“She’s a real icon and I wanted to celebrate her” – hmv.com talks to The Punk Singer director Sini Anderson
The Punk Singer (which comes out on DVD this week) is a documentary that celebrates and chronicles the life of Kathleen Hanna. Hanna was once the outspoken front woman with lo-fi punk rockers Bikini Kill and is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the scene that would later be christened Riot Grrl and gave birth to bands like Hole and Sleater Kinney. She was also a close friend of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and is even credited with presenting him with the phrase ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. She would later go on to front lo-fo synth trio Le Tigre.
The film includes interviews with the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz (who is also Hanna’s husband), and features the singer opening up about her difficult upbringing, the prejudice and sexism she suffered in Bikini Kill and her diagnosis with Lyme disease, a debilitating illness that recently forced Hanna to cancel her new band The Julie Ruin’s European tour.
We spoke to the documentary’s director Sini Anderson to find out all about making the film…
How long has this documentary taken you to put together?
“It started in 2009, but we didn’t start production until 2010, so it’s been a minute…”
Did Kathleen take much convincing?
“I think I put a pretty strong case to her. She wanted me to work on the Le Tigre documentary ‘Who Took The Bomp?’ and I told her that what people really wanted to hear was her story. I also thought the time was perfect to tell it as she’d been out of the public eye for a little while, about four years at that point. She’d quietly left the music scene and a lot of people were wondering what was going on. So I told her that people would really want to hear her story and, a few weeks after that conversation, she called me and said ‘Even though this terrifies me, I think you’re right, I will tell my story if you make the film’.”
Was she surprised at the level of detail you went into?
“I think she knew I would go into great detail and we have been friends for a long time so our conversations dig pretty deep. She knew that from the beginning.”
Were there moments when it was hard to be both a friend and a film-maker? Kathleen gets upset a few times…
“No, I think it really helped. There were moments when it was uncomfortable, and there were moments when if it was someone other than me she’d have stopped, if it wasn’t me doing it, it would have been hard. My DP asked me a number of times if I should kill the camera, but I said no, keep rolling, emotion and silence don’t scare me, those things make people uncomfortable, but what comes on the other side of those moments is always fascinating.”
What did she tell you that surprised you the most?
“I think it was at the end when she told me that she had no idea what her life story would be. I was so surprised that she didn’t know her own narrative. It takes an outsider to really look at someone’s life and say ‘This is what I see’. She didn’t have it figured out.”
Was there anyone who you wanted to interview who you couldn’t persuade to take part?
“There were a couple of people, I really want to do sit down interviews with Tobi Vail and Billy Karen and I wasn’t able to get either of them. I also tried to get Courtney Love, and I couldn’t get her.”
Was that out of reluctance, scheduling or just closed chapters in their lives?
“I think it was a bit of all of those things.”
When did you decide to include Adam (Horowitz, Beastie Boy and husband of Kathleen Hanna) in the film?
“Adam is such a key part of the story, initially we weren’t going to interview Adam, but he’s such a key part of her life and they have such a special relationship, he had to be part of it.”
He really seems to have a perspective on her that no-one else does…
“Definitely. They’ve been together for a long time, he’s such a sweetheart and he gave so much to us.”
Were there any documentaries you took inspiration from?
“I watched hundreds of documentaries, but it was weird, I kept coming away unsatisfied, some of them looked beautiful, but they didn’t speak to me. I realised quite early on that I just needed to be focused on being inspired by my subject.”
It’s very intimately shot, Kathleen’s often at home, you interview people in a van, Adam’s at home too, there’s no dressing room shots or label offices…
“I wanted to take people further into Kathleen’s world, I wanted people to see her at home and take them into her life.”
Were there any crisis moments?
“There were tonnes of crisis moments. I never doubted getting to the end of it, but we had very little money. I was scrambling to get money to shoot more. In post-production we had a Kickstarter which helped tremendously, but it was then I had so many crisis moments, I really struggled to finish it. Much like Kathleen, I also struggle with late-stage lyme disease, so I was incredibly sick and if I didn’t have Kathleen to take strength from and a purpose to finish the film, I may not have made it.”
Did you have to cut anything from the film that you were desperate to include?
“Oh yeah. There was a big interview with her Dad, where she really went into great detail about their relationship, I had to lose that. There’s also her friendships, she talked a lot about her friends and how much inspiration she drew from them, and I think that gets lost a bit in the end, which is a shame, because they’re so important to her.”
Were there any stories you heard about Kathleen that surprised you at all?
“Alison Woof (…) gave a really interesting interview actually, it really made me realise how subjective memory is. So when Kathleen talks in the film about being stalked by her ex-boyfriend and no-one would listen to her except Kurt Cobain, and that no-one had her back, Alison remembered it that everyone was very supportive, so that was odd.”
Did you have a message that you wanted the film to convey?
“Yes. You’re not alone. Kathleen has this talent to bring people together and make them not feel isolated by their own experiences. Her art motivates people, she motivates people to get out of their own heads and that gives them power. She’s done so much for the feminist movement, I think she’s a real icon and I wanted to celebrate her.”
If you had to predict, what do you think the next few years have in store for Kathleen? What’s the next phase of her artistic life?
“She’ll do something wonderful. She’s got her new band The Julie Ruin, I can see her writing a book too. I know she lectures at colleges now and she’s great at that. I think she’ll write a book, I hope she does.”
The Punk Singer is out now in hmv stores all over the UK.