Synopsis: Many people have the impression that the Riot Grrrl movement in the mid-90s was the end-all, be-all of female involvement in DIY punk. This is definitely not the case! Plenty of amazing ladies prior to this era paved the way for it, and plenty of amazing ladies continue to help keep DIY together today. This documentary chronicles the past 30 years of female involvement in DIY punk, and has interviews with over 30 women from across the country, ages 17 to 40. Race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, class, and activism are all addressed in this film, giving a more complete picture of how these women participate in the DIY community, and how it affects their daily lives.
eyelights: the wide range of interview subjects. the wealth of archival material.
eyesores: the limited discussion of the Riot Grrrl movement. the superficial discussions of each topic.
While I was scouring the shelves of Value Village one day, I stumbled upon a DVD copy of ‘From the Back of the Room’, a documentary featuring the women involved in the DIY Punk movement. I had never heard of it before and was stunned to find it discarded like that.
But, based on the description, and knowing that I likely never would see this DVD anywhere else, I decided to make the purchase. While I’m a big fan of music and feminism, what really sold me was the promise of an exploration of the Riot Grrrl movement.
While I know very little about the Riot Grrrl movement, I have been aware of it – especially since some of the bands that I like (such as L7) were lumped into that genre. Naturally, I was interested to explore the genre a little bit more – especially from the participants’ point of view.
Sadly, it’s only in watching it that discovered that ‘From the Back of the Room’ is mostly devoted to the Punk movement, with only approximately five minutes devoted to Riot Grrrl – and even then, only so that the participants could disavow being influenced by the movement.
I was already bemused that we had to wait 47 minutes before the subject was even broached, but I just couldn’t believe how little time was spent on it. So, after watching the doc, which runs a full 100 minutes, I went to check the back of the box. It reads:
“Although it is often credited with spurning the “third wave” of feminism, Riot Grrrl seemed to many to be a blip in the media. Riot Grrrl paved the way for the more mainstream “girl power” phenomenon, but was ultimately forgotten until recently. Books and films have now been released on the subject, but in the scramble for commemoration, many women who were predecessors or contemporaries of Riot Grrrl have been ignored. This film tackles the past thirty years of female involvement in Do It Yourself music, and aims to give a more complete picture of how women participated in the DIY community and how it affects their daily lives.”
Okay, so it’s not exactly about the Riot Grrrl movement. But you can see how I got the impression that it would play a bigger part, right? And this is on the back of the box – not be confused with the synopsis above, which I copied and pasted from the film’s official website.
Why the discrepancy? Welcome to DIY, my friends…
‘From the Back of the Room’ isn’t so much an overview of the movement as it is a series of interviews with some of its key players. The first 40+ minutes consist of a string of brief interviews with different women; it’s only after the Riot Grrrl segment that some of them return.
I knew very few of them. In fact, the only one that was familiar to me was Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame. The rest of them I was introduced to for the first time; I had never heard of them, their bands or other endeavours until that night. It was a crash course in DYI.
However, for those who are familiar with DYI Punk/Hardcore, here is a list of some of the key participants – in alphabetical order:
Anna from Blatz
Annie from the Soviettes
Chris Boarts-Larson of Slug and Lettuce
Cynthia Connolly, Author of Banned in DC
Diane from Harum Scarum
Erin from Life During Wartime PDX Radio Show
Jen from Submission Hold
Kirsten from Naked Aggression
The Ladies from Witch Hunt
Lars from Optimus Crime
Laura from Kylesa
Leora from Thulsa Doom
Lisa from Oroku
Maygun from Profane Existance and the Breast Brigade
Michelle from Sick Fix
Michelle from Two Minute Tantrum, Whorehouse of Representatives
Renata from Samothrace
Cristy Road, Graphic Artist
Saira from Detestation, Question & Faggot
Sara from the Poison Estate
Slade from Tribe 8
Stef from Requiem, Crimethinc
Tobia from Look Back and Laugh
Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile
The group was rather diverse, with zines publishers, bar owners, radio DJs, show promoters, graphic artists, roadies and (of course) band members (including singers, guitarists, drummers, …etc.) all taking part in the interviews and subsequent discussions. That was cool.
Over the course of the film, the participants talked about how they’re seen in the scene by their peers, by men, by women, given that they are women. Most of them consider themselves feminists, although many eschewed the second wave feminism of the Steinem variety.
They also discussed spreading the word, making room for women and other races (the punk scene is still a predominantly white male scene), and tackled rape, beauty and body image, motherhood (the impact on their priorities, playing, lifestyle, …etc.), as well as Queerness and AIDS.
Personally, I found all of it interesting, but I started to get antsy at the 60-minute mark because it felt like they were wrapping up – but they just kept going and going and going. It was a very unusual vibe, which my friend described as anarchic – appropriately so, really.
One thing I really liked about the doc was the way that the filmmakers incorporated their wealth of archival footage, by superimposing their beautiful snapshots one over the other and putting much of the concert footage as backdrop for the interviews, giving us the best of both worlds.
But I didn’t take much out of the documentary. For all the interviews and discussions, I’m too far removed from the scene to have really felt involved here. I enjoyed hearing all these female punks and punk supporters talk about their subculture but I didn’t connect.
Still, for people who are into the scene, this would likely be a terrific document, filled with advice from DIY peers and trailblazers. And to those people, I recommend ‘From the Back of the Room’ wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for a documentary on the Riot Grrrls.
I won’t pretend they’re dead – even if everyone else does. Or merely dismisses them.
Date of viewing: February 12, 2015