On “Filmmakering,” Feminism and Rock:
A case study on making a documentary about the electroclash band, Le Tigre
In 2008, I was approached by riot grrrl, feminist icon, Kathleen Hanna about making a film about her band Le Tigre with footage that they had shot on a 2004-2005 world tour. Initially conceived as a simple fan dvd, the following essay explains the creative process of why and how “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour” evolved into a larger meditation on feminist legacies.
Most films don’t start with a rolling, red suitcase of tapes. But this one did. And perhaps, it is a perfect metaphor for the path of feminist art. When I first met Kathleen Hanna in early 2008, I didn’t have the star-struck panic that I see in many of her 30’s-something fans. A little older and a bit beyond my early 20’s when riot grrrl was making it’s mark, I was busy in the weirdo art scene of Austin, Texas, as feminism rode its punk third wave in the Pacific Northwest.
I was a more informed fan of Kathleen’s next project. Le Tigre’s art school shenanigans, feminist lyrics, crude digital graphics and danceable music were an irresistible part of the 90’s music scene. Until this film, I had never defined the qualities that made Le Tigre important but in examining their legacy as art-makers I also meditated on my own “filmmakering.”
When I say “filmmakering,” I refer to the importance of labeling what one does and owning it. My work is a craft. When I collaborate, I am hand-crafting something with other artisans. It is not science, it is not magic, it is instinct and listening mostly. I use the linear story-telling methodology of film and video. But it is also about my own identity as an artist — the self-esteem to insist on calling myself a filmmaker.
When Kathleen showed up with that suitcase full of tapes, I knew there were going to be challenges working with someone else’s footage. The band had commissioned their lighting director to shoot video on tour. He had gathered about 45 hours of behind-the-scenes material and had done a great job of capturing the fun, playful side of the band. But his primary role on tour was operating the light board during the live show and he didn’t have the luxury of concentrating solely on being a documentarian.
I had shot my own material on my previous films, so conceptually I approached the tapes as “archival” (which in a sense they were since they had been shot five years earlier). I felt grateful to the material because they are a goldmine of humor and intimate moments. But I also knew I wanted to shoot interviews with band-members Johanna Fateman, JD Samson and Kathleen so that the viewer would have another layer of insight into what they were feeling and thinking at the time.
We were surprised to discover that once one of the editors, Sarah Devorkin, dropped interview segments into the scenes, the cut then read as a “film film.” We had been operating under the premise that we were making a DVD just for fans at this point. A film for fans doesn’t have to meet the same narrative requirements that a doc for a general audience does. However, once you’re building a film for a general audience rather than a niche group of insiders, you have to explain things like Riot Grrrl or what a big rock festival is like.
We found that Le Tigre’s political and social importance really popped once we heard them reflecting on the legacy of the band in the present-day interviews. We screened privately for a few doc editors who varied in their knowledge of the band and they told us they loved the characters and loved the music. Suddenly, it seemed, the film was bigger.
People have asked me if it seemed natural to make the film light-hearted rather than drama-driven. I was reacting to the archival material that existed. Unlike “Strange Powers”, my first film about the songwriter Stephin Merritt, Le Tigre is fast-talking, improvisational and high energy. Their sense of humor as reflected in the behind-the-scenes footage was very funny. They have a deep bond with each other as friends and as artists. The music is upbeat and danceable and they are consciously using a ‘zine approach to the digital music-making tools. A film about them had to be smart, incisive and humorous — move fast and make people laugh
Because the 2nd editor, Paul Kloss, edited all the live music in a very sharp, exciting way, we knew that the concert footage was going to be the centerpiece. Especially, since the band doesn’t play live these days. But I have been surprised at how moved people have been at seeing Le Tigre “historcised” in this film. That they find Le Tigre’s work to be a profound confirmation of how to be a good artist and a politically-engaged human. Young women in their early 30’s in particular are quite thirsty for this.
Is it because young women are one of the most disrespected audiences in America but also in the world at large? I think the whole Rebecca Black “Friday” broohaha is evidence of this deep disregard for the taste and interests of young girls. Obviously, young girls are not going to have the most sophisticated interests, yet we treat the interests of boys as somehow serious and worthy.
Why is Mortal Kombat not the most ridiculed stupidity in existence? Because it’s a “stupid” that can be exploited for military might. One that equates masculinity with guns, power and violence.
When Le Tigre made handmade video graphics, had their friends design their fun stage costumes and performed dance moves that a girl would do in her bedroom, young women saw that the art and music was something accessible. Something they could do too.
Le Tigre’s work fundamentally respected the language and iconography of girls, queers and women. It “read” in everything they sang about, every choreographed dance move, every dance beat.
Le Tigre’s relevance to this younger generation has sent me into deep reflection on the period of the ’90s more generally and its larger historical and social significance. Because Kathleen Hanna and Le Tigre were so important to the era, fans in their 30’s who were influenced by Le Tigre, now come to the film with a need to have those values reinforced.
They want to understand the history of the artists and these alternative communities because it models a way of living in the present that has meaning, that creates social change through how one lives one’s life. (You can witness this trend via the current interest in eating locavore, making one’s own food, farmer’s markets, crafting, etc. that has exploded in the last years.)
I’ve been re-visiting my copy of “Angry Women” (Research Publications) and remembering how much it was a bible for the 90’s feminist. These are the cultural documents that act as life rafts for the freaks, queers, feminists, and eccentrics who don’t have a community by virtue of where they were born or what family they were raised in. It lets them know that there’s a wider world out there for them.
Perhaps it sounds dramatic, but when you’re isolated and 14, hearing “On the Verge” is an open door. Heck, hearing it at 30 is like having someone say, “You’re not alone.” (And when there is so much hate-mongering on the airwaves, this is quite meaningful.)
I have been thrilled to see in the last 10 years, how younger women have taken their places as artists, filmmakers, scientists, writers and public figures with such confidence. Inevitably, a little ping of jealousy arises for me. They didn’t have to pay the price other women before them paid. And then, I’m immediately thrilled. My 14-year old nieces don’t need to learn that way. When I take one of them to Girls Rock Camp this summer, she won’t have to feel the inner barriers. She is not struggling with her “filmmakering”. Thank goodness, she already calls herself a musician.
I’m grateful for Le Tigre’s existence and proud to have helped create some film history for the band’s work. By functioning in the pop world, Le Tigre made feminism cool again. Their subversion was in the joy and humor and grace with which they did it. They took the rage of the 90’s and translated it into a passion for living. The fact that this was a gateway drug to younger audiences for progressive politics, queer politics and feminism can’t be underestimated.
And Lordy, how they made us dance.
(Thanks to Haley Cullingham, Associate Editor of SheDoesTheCity.com and Aleix Martinez of AUX TV for asking the questions which resulted in this essay.)