Bay Area filmmakers Shane King and Arne Johnson totally know what you’re about to ask them, because it’s the question everyone springs right off the bat: What are a couple of dudes doing behind the camera of Girls Rock!, a film about an all-girls rock ‘n’ roll camp?
The answer is so meaningful that the pair don’t seem to mind sharing it (again). Once King and Johnson (friends since fifth grade) heard about Portland, Ore.’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, they were irretrievably inspired. In the process of scouting out documentary subjects, Johnson caught a talk by Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Someone asked her if she thought rock was dead, and in response she discussed her experiences teaching at the camp. "The idea that somebody of Carrie Brownstein’s stature would be stumbling around with a bunch of eight-year-olds, teaching them windmills, was just well, I called Shane up [immediately]," he says.
Having grown up in Portland, where they recall "enthusiastically slam-dancing at L7 shows," King and Johnson felt particularly connected to the topic and eagerly moved forward though wooing the camp proved difficult at first.
"The camp was, understandably, very skeptical [of us] and protective of the girls," King remembers. The duo shot footage of the camp’s after-school program, Girl’s Rock Institute, and interviewed teachers and young participants; the resulting short proved promising.
The bulk of Girls Rock! takes place in the summer of 2005, focusing on four campers as they practice instruments, form bands, write songs, and build confidence and social skills: teens Misty (a former meth addict) and Laura (a headbanger who worries about her appearance), and eight-year-olds Palace (a girly-girl with anger issues) and Amelia (a budding noise-rocker who has trouble sharing the spotlight). King and Johnson took care in choosing which girls to follow, though they knew they wanted first-time campers.
"We realized that [the camp] really had a huge impact on girls the first time they went," Johnson says. "One father described his daughter as ‘going supernova’ after the camp. So we knew that was going to be the most dramatic thing to show." King and Johnson traveled around the country, meeting 25 girls who were planning on attending camp for the first time.
"From talking to the camp staff, we knew that it was important to girls in ways that weren’t just about music," Johnson says. "Laura was the first person we interviewed, in Oklahoma. She was like, ‘I really love death metal, and I can’t find any boys who will let me be in a band.’ Suddenly we realized there was another metaphor happening, about the tension between our culture and these girls."
The themes of Girls Rock! are further illuminated by fellow Bay Area filmmaker Liz Canning’s animated collages. The sequences spell out what young girls are up against, with colorful graphics backdropping an array of sobering statistics, like "The number-one wish of teenage girls is to lose weight."
"People have told us, having seen the film, that it was upsetting to see those pieces, and that they wish we hadn’t included them like, ‘Why not just celebrate the girls and leave all that stuff behind?’<0x2009>" Johnson says. "Our response is that we’re two liberal, feminist guys, and we didn’t know these things. How can we assume that everybody else is going to be able to see these girls’ struggles, and contextualize them?"
The filmmakers hope Girls Rock! will lead to camps springing up all over the country as well as nudge grown-ups toward a new embrace of feminism. Most important, "The [campers] are cool, and loud, and angry, and funny, and sloppy and yet nobody is saying they’re stupid or ugly," Johnson says. "[If there is] a girl in Indiana or somewhere who’s trying to form a rock band or do something that she thinks she can’t do, if she sees this film, she might think, ‘Wait a minute why am I afraid of this?’ Then I’ll feel like we’ve done what we came to do."
Opens March 7 in Bay Area theaters