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Beyond Bikini Kill: Kathleen Hanna's story in "The Punk Singer"

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“The Punk Singer,” a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, best known as a member of riot grrrl band Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, played the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It returns to SIFF for a week long run, from December 6 to 12.

Hanna goes into detail about her life story for the first time in the film. “The Punk Singer” also offers great insight into the birth of the riot grrrl movement, namely how Hanna and other friends wanted to create something promoting feminism which was also fun, in the spirit of Emma Goldman’s classic statement, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” There’s great footage of her band Bikini Kill and much historical info about the riot grrrl period that many might not be familiar with (interviewees include Bikini Kill’s Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein).

But there more’s to Hanna’s story than riot grrrl. Her post-Bikini Kill acts generated much acclaim, particularly Le Tigre, and there’s footage and interviews about those projects. The film then becomes more personal, with Hanna finally going into detail about the extended illness that led to her withdrawing from performing. After several misdiagnoses, it was discovered she was suffering from late stage lyme disease, from which she has yet to fully recover.

But Hanna’s always been a fighter, and the underlying theme of “The Punk Singer” is her determination to overcome adversity, whether it be a troubled upbringing, the abuse and physical attacks she endured while in Bikini Kill (the film reveals what shocking lengths some disgruntled souls will go to in order to try and shut up someone they disagree with), or living for years not knowing what’s physically wrong with you — and then, upon learning, realizing that your work has just begun.

What’s most important about Hanna is of course her art and music, and the live performance footage is what makes this film so thrilling. It’s a flashback to a time when bands made no bones about having an agenda and used that platform to create music that was visceral and exciting. Can it happen again? Well, the film also shows how Hanna’s various bands have inspired others to pick up instruments (Sleater-Kinney’s following in Bikini Kill’s wake is a perfect example of this). As a role model, Hanna’s already been an amazing, if sometimes unacknowledged, success. And as “The Punk Singer” shows, as an artist, Hanna’s always looking forward to the next venture.

The film's director, Sini Anderson, will participate in a Q&A via Skype at the 6:30 screening on December 6.

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