Trouble: Only 7, a rocker named Palace sports some 'tude in "Girls Rock" by Shane King and Arne Johnson.

"Girls Rock" with Arne Johnson & Shane King

Susan Gerhard March 2, 2008

Both Jack Black’s fictional School of Rock and Jack Black-alike Paul Green -based documentary Rock School have entertained many audiences with the notion of actually training the next generation of musically inclined kids in the arts of head-banging, hair-teasing, and amp adjustment. What Bay Area filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King discover from Portland’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls,” however, is revolution on a different scale: A camp that trains girls not to perfectly mimic the “masters” of the rock genre, but to find the unique demon screech that exists deep inside each and every one of them. Girls Rock (opening in the Bay Area on Friday) watches a few select 8-18 -year-olds overcome the obstacles — including pressures to be thin, quiet, and Caucasian — to claim their rightful place on Earth and wail away. We got a chance to catch up with Johnson and King last week. So you made this film because you two used to be in a girl band, right?

Arne Johnson: Right, before we transitioned to being boy filmmakers…. How did you find your way into this story?

Johson: Carrie Brownstien from Sleater-Kinney had an event with Yoshi Tomo Nara in San Jose, and they’re huge fans of each other. They were doing this ‘Why does music inspire you? Why does painting inspire you?’ panel with Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle critic] as moderator. At that event, somebody asked Carrie, ‘What do you think: Is there any hope for rock and roll? Do you think it’s dead?’ And Carrie, as all of Sleater-Kinney had that year, had just been Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls 5 days before, was still flush with inspiration from it—and lit into this speech. It was super inspiring. Shane [King] and I had been talking about making a documentary film for awhile. It was in Portland, where I grew up. We knew the scene. We felt like there was something there. It wasn’t clear what the story was, but just the image of Carrie Brownstein in a room full of 7-year-olds was irresistible. Then we went up there and met with them and found out about all the other stuff that’s in the camp—how they deal with girlhood, and body image and all that other stuff.

SF360: So you both learned a lot about girlhood from the camp.

Johnson: Totally. Both Shane and I had grown up with feminist mothers and strong women in our lives. Intellectually, we knew there were these problems of women struggling against cultural norms. We didn’t know, though, how personal it is. It’s not something they’re talking only about fighting, but something that’s shaping them, growing up. As a boy, girls were something to run away from or pursue, and neither of us has children, so it was a real education to look into the eyes of an 11-year-old saying she worries about her weight, or someone who felt no one would love them because they look different. Those are the kinds of things that parents have probably seen.

Shane King: We learned some from the camp itself, but most of what we learned was from the girls about to go to the camp in our pre-production process.

Johnson: The camp staff gave us a framework of questions to ask the girls. We learned the reasons they were coming. They showed us applications of the girls: ‘No one likes me.’ ‘I’m different.’ ‘Other girls don’t care.’ ‘I’m worried about my weight.’ It wasn’t until we talked to the girls that we had the heart of the [story].

We get asked a lot about why we chose the girls that we did. People get this idea that we were somehow choosing the best or some kind of thing like that. It was really that these girls were able to speak to the issues concerning most of the girls. Some were articulate. Laura could talk about being in bands. The young girls, you could tell they were going to represent. That was a lot of what it was. We interviewed 25 girls beforehand. We knew we couldn’t do justice to all of them unless it was going to be 14 hours long. We just wanted all their voices to be heard. How did the week unfold at the camp? What was your plan?

King: Some decisions were made the week of the camp. Some bands were having more trouble… there was going to be a more dynamic interesting story to see how they figured that out, as opposed to bands that gelled immediately.

Johnson: [Our idea was] to do preliminary research so we would really know what we were looking at. Anybody could make another documentary with the same material—virtuosity amongst young girl guitarists, or running a nonprofit on a shoe string.
If you come with a framework, helps you notice the important things.

With Palace, she was having trouble speaking into the microphone. She was really shy. we had heard from girls already, ‘I have a hard time being loud.’ We were looking for that. But of course, Palace ended up being completely different from what we were thinking. But we were sensitized. That’s what I love about documentary filmmaking. People think of it as reportage, but if you go in knowing it’s not—that your job is to be the filter, you can see clearly. What was the most shocking of the statistics you came across in your research?

Johnson: I read Reviving Ophelia and The Body Project and School Girls and Odd Girl Out, and for me, the most shocking thing was how young it was getting. The theme of some of these books is these [problems/issues] are filtering younger and younger. The other shocking statistic is the average start age of dieting is moving younger and younger, and now is 8.. In 1970, the average age was 14. By 1990, it was 8.

King: And just looking for those statistics was an education. How hard they were to find. How outdated they were. Tell me about the Girls Rock movement itself.

Johnson: The camp was born in 2001, and it was the thesis project of Misty Mcelroy at Portland State University. It was meant to be a sociological experiment. It had this overwhelming response; 60 people applied for 10 spots.

King: It was just word of mouth. She didn’t really advertise.

Johnson: The following year, they grew it to 40 and got 200 responses, so then she just went full time and made it a real summer camp. She had been a roadie for a long time—she had friends. So she gathered post-riot grrrls and women who’d gone through that, or been around it…. (Riot grfrl was just one of many feminist rock movements at the time.) People in Portland LOVED it. Parents talked about ‘getting their child back.’

They had a financial shortfall one year… Word spread and they had $35k in a week. People really feel indebted to them, seeing their girls happy and coming into their own. One father described it: ‘My daughter was this quiet wallflower, and after camp became a supernova.’ It has grown mostly out of love, because the community was really attached to it. Did you see School of Rock or Rock School? Thoughts?

Johnson: Rock School’s Paul Green is the antithesis of what’s going on at Girls Rock camp—training [in a particular style] as opposed to nurturing creative expression and using music to, as Misty described it, give girls tools to make their own culture. Rock School is about carrying on a school of music that is already male. The culmination of the movie is kids playing-picture perfect renditions of a Frank Zappa song. Which is all OK. But I would have loved to see that 14-year-old guitarist write his own songs. Also the manner of Paul Green is like a football coach, yelling. The key thing is how he hammers away at the girl in the school about her musical tastes, the things she likes, all those other women musicians. That is exactly the opposite of what girls rock camp is doing… To me your film and those two seem like perfect bookends.

Johnson: They would make a good double-bill someday, if you brought a school full of boys and a school full of girls to watch it.

* The ‘I hate San Francisco’ song [“San Francisco sux”:] in your film cracked me up.*

King: When she was done singing it a cappella the first time she sang it for us, we said, ‘Do you know where we live? ‘ Arne said, ‘Well, San Francisco.’ She said, ‘Well I said ‘sometimes.’ though we couldn’t agree with her more. San Francisco does suck sometimes—though I don’t want to burn it all down!

Johnson: To me, this film became a tribute to music I fell in love with—Sleater-Kinney—because their music was so revolutionary. The first Sleater-Kinney show I ever went to, they went in and set up all their own equipment. The lights were dimmed. We were like, ‘Wait: Is that Sleater-Kinney? When the lights came on, they didn’t make an entrance. It had broken down the expectations already. All these young women were yelling, like they were friends. Over the course of the concert, I felt like this is the first concert I’ve ever been to where I’m as important as them. I’m not here to see them, we’re here to do something together. Everyone around was sweaty and happy. We weren’t celebrating Sleater-Kinney, we were there to celebrate music. It’s something I hadn’t experienced with male bands.
That’s what’s expressed at the camp. In some ways that’s what became interesting thematically, as men. Why would two boys want to make this film? As guys of this generation, we welcome a different way of thinking and feeling about things. I’m glad to be a part of this other culture. I feel there’s this side of our country and the world, there are these voices that are quiet. And when I hear them I’m excited. I don’t want these voices to be shut off anymore. It’s selfish in some ways. These girls are going to change my life.