosed with this. And this happened to be around-our-same-age feminist artists. Largely, that's because that's who we know, feminist artists, but it's such a high number and it's so shocking that it's not being talked about. And what the doctors that I was going to before I got a diagnosis — and I was praying that it wasn't Lyme disease because who wants to catch their friend's disease when they're making a film about them? It's like a bad high-school thesis project. I was like, it's got to be something else. And so I was going to see different specialists, and I was told by several doctors that I could benefit from good therapy and that I was just probably really upset and stressed out and overwhelmed. And I was like, you're making me stressed out and overwhelmed, but that's not what's going on.

So, it's infuriating. Kathleen's a really great person to bring voice to an issue that needs some action brought to it, and so we felt like it was really important that it be included in the film. And my job now, as somebody who's in remission with late-stage Lyme that still has a lot of — my life is completely changed because of it, and I have a lot of limitations — it's my job now to take it a little bit further. And that's what I'll do as an activist. But we're pissed. You know what I mean?

You guys were at the very beginning of the Kickstarter thing, with finally getting the finishing touches put on the doc. I think that's so cool because it's really part of the DIY aesthetic.

Yeah. I mean, that's still pretty — it's still totally alive. Kickstarter is a great example of that. It's really easy to feel like we don't have as strong of a community now because of personal relationships are not as intentional and an intense because so much of what we do is online. When a situation comes up, like I need to finish making this film about Kathleen, and to watch all these people come forward and show up for that, it's so hopeful and totally inspiring.

The interviews of her friends and colleagues were fantastic. I mean, I'm sure a lot of them were just good friends, but also — I don't know. I was just so excited to see it. 

You know, I've gotten some — really, I love this question. And we've been taking it around to film festivals and doing Q&A's after, and I've gotten the question a couple of times of, "Well, can you really consider this a documentary because it's totally biased? It's a one-sided story of it. Where's the other side?" And I'm like, I'm so glad you're asking me that story. It was never my intention to try to show a balanced story of Kathleen. I'm showing what I think are the most inspiring parts of this person, and it was really important to me that I talk to her people. That's all I was trying to do. So, thanks for bringing it up, but I didn't need to go find the haters. Somebody else can make that. That's not what I'm making. I see Kathleen in a very specific light. And I wanted to see that a little bit more clearly.

What is your experience like at film festivals? Is it different than people maybe at music festivals? Or people are just like, "I'm going to go see five movies in a row and one of them happens to be 'The Punk Singer' and I have no idea who these people are," and then they get up in a Q&A and are like blah, blah, blah.

I don't know that I was expecting it to be so supportive. In my experience in bringing it to film festivals is that people are really, really moved by Kathleen's story. And so I just feel super grateful that there's been so much support about the film, and that people have been so kind about it. They're totally moved by her story. And people that didn't know who she was at all are just like, "I'm so stoked to know who this person is and that she exist[s] because I didn't know." And then people that are fans of hers are just like, "We've been waiting for this to happen." And, I mean, that's the thing really, too, is it was really important to me that we make this film now while she was mid-career and while she was still making work, so that people could find out about it, find her old work, and then follow her work into the future, and that we weren't waiting until she was completely retired or no longer with us to tell her story.

But when you were making it wasn't there a question whether or not she would continue making music? 

Oh, absolutely. We didn't think that she was going to be… We weren't sure.

So, the famous media blackout for Bikini Kill — do you think the media has changed or the response to Kathleen's music has changed in that technically Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin are less confrontational than Bikini Kill was? How do you parse that?

There's a lot of change. There's been a lot of change. I mean, for one I'm sitting here speaking with you, and for the most part, I mean, how many interviews have I done today with male writers? Only one, I think, so far. No, there was a guy on the phone. But there's so many more women that are writing now than were writing 20 years ago, and I feel like the women that were writing 20 years ago had to be really concerned with hanging in there with the boys. And so I don't know if they were really doing their most authentic journalism with their guard down. So, I feel like the media has really changed, and we're seeing a lot of what the effects were of third-wave feminism in the women that are writing today.

So, it's awesome. It's completely changed. At the same time, [the] wider scope of media and a lot of the shit that we're seeing online, it's just boring. It's old. You know what I mean? And it's just like going to try to sensationalize. I think that when Kathleen and Bikini Kill were doing the media blackout, it was super radical. Right now it doesn't make sense to do that, because they didn't feel like they were going to get their message across in the media. The media was getting it all wrong.

Now, where we're at now with women that are writing and men that are writing that have a wider political consciousness, you feel some hope that you can get your message across. So, there isn't the "Why bother?" aspect. It's like, oh, actually we can mobilize through this and it's not going to be just a, "Oh, yeah, they were wearing baby barrettes and stomping around on stage." So, yeah, I feel like it's changed a lot. And, yeah, there's still — really, we're talking about Miley Cyrus, still. And that's maybe always going to happen, but there's also a lot of really smart stuff that's out there as well. And hopefully that just continues to balance out a little bit more over time.

I hope so. 

I hope so.

Sometimes it gets to be an echo chamber, even or perhaps especially in feminist media, feminist social media. 

Totally.

It gets to be a little bit exhausting: the backbiting and insanity. 

It's exhausting.

But I'm excited and I'm excited that you're excited that we're doing a better job. 

Yeah, totally. You guys are doing a better job.

I'm glad. It's hard. 

Yeah. I was saying it earlier that at South by Southwest on our press day it was like, oh, this is a direct result of the next generation that actually was able to pay attention to what was happening in the '90s and what was happening within that movement. It's all these female writers that are walking in being like, "You're my idol," to Kathleen. And I turned to her and I was like, "Your press is going to be good, boo," because all these girls are like, "I first heard of you when I was 13." So, it's a different time.

"The Punk Singer" opens in theaters on Friday, November 29th.