Out filmmaker Sini Anderson was one of the originators of the three-decade strong traveling queer literary tour Sister Spit. Alongside Michelle Tea, Sini (who was 19 at the time) read poetry at their weekly open mic in San Francisco, having just relocated to the west coast from Chicago.
“I didn’t go to high school, I didn’t go to college. I was a punk,” Sini said.
Although she’s no longer involved with SS, Sini said she loves Michelle and has fond memories of being part of the troupe.
“This might be a fond memory because of what ended up happening with my work in the last 20 years,” Sini said, “but the first time Michele and I did an interview for press, I think it was for the Bay-Guardian, the interviewer, the writer said, ‘Why would you want to start a feminist group?” And I turned to Michelle and said, ‘What does feminist mean?’ I truly didn’t know what it meant. And then from that moment Michelle explained to me what feminism was, what the definition is. A classic moment!”
Three decades later, Sini is behind one of the most feminist documentaries ever made. Her film The Punk Singer, out in select theaters this Friday from IFC Films, focuses on Kathleen Hanna, the iconic riot grrrl singer and activist best known for fronting Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. With footage from performances interspersed with one-on-one interviews with Kathleen and those who know her best, The Punk Singer is an impassioned look at a woman who helped to inspire legions of young women in the ’90s and 2000s with her political-driven punk and electro-pop.
But since Le Tigre disbanded in 2007, Kathleen had sort of disappeared, and no one really knew why. The Punk Singer let’s us in on Kathleen’s personal life since she stopped performing, and Sini found a surprise in filming the documentary that has led fans to be shocked upon hearing why. Kathleen was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which Sini also has. Sini said this was a coincidence and not related to filming at all, as she wasn’t diagnosed, herself, until six months after Kathleen.
“We decided she wouldn’t talk about her diagnosis publicly until the film came out,” Sini said. “And hopefully it’s part of the reason there’s a little noise around it, her coming out about it in the film.”
“I was a little bit surprised when I asked, ‘What’s the story of your life?’ and she said ‘I have no idea what the story of my life is,’” Sini said. “She was really genuine about that. She knows the work and logistics about who she is and what she’s done, but she’s really genuine in “I don’t know! I don’t know what it is! You tell me. What’s the story?’”
Sini said Kathleen was “hands-off” on the film, allowing the filmmaker to decide what was worthy of being included. This kind of trust can only be placed on someone whose work she admires, and who she’s known for a long time. Sini and Kathleen met through friends at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival in 2000.) As for why this was the time for a film to be made about Kathleen, Sini said she was inspired by how quiet the feminist community had become a few years ago when she started working on The Punk Singer.
“When we started production there was not a lot of feminist/activist communities—they were being pretty quiet. Things that were happening while shooting—Pussy Riot, SlutWalks in Toronto—we were not making a lot of feminist noise. It seemed really quiet so I thought it was time for her to tell her story,” Sini said. “We saw what she did for the last 20 years. Now we get to watch what she’s going to do for the next 20 years. We need the motivation!”
Motivating is a perfect one-word description of The Punk Singer. From the very beginning scene of Kathleen performing spoken word about sexual abuse to a roomful of women, to how she had no musical training but decided to start a band to reach more women with the things she had to say, to finding strength to continue that music and message after being diagnosed with Lyme disease, Kathleen Hanna is an inspiration to feminists, queers and people of all kinds. Her story is one of triumph over adversity, and one that needed to be told. Sini Anderson found the perfect way to do just that.
The Punk Singer will be in select theaters and on Video on Demand on Friday, November 29.