Interview: Girls Rock Directors Arne Johnson and Shane King

Girls Rock, a documentary about girls finding their voices at a rock 'n' roll camp in Portland, hits theaters today. I'll give you my thoughts on the empowering film a little later, but first, I wanted to share part of my conversation with the directors, Arne Johnson and Shane King.


Johnson and King have been friends since age 11, when they met at an alternative school in Portland and started hatching crazy plans for various endeavors like staging Woody Allen plays. Johnson grew up to be a journalist focusing on film, while King got involved with film production and editing. A couple of decades after they first started talking about making a movie, they realized they actually could.

Johnson, a fan of Sleater-Kinney, first heard about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls when guitarist and camp mentor Carrie Brownstein cited it as proof that rock wasn't dead. That set him and King on their quest to find out what happened to girls during that week of rocking out with guitars in Portland — but the answers weren't quite what they expected. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

What did you think you were going to find when you went to the camp? What did you find?
SK: "It just seemed like it was going to be this rocket ship, this place where these cute little girls go in and they get guitars and they rock out and they come out these little badass rock stars. And then slowly what unfolded is that for so many of them, it's much more of a life raft than a rocket ship. It's just a sanctuary for them from this pretty poisonous culture that we're all implicitly cooperating in and creating for the girls around us."

AJ: "We were just surprised by the depth of what these girls were feeling and what the music meant to them. We always knew music was going to mean something to them, because otherwise why would they have a camp? What we didn't understand was what rock and roll specifically, and the loudness, meant to girls who were told not to be loud all the time, girls who had had this experience of growing up and feeling silenced and people saying be quiet and be cute and all that kind of stuff — but nobody ever said, 'Hit this drum as loud as you can. Scream into this microphone.'"

More from Johnson and King, so just read more.

How did you find the girls you focused on? Why did you choose them?
SK: "You may have noticed that we're both men. As it became clear what the move was about, we found ourselves at a distinct disadvantage in making this film. We actually did question whether we should make it . . . We found out that the first summer that a girl goes to the camp was a very pivotal experience in a lot of these girls' lives. Then we just flew across the country to meet as many of them as we could and find out, what is it to be a girl? We didn't know."

AJ: "So after interviewing all these girls and kind of getting educated about what was important about the camp, we started to understand what the central issues were going to be and what stories we needed to look for at the camp. After we came back, we picked maybe 10 girls who spoke to the issues that all the 25 had said. . . . After doing that, we had a little panel of women that we knew around town, filmmakers and friends and aunts and stuff like that, about 10 women, and showed them profiles we had put together on each of these girls and watched it with them and asked for their responses — 'Do you relate to these girls? Does this speak to something that meant something do you?' They really helped us define what we were looking for."


What was it like for you being at the camp, as guys, with this really intense girl experience going on?
AJ: "They have to perform in front of 700 people in five days, and we're sort of the least of their worries. . . . As far as us being affected by seeing these things, I had several occasions where I was overwhelmed emotionally by what was going on. . . . Sometimes when girls were being mean to each other, it was as so hard to not get in there and just be like, 'Why are you saying that to her? Let's work this out!' The women there were so much better at that than we ever could have been. We had to take cry breaks — like when Laura says that she hates herself, I was just like, 'How can she say that? Everybody here thinks she's fantastic!'"

There are several interludes with statistics about modern girlhood. Why did you include those?
SK: "As we got closer to the camp time and the ideas that we knew we were going to be talking about were gelling in our minds, we knew there was a character in the movie that wasn't in camp and the whole point of the camp is keeping this character out — which is the whole pressure of society on girls to be a particular way. . . . If we're making a movie about the conflict between who the girls really are and what society's telling the girls to be, how are we going to represent that other character?"

AJ: "We came to this not knowing this stuff, and we're liberal guys with feminist parents. So if we don't know that that's what the girls are fighting against, we can't assume that everybody watching the movie knows these statistics, knows that girls feel this way and that their culture looks this way. That's where the thing about us being guys making this film comes into play. It became a strength: This is a dynamic between us and this issue and we want to share that with the world."

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