To tell the tale of a generation of women, director Sini Anderson focuses on one life: Kathleen Hanna’s. The documentary “The Punk Singer” presents Hanna as the shrillest voice of the ’90s Riot Grrrl Movement. Clear and insightful, yet inflammatory in its simplicity, this singer’s timbre, bold attitude and controversiality have been igniting listeners since she first took the stage with punk band Bikini Kill.
The film opens with grainy footage shot in a living room in Washington. An audience stands grouped in a loose semicircle around Hanna as she performs spoken-word poetry, stomping and shrieking, “I’m your worst nightmare. I’m a girl you can’t shut up.”
Even in poor camcorder resolution, bewildered faces and backwards hats markedly contrast with the performer’s playfully chopped bangs, black combat boots and seething search for justice. This opening scene, even before Hanna becomes a singer, shows a tame version of the reaction she would be getting for most of her career.
Chronicling her musical projects from Bikini Kill to the Julie Ruin, “The Punk Singer” also explores how Hanna persuaded an irritated boys’ club to admit that women are worthy of respect by convincing women they had a right to admission. Her friends, bandmates and peers gush throughout the film about her devotion to feminism in every endeavor, no matter the consequences.
When asked how she coped with the challenges of making her first full-length film, Anderson pronounced passionately: “This is Kathleen. This story has to be told.” Hanna has a messiah-like presence in Riot Grrrl, as though people find their voices in her art and become her disciples.
Hanna’s signature pronouncement during Bikini Kill shows, “Girls to the front!,” ordered men to literally get out of the way and accept women into their sacred places. More importantly, it became a rallying cry for women who wanted to assert themselves but feared the threat of aggressive moshing presented at shows.
While Hanna’s careers in music and activism were thoroughly documented in “The Punk Singer,” there was little explanation of relationship backgrounds or band in-fighting and almost no negative commentary.
That positive spirit is not only refreshing in documentary pursuits but also a tenet of the Riot Grrrl manifesto. Equality is a universal concern, and the Riot Grrrl movement wasn’t just created for feminists but for anyone who felt maligned by society. None of the people interviewed felt it necessary to belittle others’ successes or gossip about their failures.
The last part of the documentary unobtrusively examines why Hanna stopped touring in 2005. Mysterious illnesses plagued Kathleen throughout her career, but she was only officially diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2010.
The physically taxing and emotionally draining recovery from this disease has made her very private over the past few years. But Hanna refuses to let the odds get the best of her and, as always, refuses to shut up.