Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Film: Radical Act Directed by Tex Clark

Written by Lisa Bensing
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At fifty-five minutes long, Radical Act is more a collection of interview footage than a comprehensive documentary of a musical movement. Director Tex Clark shot the film in 1995, a time when the number of women in the music industry was reaching new heights, and the riot grrrl movement was becoming a more widespread concept.

 

 


At fifty-five minutes long, Radical Act is more a collection of interview footage than a comprehensive documentary of a musical movement. Director Tex Clark shot the film in 1995, a time when the number of women in the music industry was reaching new heights, and the riot grrrl movement was becoming a more widespread concept.

Unfortunately, the footage lacks the cohesion of either historical narrative or context. For the uninitiated, this would not be the ideal place to learn about women in the '90s indie rock scene, and thus the film’s restrictive form follows its function as an artifact meant for a small, select audience. But luckily for that limited audience, the footage offers a rare glimpse into the life, work, and inspiration of many independent woman artists and writers that became the inspiration for many female musicians in the fifteen years since its release.

About ten minutes into the film, author Vicky Starr declares, “Anytime a woman picks up a [musical instrument], it’s a radical act.” There we have our title, which suggests the film’s purpose—to depict women who have played rock music whilst defying political, social, and gender correctness. The women in the film discuss their influences, the first time they picked up a guitar (or bass or drum sticks or mic), gender biases, lesbian vs. straight music, activism, and the music business. As Jawbox’s Kim Coletta announces, “You make a political statement just by being a woman in a band."

Among the interview subjects, the most relevant today is by far Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill, Julie Ruin, and Le Tigre), and she will likely be the only reason most fans pick up this film. Alongside Hanna are Kim Coletta, Toshi Reagon, Gretchen Phillips, and Team Dresch’s Melissa York. All of the women interviewed echo the same message: it’s essential for women to support one another, challenge stereotypes, and continue making music in the mostly male-dominated world of rock.

In 1995, I was in ninth grade and listening to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. I wish, however, that I had also seen this film. Better yet, I wish I had known some of these women. Their message of female empowerment may have given me that final push to assert myself and start my own band.

As a product of its time, the film was only released on VHS and did not have the advantage of reaching an Internet audience. It has the grainy, unprofessional look of a home video, a DIY effort transparent with love and support for its subjects. Re-released in 2010, it is now available on DVD and YouTube, and hopefully a newer, younger audience of girls will discover, and find within it, inspiration.

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