Q&A with GIRLS ROCK! director Arne Johnson

March 5, 2008


GIRLS ROCK!, opening this Friday, March 7 @ the Village East Cinema, is a rousing documentary about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, OR where girls ages 8 to 18 receive music lessons and life lessons of empowerment from a dedicated group of feminist indie rockers.

Director Arne Johnson answered a few of our questions about the making of the film below.

Q: What inspired you to make the documentary?
A: Well, I first heard about the camp through Sleater Kinney, the members of whom have taught at the camp various years. Carrie Brownstein, in fact, runs the assemblies every year and co-wrote the camp theme song. The thought of these indie rock goddesses mucking about in a warehouse in Portland teaching 8 year old windmills and stuff was intriguing, to say the least! The movie that we ended up with, however, was inspired by the stories girls told us as we traveled around the country, interviewing them before they went to camp. We learned that the camp doesn’t just teach musicianship, but takes on a host of issues and inspirations that clog the landscape of girlhood in the current century. When we saw how the camp gently provided a place for these girls to be whoever they wanted to be, and how powerful an effect this had on their lives, the movie became a mission.

Q: How did you first hear about the camp?
A: As I mentioned above, it was through Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney. I went to see her speak about art and music, and someone in the audience asked her if she thought rock n roll was dead. She had just come from teaching at the camp, and lit into a speech about how inspiring it was that it gave me chills. I immediately called Shane and we started the process of making the film almost instantaneously.

Q: Did any one particular girls’ story stick out most for you?
A: You know, they all resonate for me in different ways at different times. Especially while editing, we would get very deeply into the material and at different times feel like any one of the girls was the heart of the film. Just speaking for me personally, I probably relate most to Laura. Her struggle to be ok with being an articulate, verbal person with tastes that don’t jibe up with her surroundings particularly touches me because I sorta went through similar stuff. Though, of course, it’s very different for a boy. It’s one of the amazing things that happened through this film is that though it’s a lot about gender and what’s particularly happening to girls, the heart of the movie is about things anyone can relate to…the harshly enforced borders of gender harm us all.

Q: Do you have a background in music?
A: Neither of us do, really. We formed a band just after high school called The Fish Cats, but it lasted all of three rehearsals. Shane has had a little more actual music education than I, he’s been working his way through Piano Man on the piano for a while, but we both play around. I can play songs and sing along on guitar, and I love to do so, despite what my lack of fans might might say!

Q: How do you like making a documentary with kids…do you think they are more honest?
A: I don’t know if I would say they’re more honest. Maybe more direct? For instance, we had a whole set of thoughts about how were going to shoot, deep philosophical musings about the distance between camera and subject, etc. But the moment you bring a camera into a room full of nine year olds, that’s all going out the window! They don’t play the metaphysical game, they want to see the camera, look at the microphones, kick you in the foot, whatever. And then suddenly they completely forget you are there. So, I would say that it was great for us to make a doc about kids as our first feature because it immediately taught us that the best doc-making technique is to be a human being. Now we have the same approach with adults too.

Q: In todays fame and celebrity obsessed society, do you think there is anything dangerous about young girls wanting to become rock stars?
A: Well, at the camp they don’t exactly encourage girls to be rock stars. They’re talking about using music as an avenue to self-expression and community building. The career of Sleater Kinney is a perfect example of that…despite bigger label offers and critics calling them the greatest rock band of the ’90s, they stayed on Kill Rock Stars for all their albums, before recording their last album on a bigger but still indie Sub Pop. They made music, made a living at it, had great experiences, inspired people, all without immersing in the whirlpool you’re alluding too. So, yes, it’s always dangerous to do anything ambitious and performance oriented, but there’s no reason you have to be a passive participant. We were inspired by that ethos with our film. We signed with a smaller, but well-respected and successful distributor before showing it to any bigger company. We chose our sales agent based on trust rather than who had the biggest deals. There are all kinds of pitfalls, but if you go into it knowing who you want to be, you don’t have to fall into any of them. The camp tries to give the girls a map so they can find their way.

Don’t forget – GIRLS ROCK! opens this Friday, 3/7 @ the Village East Cinema