The Reeler


March 5, 2008

Girls Will Rock

Reeler Interview: Doc makers Johnson and King on their journey at the Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls

"Never underestimate the power of volume": A scene from Girls Rock!, opening Friday in New York (Photo: Nicole Weingart/Shadow Distribution)

For some men, the idea of spending a week at a summer camp with a group of young girls -- all discovering their inner rock stars through clamorous self-expression -- would be a nightmare of riot grrl proportions. But for documentary filmmakers Shane King and Arne Johnson, such circumstances would prove to be the ideal setting for the exploration of American girlhood. Their resulting documentary Girls Rock! (opening Friday in New York) follows four subjects through Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls, a week-long summer retreat at which girls learn an instrument, form bands and, at the end of their week, put on a show. There’s Laura, an adopted Korean teenager into death metal; Misty, a former gang member and drug addict recently released from 10 months in a lockdown facility; and Amelia and Palace, two unique 8-year-olds who rock harder than most women three times their age.

But like the camp itself, King and Johnson were interested in more than just music; they use a do-it-yourself, rock 'n' roll ethos to examine the pressures and challenges that girls face growing up in today’s society. The Reeler caught up with the filmmakers last week during a round of press for Girls Rock!, where they spoke about the positive effects rock 'n' roll can have on girls and how spending a week with a group of rockin' girls made them better men.

THE REELER: Were you concerned about being the only men at the camp?

ARNE JOHNSON: They were really weary about us actually being media people more than being men. So, we weren't really conscious of it, and also we didn't realize, even though we knew it was an all girl's camp and all taught by women, how much the camp dealt with issues of girlhood. I think if there was any sense of concern it grew over time. We kept discovering things about the camp as we went, and then there was some sort of point when we were thinking to ourselves "is this going to be too hard, or strange, for us to do?" But, by that point the story had become so compelling to us, so instead of figuring out a way to get out of it, we started trying to figure out why, as guys, this story is very emotionally potent to us. And then that became the justification for doing the film--we felt connected to the material.

In fact, as time went on, we felt like it became this strength because when we asked the girls questions about their lives, we sensed this dynamic of them feeling like we were tourists and they were our tour guides; there was this excitement about having to explain everything to us. They'd say, "you know how it is when girls say something like that to you." And we'd have to keep saying, "well no, actually, we don't know, can you explain it to us?" They kind of adopted us, like we were these dorky kids who they'd have to show all this obvious stuff to, and I think that ended up becoming a real good energy for the film.

R: Would you say being men opened more doors?

AJ: It was just a different energy. I think in some ways a woman would be able to go deeper about stuff that maybe we were [too] awkward to ask about. It was just that things were more fully explained in a way that other men would be receptive to because they had to explain it to us, and so other people can hear these things more clearly and out in the open.

R: Were you concerned with the effect you'd have on the girls, not necessarily as men, but as filmmakers?

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SHANE KING: We were definitely very conscious of the power dynamics between kids and adults, and men and women. We really wanted to be very careful not to ruin any girls' experience. As much as we wanted to make a fantastic movie, it wasn't worth ruining one of the girls' weeks. We thought and talked about it among ourselves, and we also talked with the camp about certain situations that they wouldn't want filmed or maybe [would want] filmed by a woman.

R: Do the rock 'n' roll principles the camp teaches transcend the music?

Definitely. I mean, it's hard to separate [the music] from the principles of rock, as far as the activity or emotional effect it has on the girls. But, one of the founders of the camp, Missy McElroy, said, "what we're trying to do is give the girls tools to build their own youth culture, so they know they don't have to take what everyone else gives them, and music is a rallying point around which that happens." And so the camp is really about using rock 'n' roll -- and the ethos of rock 'n' roll -- to powerfully address what a lot of girls in our culture feel, which is that they have to do things perfectly. There's a certain status they have to have, and rock 'n' roll plows right through all of that. And so for the girls to embrace the music -- as well as the principles of rock 'n' roll -- is a real explosive thing for the girls there. So much of what a girl feels in this culture is that they're supposed to be quiet. Carrie Brownstein says at one point in the film, "You can never underestimate the power of volume." A lot of times that's what it takes for these girls.

R: What were the girls looking to gain from the camp?

(L-R) Girls Rock co-directors Arne Johnson and Shane King

AJ: From the interviews we did, it seemed that there were two major threads of interest in the camp. One was a real obvious knowledge of what it was there for. Some of the girls knew they lived in small towns and no one was like them. They were uncomfortable with their bodies, and they couldn't find anyone to form a band with them, so they were going there as salvation, almost. They were aware of the processes of the camp and were looking for that sort of transformation or connection. And there was another group of girls who were just really interested in the music -- they came to camp to learn to play -- and the other stuff came to them as a welcome surprise.

R: You spend a lot of time showing conflicts among the girls. Why was that important to you?

SK: With girls, conflict is... different. Really. A girl can step out of line once and be ostracized from her group of friends for the next five years or something. Learning about that from the women in the camp became a very important thing for us to show. That's a really important part of what the camp does -- teach girls how to resolve conflict.

AJ: A lot of what drove us was the interview with Jennifer, a camp mother, when she was saying, "This camp teaches girls how to treat other girls." That, to her, was one of the most important [reasons] why she sent her daughter there. Her daughter got picked on a lot at school, and for her to send [her daughter] to a place where she could learn that conflict could be resolved meant a lot to her. Seeing how much that touched her, we realized it was very potent and isn't just a normal thing for a bunch of girls. And it's a universal lesson that we can all learn from, too.

R: What did you guys get out of the experience?

SK: It's weird -- there are all these little girls who are my heroes now. I mean, I'm a guy: I ride a motorcycle, I have a big mustache and have guns, but now I'm much more likely to tell people that a movie made me tear up, which a couple years ago, I probably wouldn't have.

AJ: He cries all the time now.

SK: And I'm willing to own that.

AJ: Both Shane and I grew up in these feminist families -- strong single mothers and political families -- and we had this kind of feeling like, "Oh, sexism sucks, and there's this enemy out there who is against women." What was a huge revelation for me was [seeing] how much of this culture we participate in -- how many of the things we think are nice -- is affecting people, especially kids, in a really powerful way. Girls absorb stuff and bring it into themselves; they don't just listen and decide things. I became really conscious of this with my niece. If you say to a girl who is growing up, "You're so pretty, that's such a nice dress, you're such a nice person," then those are the things she's going to aspire to. On the outside she's seeing all these messages: "You're not pretty enough, you're not perfect enough..." The tension is just a horrible thing; it affects these girls on a really deep level. There have been many times where I've caught myself saying something or been surrounded by guys saying some off-color thing and not being able to stand it anymore. I'm looking, in my mind, at a 12-year-old girl, and I can't tolerate it any more. That's what I hope happens with the film.

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