Tracy Flannigan Watches Tribe 8 "Rise Above"

Dennis Harvey July 10, 2006

Almost three years to the day after its premiere at the 2003 S.F. International LGBT Film Festival, Tracy Flannigan’s “Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary” is finally making its theatrical premiere San Francisco, home for the long-running (though now defunct) lesbian punk band it scrutinizes. Not that the feature has exactly been gathering dust, as it’s played just about every gay fest (and many non-gay-specific ones) extant in the interim.

And for good reason. As boisterously entertaining as the act at its center, “Rise Above” captures Tribe 8’s wave-making on and off the road, but particularly on stage-screamed ramalama ditties like “Femme Bitch Top” and “Castration Song #22” seldom fail to make an impression. Not to mention frontperson Lynn Breedlove’s notorious, hilarious (though discomfiting for some) nightly ritual of interacting with a chosen male audience member while wearing a strap-on dildo.

This is not exactly lesbian music scene of the “Sappho Was a Right On Woman” generation, with its sensitive folkie types like Holly Near and Cris Williamson. And indeed Tribe 8 — whose members in “Rise Above” freely admit their experiences with broken homes, drug use, racism, etc. made them eager to use music as a channel for emotions beyond Luv and Togetherness — was hugely controversial in the lesbian community, particularly early on. One of the most dramatic sequences in “Rise Above” finds them playing the storied Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival for the first time in 1993, delighting some while inciting outraged others to accuse them of promoting violence against women.

SF360 spoke to L.A. resident Flannigan in advance of “Rise Above’s” showing at the Red Vic Movie House and imminent DVD release.

SF360:What first drew you to this project?

Tracy Flannigan: I saw Tribe 8 onstage at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and had an instantaneous reaction that I must document this band. I saw Leslie, guitarist and Silas Flipper, guitarist, at the club after the show; they owned the room. I was a bit intimidated, but boldly approached Lynn Breedlove. I asked if anyone had ever documented her band. She said they’d been in a few docs, but none exclusively on Tribe 8.

Watching the band that night, there was a pure power exuding from them. It was a different kind of power that I hadn’t seen in woman performers before. They were bold, unapologetic, and so much damn fun. Their confidence was sexy and infectious. Not taking themselves too seriously was a real turn-on. How did they manage to make political statements with so much humor and fun? Their performance was the kind of thing that made you feel like there was something really happening in that moment. It was unpredictable. What would happen next? I wanted to capture that. I was impulsive and intuitive about making the film; and found myself on a red-eye to New York to shoot two months later.

SF360: The film packs in a lot of material and covers a long span of time — are there threads you had to leave out?

Flannigan: Yes! Tribe 8 has had various different members over time, and the time I focused on was sort of the middle years. I did include some archival footage that I got from Tribe 8, but most of it was on VHS dubbed from Hi-8 and kind of unusable for my purposes in the film.

I left out performances that I loved, but added some of those to the DVD extras uncut, because so many are interrupted by interviews in the film. It’s nice to let the performances play through.

There were scenes I was sad to leave out, like Lynn talking about going to charm school. It’s in the interview with Lynn’s mother. And her mother is talking about how she loved dressing Lynn up in bows and frilly dresses and how she thought Lynn had to learn how to walk like a lady. And Lynn is sitting next to her mother in all her butch glory. And her mom just says cynically “It never worked!” I loved this scene so much I put it on the DVD extras.

There were a lot of threads we left out. We had to make hard decisions in the editing room. There could have been a whole documentary about Leslie and Tantrum’s interviews on race issues. But at some point you have to pare things down to make a concise statement on the topics you’ve chosen. I tried to remember what we learned in film school: Don’t fall in love with your footage, and be ruthless with anything extraneous, no matter how much you love it.

SF360: What were some of the more difficult aspects in making the film?

Flannigan: I think the hardest part was the financial aspects and having to work in between to just keep going. But in many ways, it was such a wonderful adventure to pop into these different worlds, like the New York or LA punk scenes, or the Michigan Womyn’s Festival scene, or the queer SF scene, that it fueled me to keep going. The editing had its difficult moments. It was hard just buckling down for a year and staying focused sifting through just under a hundred hours of footage, making choices that would shape the film. And constantly trying to keep the technical quality of the film at a professional level. You have to work hard to do that on a low budget.

SF360: Has the film gotten any especially interesting receptions at different Festivals?

Flannigan: My favorite screening was in Seoul, Korea. Tribe 8 was so fresh for them. I was given food as gifts from people. I think they were just so hungry for queer role models on screen. I also got a lot of intense emotional reactions to the film there, similar to those Tribe 8 got when they first played at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. [Viewers] kept following me out of the theatre saying, “But why are they violent to women?” On the other hand, there were people there that wanted me to sign posters they had made of the film for queer women working in factories in the Philippines. It was touching that it meant that much to them.

I also have enjoyed how much straight audiences have gotten out of the film and the band. I think a lot of straight audiences enjoyed seeing a band like Tribe 8 on many levels. Someone told me the film has an uplifting message for any audience, be it gay, straight, trans.

SF360: The Red Vic gig is the first theatrical run for “Rise Above.” That’s taken a long time. Has it been difficult to get distribution deals or exposure outside festivals?

Flannigan: The festival circuit was an amazing success for “Rise Above.” It screened at over 50 festivals worldwide, including every continent. Distribution deals and exposure outside the festival circuit are always tricky, and particularly so for this film and its controversial subject matter. It has taken a while for this theatrical debut, but I think it is something that a lot of people want to see. It is a historical documentary now. It documents not only a seminal band, but an important time in queer and feminist history.

SF360: What’s the band up to now? Did the film have much impact on them?

Flannigan: I think there is some cross promotion that goes on between the band members’ new projects and the film. Someone will see the film, Google the members and find out about their new work. And vice versa, people find out about the film because of those new projects.

Although I didn’t want to say it, the band has broken up. But all the members continue to do great work. Lynn Breedlove is touring Europe and the US with a show called “One Freak Show.” This month she’s also co-directing a film adaptation of her novel “Godspeed.” Leslie Mah is a tattoo artist at Cold Steel in San Francisco and Diving Swallow Tattoo in Oakland. Silas Flipper Howard is attending graduate school and pursuing film projects. Her award-winning feature “By Hook or By Crook” is out on Wolfe Video. And she had another short at Sundance called “What I Love About Dying” which I think was at Frameline this year too. Slade lives in Los Angeles and continues her political activism working for Communities for a Better Environment. S/he plays with other L.A. rockers. Lynn “Tantrum” Payne returned to Toronto and now writes and plays music with several different Canadian acts.

SF360: One of the most interesting things in the movie is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the cultural gap between old-school and newer lesbian communities. Why was Tribe 8 such a shocker to them, and do you think there’s been more understanding evolving in the lesbian community toward such non.-PC expression since then?

Flannigan: Although I cannot function as a spokesperson for the lesbian community, it has been my experience that a lot of people who originally had problems with Tribe 8 came around fairly quickly. They were able to see the metaphors in the performances, and that Tribe 8 was not promoting violence but commenting on it. Tribe 8 was a shocker and continues to be a shocker, as new people see the film. They like to push buttons, turn things upside down, and mess with people’s preconceptions, whether about gender, power, or sexuality.

One of the things I’ve found interesting about Lynn making a straight guy suck on her dildo is that it depends on what sexual perspective you come from. It has one meaning in the queer world and another in the straight world. It gets one reaction from gay men; and another from straight men. One reaction from gay women and another from straight women. As Lynne says, it’s a man and a woman doing the mock sex act together; so it’s heterosexual, right? Straight men can feel victimized in a way by watching the acting-out of the blow job. It’s a way straight men rarely feel in relation to images in the media — usually women are in that role. So, I think it’s a nice role reversal to make people think. Of course there is a sexual component to watching it too. But mostly it’s just funny and something you can’t describe and maybe shouldn’t analyze to0 deeply.

SF360: What projects are you involved with now?

Flannigan: My next film is about the immigrants that stand outside stores like Home Depot looking for work as day laborers. They are impoverished people on the edges of society, kind of hidden and forgotten. But they are totally part of our economy, which is why they are finally getting the attention in Congress. They have really strong personal stories that deserve to be heard, so I look forward to bringing forth those stories.

“Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary” plays Wed/12-Sat/15 at the Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., SF. Shows are nightly at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m., plus Wed. 2 p.m. and Sat. 2 and 4 p.m. Tribe 8 members will appear at the 7 pm Saturday evening shows. $4-$8. (415) 668-3994.