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'The Punk Singer' Director Sini Anderson Talks Kathleen Hanna, Feminism, Pop Artists


(IFC Films)

Speaking with Sini Anderson, the director of The Punk Singer, it's apparent how much Kathleen Hanna has influenced her life, as if making a documentary about her wasn't proof enough. The film, which chronicles the life and career of the former Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman and punk feminist icon, is an in-depth look at one of modern music's most influential artists. Combining killer archival footage and interviews with the likes of Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Adam Horovitz, as well as Hanna herself, Anderson has made the feminist and music documentary of the year.

We spoke to Anderson about The Punk Singer, her relationship with Hanna, her feminist influences, and a slew of other topics including what punk bands high schoolers should check out, and her opinion of female pop artists like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.

Zimbio: When you first met Kathleen Hanna
 what was the initial impression you got from her?

Sini Anderson: I just instantly wanted to be her friend. I thought, "This person is amazing." She's really really funny and she has an infectious energy. I just wanted to hang out with her more. 

Was she approachable?
Yeah actually she tackled me from behind. She's super approachable, generous, and friendly to talk to for people who don't know her.

From watching it, I see the documentary doing two things. It sets the record straight about Kathleen and I also think it'll gain her a new set of followers. People will find her through this. What were your goals before making the film?
The goal was to make the project happen first of all and for Kathleen's story to be told in a away that she felt heard. The goal was to get to a more personable side of Kathleen and to get her to open up about her experiences a little bit more and share that with other people... that it was going to invigorate and inspire a whole new generation of potential feminists. 

I read that you didn't go to high school or college and wondered how you were educated about feminism. Where did that begin and what do you attribute your education to the most?
That's such a great question. It's funny, I'm in San Francisco right now but I was in Brooklyn and San Francisco was a clear art scene when I moved here in the early '90s and is where I got my early education. It's where I learned about feminism, and learned about feminism through the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Everything I've learned came from my community so I'm really, really lucky in that way. I'm surrounded by a lot of really incredible smart people who do interesting work and they know history pretty well.

Were there any writers, like Gloria Steinem, that influenced you growing up?
Growing up? No. Growing up I was just trying to make it through the end of the day. I had no idea about writers. As far as influential writers and artists, as I was a young queer feminist and starting to make work myself, it was my peers. My peers have always been my teachers. It's a really awesome message to give to young people who maybe don't have the opportunity to go to college because of their circumstances and situations at home and can no longer live at home or go to high school. Finding your people and letting them inspire you and having my peers as teachers, it's been a really incredible experience.

Could you list five albums you would suggest to a high school girl who wants to get into punk?
Oh my God, I don't know if I could. 

How about artists, forget albums.
Well, let's do Bikini Kill of course. Tribe 8, Sleater-Kinney. Let me think about this... The Need and who else do I want to put in there? It's too hard. I think they should try to find the soundtrack from the musical The Transfused. That was a musical that happened in Olympia, Washington. It was incredible, a punk rock opera. It was completely revolutionary, brilliant. It happened in the '90s and there are copies, recordings of it out there.

Could you talk about the more popular artists out there now and give us your take on whether or not you think they're advancing culture or hindering it? The first one is Miley Cyrus.
I don't know her music. This is what's going to happen with this train of questioning. I'm not going to know all of these popular artists. Of course I know who Miley Cyrus is. I am not of the culture of putting down other women. It's just something I don't waste my time doing. So when I see what's happening out there with Miley Cyrus, I just think, "What a colossal waste of energy." This girl is getting torn apart. For what? For making bad art? She's really young. People have to make bad art before they have to make good art. And the way she's being ripped down, it's, you know, we talk about it in the film. It's a really old and tired game big business plays to get people to read their articles and watch their television shows. It's boring. It's really really boring. And so I would encourage the younger readers to do something to take back a little bit of power and flip it a little bit. And when somebody is getting totally torn down and torn apart, spend a little bit of energy figuring out what they're doing right. It's just the more interesting thing. 

Lady Gaga? Are you a fan of hers?
I don't really know her music but I love Lady Gaga. I love her. I don't think Kathleen does but I'm not sure, you'd have to ask Kathleen. 

(Laughs) Yeah I just wanted to get your take really quickly. I wasn't trying to get you to go negative on them at all, I just wondered what you thought.
Yeah, but it's like you could name off any female pop artist right now and there's some kind of shit storm story about them. 

That's true.
You know? And it's just like that's what's interesting to people. It's crazy.

Do you you think it's more people being interested in them or do you think it's more the media creating hype?
I think it's the media creating hype to get people to flock to it and I think we might be surprised if we weren't using these crutches, the easy way out. I also think people have a tendency to feel a lot better than themselves when they're trashing other people. It doesn't last very long. it's a really crappy way to walk around the world. If we live in a culture that believes that by tearing a person down we're going to feel a little more significant we're never going to get anywhere. And if people really believed and there were more role models like Kathleen Hanna—and some of the people that are making feminist music and art—they'd have a different perspective. You wouldn't have this aura of competition or belief in bad mouthing somebody. We would just be a lot better off. The bottom line is, in the long run, it doesn't make you feel better. It's like a bad addiction to go from scandal to scandal to scandal. It's going to feel really empty after a period of doing that. 

So, changing topics, cinematically, the way
you and your editors edited The Punk Singer reminded me a lot of The Devil and Daniel Johnston and I wondered what some of your specific cinematic influences are? 
Yeah this is a great question and I only say this because it's the absolute truth. I didn't have documentary cinematic influences when I went in to make this project. My influence was Kathleen and trying to capture her and her aesthetic. So I really didn't go into this based off the inspiration of another documentary filmmaker. I wish I could rattle off a bunch right now but it's just not the truth. The truth is the inspiration was Kathleen and the way that I see her.

When you were creating the film and going through all the archive footage, what was the one moment you found where you were like, "Yes! This is going to be the best part." 
Well that probably happened a bunch of times (laughs) and all the archival footage is kind of like that because we were in such an anti-documentary space so everything kind of felt like gold. 

This year we've seen new films from Sophia Coppola, Nicole Holofcener, Claire Denis, and a few others. Kimberly Peirce has the new Carrie coming out. Have you seen The Bling Ring or any of their films?
I have been under a cultural rock in trying to finish this film so I'm looking forward to time where I have a break where I can see all of these. I can't wait to see what Kimberly Peirce did with Carrie. I've heard great stories about the production of it. I just hope more interesting female directors come up. The latest specifics on women directors in (film and) television, we only make up five percent and that's crazy. 

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