Buried in the sundry footage that makes up the Lucy Thane Collection at NYU’s Fales Library there’s a particularly striking tape, set in the shadowy confines of a London apartment with moss-green walls. The image on the screen has the thick, sullied consistency of a watercolor left out in the rain, but that can hardly be avoided—it began its life as an 8mm negative some twenty-three years ago, was telecined and transferred to VHS tape, and now survives as a digital file. The film grain has turned to sludge, and silhouettes of the two women in frame are only distinctly visible when one lights a cigarette. A washing machine churns loudly, wonderfully abetting the moody murk.
The cigarette belongs to Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, hunched over with a visceral, overtired energy, and the woman next to her is Manchester punk icon Liz Naylor, founder of Catcall Records, manager of Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear’s 1993 UK tour, and owner of the washing machine. The scene is from early April, right in the middle of the tour, and the two are hunting through a tape of Bikini Kill’s performance at TJ’s in Newport, Wales. Hanna furiously clicks between play and fast-forward while the camera, in the hands of filmmaker Lucy Thane, patiently rolls.
Thane followed Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear for the entirety of the 1993 tour, shooting on an amalgamation of borrowed film and video equipment, sometimes alone and sometimes with an alternating crew of friends and fellow fans. This video is just a fraction of about a day’s worth of raw footage that Thane donated to the Riot Grrrl archives at Fales in 2010, which was digitized for the first time earlier this year. Thane’s It Changed My Life, the twenty-four minute film artfully distilled from this immense archival library, currently resides on her Vimeo page and selections from the digitized dailies premiere this month at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn. (Full disclosure: I am involved in programming the event.) Despite being nearly all-encompassing—featuring backstage footage of both bands, interviews in the women’s toilets with fans brimming in post-show enthusiasm, and a large swath of performances—the Newport show was not captured on film. Instead it hangs like a phantom over all of the tapes, oft-mentioned and discussed but never witnessed.
Hanna and Naylor are searching the cassette for a moment where, in order to quiet a seething sea of misguided masculinity, Hanna pulls several of the venue’s bouncers onto the stage and has them introduce themselves to the audience. Naylor expresses her bemused admiration for Hanna’s cunning tactics in an earlier interview. “They’ve had to deal with asshole-ism plenty of times before. They got good at it,” she says, shaking her head. “The bouncers were puffed up to be protecting this American woman. They’re meatheads, but they’re being used.”
The tape sounds gruesome, as if the film is documenting a casual listening party of an airplane black box moments before a catastrophe. Huggy Bear stops playing in an attempt to relocate an encroaching wave of men ramming themselves up against the women in front of the stage. “PLAY YOUR MUSIC! PLAY YOUR FUCKING MUSIC NOW!” someone screams.
“Football! Football! Oogah-boogah!” Kathleen retorts from the future, springing up for a second to dance sardonically around Liz’s kitchen. It’s drowned out on the tape, but Sally Margaret Joy, riot grrrl UK instigator and writer for Melody Maker—who is also covering the tour—catches Niki Elliot of Huggy Bear’s response in her report from the audience: “What music? What happens when there’s no music left for you to dance to?”
Hanna and Naylor never do find “the bit with the bouncers,” though Hanna does talk about it and the other “fucked up, manipulative” measures she’s had to employ to keep venues safe during shows. Battling through the rest of their set, Huggy Bear eventually leave stage. Moments later the cacophony of shouts, pushes, and the club’s owner desperately pleads to the crowd is swallowed up by a familiar collective shout: “Rebel girl! Rebel girl! Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world!”
The audience crescendos until a singular voice fills Naylor’s flat. Thane zeroes into a tight, extreme close-up of Hanna’s face. She smiles for a long moment as the spontaneous battle cry continues, until her cynical spark returns. “[Someone’s] saying rebel boy,” she comments smarmily.
In 1991 Lucy Thane was traveling alone around Pamplona, in the north of Spain, when she had a chance encounter with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox. It was the running of the bulls, and Wilcox, who was also alone, was “an oasis in an ocean of Frat Boy Macho Hemingwayness,” according to Thane. “We got too bored of the macho abuse we received to wanna hang around to run with the bulls in the end so we ended up travelling to Morocco and Prague together.” At Pamplona Station Wilcox played Thane a Bikini Kill song on a Walkman. Everything clicked. Thane returned to London reinvigorated by the idea that there was a burgeoning cultural movement of people like Kathi an ocean away. Wilcox continually shipped Thane “punk rock care packages” from Olympia, WA, introducing her to bands such as Babes in Toyland, L7, and Nation of Ulysses, and the first issues of Riot Grrrl and Jigsaw zines.
Thane’s indoctrination to riot grrrl was well timed. Huggy Bear’s Jo Johnson, another young Brit who had been trading letters with Wilcox, appeared in the July 1992 issue of Melody Maker with “riot grrl” penned on her knuckles. Almost overnight, between Huggy Bear’s infamously hostile appearance on the trashy Channel 4 talk show The Word and Sally Margaret Joy and Maker editor Everett True’s enthusiasm in the press, riot grrrl became a nationwide buzzword. Thane made fast friends with the Huggies, Liz Naylor, zinester Karren Ablaze, the band Sister George, and others. They coined themselves the Queercore Militia and began organizing shows and zine distribution around London. When Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill decided to tour the UK together, Naylor was the obvious choice to make the arrangements. Thane, a first-year Master’s film student in Sheffield, asked to film the tour and all parties agreed.
Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear weren’t aiming to lead a trail of destruction around the UK, but they weren’t exactly given a choice. The blowback to Huggy Bear’s newfound stardom was instantaneous, and writers in the British press predicted mayhem. In one candid scene Chris Rowley from Huggy Bear learns of a thwarted plan to smuggle a gun into one of the shows. He frets about having the word “revolution” so casually assigned to them in the press and wonders what about their music prompts such a violent response. Kathleen walks into the room and shrugs. “This happens to us all the time,” she says dryly.
Thane’s camera is nimble and omnipresent. She traces Hanna’s every performative gesture in a way that emphasizes the double-blinded genius of her onstage persona. She is constantly aware of what is happening in the audience, pausing to call out questionable behavior. “Why are you leaning on her like that?” she asks a boy in the front row with a faux naïveté. Without missing a beat she launches into a spoken word performance she dubs “Ragdoll”. It’s a volcanic polemic against NME’s flippant and hostile treatment of female fronted bands, and Hanna’s limbs jerk and flounder accordingly as she seethes. “I initially wanted to make a film that felt like a zine,” Thane says. “But in the event was just swept away by the excitement of all these girls.”
The cut-and-paste aesthetic of shooting on so many different formats does make the tapes feel like a zine, especially as it includes a bathroom interview with Karren Ablaze of British zine Ablaze!, and a scene of Kathi Wilcox, sprawled out on a grungy green room floor, reading pages of Jigsaw #5 to the camera as if it were a children’s book. (“This is Molly Neuman [of Bratmobile]. She’s a total fox.”) The fleeting glances at punk luminaries interspersed with lengthy interviews also give a similar effect. Thane met and befriended Ana da Silva of The Raincoats at a Hole show when Courtney Love started playing “The Void” and da Silva yelled out, “That’s my song!” She appears on camera a few times, most notably in a Dunkin Donuts where Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail patiently explains to her the cultural punk significance of the donut.
Despite the enraptured implications of the title, Thane is an objective interviewer who spends just as much time with fans who are wary of the riot grrrl nomenclature. Perhaps the highlight of the entire archive is an extended debate in the bathroom of the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town following a show with Linus and Blood Sausage. After a discussion of the feminist merits of PJ Harvey, a new voice joins the fray, “Oh, stop using the words riot grrrl. It’s fucking outrageous! Anything that happens to do with women and the music press has to attach some fucking insignificant label to it.”
The bathroom grows more crowded. An emerald-haired young woman named Vanida, who at fifteen was a contributor to London feminist zine Shocking Pink, enters and immediately joins the conversation. “It’s a space accessible to just women… despite the male music press it’s still a space where women can go and learn things without men.”
A third woman, from just off-screen: “It’s not as bad in America. It’s not as exploited because the press aren’t weekly papers and they’re complete shit. So if [riot grrrl] gets over-exploited here we can always ship it back to America.” A spirited conversation about labels follows, which continues until men start barging in, complaining that there are women in the men’s room. All of the girls in the debate shake hands and introduce themselves in shared, flushed fervor.
It Changed My Life premiere in 1993 at the Kitchen in New York at the invitation of filmmaker Jill Reiter, who was putting together a film program entitled “Punkilingus.” Thane ended up staying in New York, assembling footage for another documentary on the American Queercore scene, 1997’s She’s Real (Worse than Queer). Fales’ recent restoration of the footage is not only important as a visual, nostalgic curiosity. As Fales archivist Lisa Darms writes in the introduction of The Riot Grrrl Collection, “Historical importance is partially a result of what’s saved and preserved by institutions.” Cultural erasure is so prevalent that the influential cinematic component of riot grrrl is relegated to the annals of the Internet in spite of the fact that the female filmmakers involved, including Thane, continue to produce important work today. While zines and punk music were the most widespread proponents of the movement due to the accessibility of the necessary materials, films made during the height of riot grrrl were, and continue to be, touchstones of experimental and queer cinema. Pixelvision filmmaker Sadie Benning briefly lived with future Le Tigre member Johanna Fateman in Portland, as did G.B. Jones, who was both a member of the Queercore band Fifth Column and director of the great girl gang film The Yo-Yo Gang. Miranda July, Fateman’s best friend from childhood, sent out open calls for film submissions in riot grrrl zines, which she would then compile onto VHS tapes and redistribute in chainletter fashion, including early works by artists Mary Billyou and K8 Hardy.
While Thane, as well as those interviewed, makes a point to address the drawbacks of the movement—its occasional exclusivity, its uncontrollable ascent to sensation and misrepresentation—it also showcases, with an inexhaustible irreverence, what makes riot grrrl and its historical preservation so significant. A fan in the crowd, moments after a Huggy Bear set in Leeds, says it best: “There was spontaneous girl love like I have never experienced before. Hugs that I never imagined were possible. You can’t put it in words; that’s why you’ve got it in pictures. Tomorrow a new band is forming. Tomorrow girls are going out with spray cans. Tonight everyone’s fucking fired and there are no words to describe it.”