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Exclusive interview: Kathleen Hanna talks ‘The Punk Singer’

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Kathleen Hanna is an icon, a feminist, a musician, an artist, a riot grrl and, of course, a punk rocker. “The Punk Singer”, a new documentary about Hanna’s life and times, from director Sini Anderson, explores everything from Hanna’s days as a fledgling artist and activist to her time in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, as well as what kept her off the stage for a period of time--a late-stage Lyme disease diagnosis and ensuing struggle for health--and finally, her new band, The Julie Ruin.

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For most of us being the subject of a documentary is an incredibly foreign concept; after all, it takes a very full life to yield a feature length amount of compelling content, but ask Hanna to paint a picture of the experience for those of us who don’t (and likely never will) know what it is to see our lives on the big screen, and she’ll do you one better.

“Well, I’m coming to your house later to start filming,” she jested, before launching into an explanation of how “The Punk Singer” came to be and yes, what it’s like to be the subject of a documentary.

“Sini and I had been friends forever and I had asked her if she wanted to work on this Le Tigre concert film that we were making back in 2007 and she said, ‘No,’” she explained, laughing. “And then she said, ‘But, I would like to make a documentary about you.’“

That was a suggestion that gave Hanna pause.

“At first I was like ‘Nooooo, I don’t want to do that!’ I was really sick and I didn’t know what I had. I also just had sort of a bad taste in my mouth from the 90s, of being kind of put forward away from my community as like the head of Riot Grrls or like, whatever, when I was really very much a part of a community and I didn’t create anything in a vacuum, you know what I mean? It was like a lot of people doing some of this work, and yet I was like the face of it, and that was a really bizarre position. So when Sini was like I want to make a movie about you, I kind of had that...what do you call it...gag reflex. I was like no, no, this is gonna happen again, where I set myself apart,” she said of her initial hesitancy.

“And then I was like wait a minute. I’ve had this 25 year career, and I’ve made this huge body of work, and like why I am trying to be like no, I’m not important, this isn’t a big deal? Especially when I was sick and I didn’t know how long my health was going to hold out. I kind of felt like this is a great opportunity that this person that I trust and love wants to do this. Then my very close friend Tamra Davis came in [at the end] and kind of made it into a narrative. I worked with these two great feminist artists who I trusted. It was just a great opportunity.”

Hanna is someone who has been written about extensively throughout the course of her career--a section of the film addresses a period of time when Bikini Kill went into a complete press blackout as a result of being at odds with the mainstream coverage of their music and the riot grrrl movement--but in participating in “The Punk Singer” she was able to tell her own story and collaborate with trusted friends in doing so. Still, she said that the most cathartic element aspect of her involvement with the film has not been being able to share her side of the story, but the fact that she’s seeing the finished product at all.

“It does feel cathartic in its way, but, you know, as I mentioned before, I was really, really sick and I didn’t think that I was going to be well enough to do press for the film or to be doing Q&As, or you know, I’m performing again and these were all things that were just kind of off my radar entirely, so that’s what’s more surreal to me, is I’m sitting here talking to you,” Hanna explained.

“I kinda was like oh you know, this film is just the last thing before I just go into bed and pull the covers over my head and, you know, watch Netflix ‘til I die. I just didn’t think that I would ever get better and I did and now I’m kind of having to like watch myself on this movie and I’m like ‘Oh my God, it’s so weird.’ I’m only 45, you know what I mean? So I’m still making work, I’m still in a band. So it’s kind of like...yeah, it’s really weird, it’s really weird.”

Though so much of Hanna’s story is told throughout the course of the film, she also noted that there are still plenty of untold tales.

“As the person who is the subject of it...I see all of the missing stories. Like, I’m like, ‘Oh, they stopped right there, but actually this thing happened,’ and it really just made me realize that when I’m 80 years old I just need to write a book of the funny sh*t that happened to me,” she said. “But it was kind of a lot to tell in a short period of time.”

Even before the concept of “The Punk Singer” came into reality, Hanna was focused on documenting and archiving her work.

“When you start to become concerned about your own mortality, you start thinking about kind of wrapping things up. I felt like, as a feminist artist, it was really important that I wasn’t a waste, and so that is why the Le Tigre concert film was really important to me. We worked really hard on our live show and I wanted people to be able to see it beyond the life of the band, and then I had all of these papers and journals and album covers that I’d made and videotapes of performances that people had given me over the years, and I was like, I don’t want something to happen to me and then these end up in the trash,” Hanna said.

“My friend Lisa Darms happened to get a job as the senior archivist at NYU, and it’s right down the street from my house, so it was kind of serendipitous. I worked with two really wonderful interns and they helped me kind of prepare it, and I donated it. The really great thing was in donating all of the video stuff, the VHS stuff, they spent the money to transfer it it digital and then Sini and Tamra had all of that stuff at their fingertips. The movie was so f*cking low budget that there’s no way they could have afforded to transfer all that stuff, so it worked out well,” Hanna said.

“I remember I was in the process of archiving when Sini came to my office and sat down and was like ‘So, I really want to do this.’ We started talking about it more, I was still really nervous and freaked out, but it just seemed like it would be really stupid not to do it.”

“The Punk Singer” premiered at SXSW, has been featured at several festivals and is currently playing in select cities and expanding into additional cities each week. Thus far the film has been largely well received by audiences and critics. For her part, Hanna hopes that everyone who sees the film does form an opinion, one way or another.

“I think the reviews have been pretty positive, I haven’t been paying that much attention, ‘cause it’s not really my movie, it’s Sini and Tamra’s movie, but I’m just in it. I didn’t craft the story, I didn’t choose the footage, I didn’t, you know, set out to make the film, I didn’t direct it,” she said of early response to the film.

“I really want people to see the movie and to have their own opinions of it. And even if they like Bikini Kill or like Le Tigre or whatever, to be critical of it, or love it or however they feel about it, because I just feel like criticism in general makes things a lot better.”

Though Hanna hasn’t been dwelling over reviews from the press, she did share the hope that those closest to her enjoy the end product.

“My bandmates from all my bands have been incredibly supportive of this film. But, no one’s really, none of my old friends...I think they are just all freaked out by it, I don’t think they know what to think. But my friends are in it. Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile, my bandmate Kathi from Bikini Kill and from The Julie Ruin, so it’s like they all kind of knew what was happening...but I’m hoping that they like it. I do kinda, I’m like cringing right now cause I’m really nervous that my friends hate it, but I don’t know, cause they won’t tell me,” she laughed.

For more from this conversation with Kathleen Hanna, look no further than this article, wherein she discusses the ways in which she has changed as an artist, what’s next for The Julie Ruin and if she still fancies fanzines.

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