Sini Anderson, director of the new Kathleen Hanna documentary ‘The Punk Singer,’ discusses the film ahead of its debut at Tivoli this Friday

Kathleen Hanna, the legendary frontwoman of Bikini Kill, the influential 1990s Riot Grrrl punk band, would be a thrilling subject for a documentary under any circumstances. After all, this is a woman who pioneered third-wave feminism in punk music, who gave Kurt Cobain the phrase “smells like teen spirit” and who banished men from the pit at her concerts. Hanna is a spitfire who came up at a revolutionary time in music, and her legacy alone could probably serve as the inspiration for a big-budget Hollywood biopic. 

But Hollywood didn’t get Hanna’s story. Sini Anderson, a San Francisco-by-way-of-Brooklyn documentary filmmaker, found it, and she dug her nails into it. Anderson’s engrossing film The Punk Singer spends an hour and a half combing through Hanna’s involvement in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, reveling in plenty of archival footage and interviewing Hanna and an assortment of artists tied to that time period: Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, among others. 

The most fascinating and moving part of The Punk Singer, though, is delivered in the film’s detailing of Hanna’s debilitating battle with Lyme disease. Hanna’s illness forced her from the spotlight in 2005, when she announced her retirement from music – blaming burnout rather than telling the world the truth. The Punk Singer reveals it all, with a tender but unflinching honesty. Anderson herself must have a punk’s heart. 

The Punk Singer debuts in Kansas City this Friday, December 20, at Tivoli Cinemas. We chatted with Anderson on the phone from her home in Brooklyn about the film.

The Pitch: This is your first feature film. You went through a lot to fund this. What was your original interest in doing a documentary on Kathleen Hanna? What attached you to her story?

Sini Anderson: There’s not a lot of documentaries out there about feminist artists – there’s a few, but not a lot. So that was a big reason, right off the bat. More specifically, with Kathleen, Le Tigre was getting ready to make a tour footage slash documentary about their last tour, and they asked if I would have any interest in working on it, and I proposed to Kathleen that she tell her own story, that it was time and that people really wanted to know what was behind the band and what was happening with Kathleen and what her story was.

In the film, you’re dealing with some ultra-personal topics. What was Kathleen’s response to the sort of personal stuff that she’s talking about, and were you ever nervous or weirded out by how deep and intimate you had to get with her?

Oh! That’s a good question… No, God, no, not weirded out at all. I mean, for me, personally, the intimacy and the feelings are the meat for me. Some people are like, “It’s the archival! This history line!” And for me, it’s really about the emotions and the feelings, and Kathleen knew that going into it. We’re friends, and she kind of knows how I operate, and she knows what my work looks like and sounds like, and it’s usually a lot about the feelings and what’s behind things, so she was really open to the process. I think she knew that we were going to be having really frank and deep conversations from the beginning, and her willingness to go there was really amazing and really inspiring. We never really got to a topic where she was like, “I’m not comfortable talking about this.”

What I really loved was that she was really willing to sit with the camera rolling for long periods of time and not be figured out completely. She allowed herself to come to conclusions as we were filming stuff, conclusions that she hadn’t come to previously. For instance, when we started talking about why she stopped performing, and I just sat there and pushed her a little bit, and she went into it a little with the energy of one answer, which was “I had said everything that I needed to say,” and came out of that on the other end – that her body was telling her that she couldn’t play music anymore, and it scared her, so she just decided to take control. “I’m going to stop before my body stops me.” I feel really lucky for that.

What was one of the hardest parts of talking to Kathleen and making this film?

Oh. Well, that could be two very different questions. The hardest part of talking to Kathleen… . [Pause] You know what? I’m gonna say that… there wasn’t. There wasn’t a hardest part of talking to Kathleen or making the film. I think the hardest part came after, when it was over, and we were trying to finish it. The making of the film – there were definitely moments that were challenging, but I appreciated them.

You know, we’re two feminist artists who, I think, have a similar line of thinking about how we create work. In a really feminist way, that’s the way that this documentary got made: by sitting down and being really honest and saying the thing that maybe you’re afraid to say. So we kind of both expected that, and it could have been a nightmare if it was someone who was not into that way of communication and I was trying to make a film about that. If it was all, “What are you doing? Why are you crying?” And we don’t have a relationship like that. I think knowing that the personal is political – and both of us really believing in that – that made the production part of it pretty rewarding.

[page]One of the things that’s really striking about the film is the openness and honesty surrounding Kathleen’s struggle with and acceptance of her disease. Why was that so important for you to show?

You know, it’s important on a lot of levels. I see this thread that kind of links Kathleen’s life and her career together, and that thread that kind of starts in the beginning of her career is connected to where she is now with her health issues, and that’s being willing to stand up and come forward and say this is what’s really going on.

Essentially what’s really happening in this country with Lyme disease right now is that a lot of people are being told that they’re not sick, that the thing that they’re feeling is just in their head, that it’s emotional. And it’s infuriating. For Kathleen to step forward and talk about her illness this way is super important, and it would be important if she had any disease, but especially Lyme disease. A lot of people have been told that they’re not sick, and that’s similar in a lot of ways to a young woman who stands up and says, “I was sexually abused” when you have a family or a community that’s saying “Nothing is going on here.” So for Kathleen to step forward and say, “This is what’s really going on,” that’s kind of her M.O. And she does it well.

This is a really interesting time for you to be releasing this movie – looking back on a lot of the things that have happened in politics and in feminism in 2013. Were you conscious of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement and Pussy Riot as you were finishing this film, and what kind of role did the timing and release of this film have?

Absolutely. When we started filming, there wasn’t a lot of noise being made. And just having Kathleen as a friend, I knew she was getting a lot of letters from people being like, “When are you going to start making music? Why aren’t you making any music?” Le Tigre wasn’t performing anymore, and I think people have been politically depressed since the Bush era. People were burned out. And there wasn’t a lot of feminist activism happening. So when we started the film, I thought it was just important that Kathleen tell her story right now, so that there was a reminder out there that feminist activism is important and that the art is important behind it.

Within the year that we were shooting the principal photography, all of a sudden, things started peeking through again, and that just gave me the push to continue filming. Like, “OK, excellent, people are making some noise again.” It was really important to try to get finished as soon as possible so that hopefully her story could add to some of the noise that was being made.

Catch The Punk Singer this weekend at Tivoli Cinemas. Details here

Categories: Music