The idea of two men directing a documentary about a summer camp for pre-teen girls might inevitably raise some red flags. But Arne Johnson and Shane King use their outsider status to craft an incredibly thoughtful and creative film about the Portland-based Rock'n'Roll Camp for Girls. The result, Girls Rock!, is a moving portrait of (to quote the luminous philosopher, Madonna) what it feels like for a girl, holding equal appeal for documentary film lovers, parents, fans of rock'n'roll and anyone who grew up as a weird kid in a town without pity.
Girls Rock! focuses on four girls attending the camp for the first time. Palace, a trash- talking eight-year-old; Laura, a teenage metalhead growing up in small town Missouri; Amelia, an heir apparent to Thurston Moore's loopy guitar experiments; and Misty, a world-weary foster care refugee who, at the tender age of 17, has escaped gang life and meth addiction. Over the course of one week campers create bands, learn instruments, write songs and then perform for a sold out crowd.
Because the concept of Rock'n'Roll camp grew out of a third wave feminist ethos, the campers are also taught basic media literacy, self-defense and how to communicate feelings of isolation or frustration that young people (especially girls) are often told to squelch.
I spoke to Arne Johnson before he headed off to the True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, MO. Girls Rock! opens in select cities March 7th.
Arne Johnson (left) and Shane King
You two have been working together since you were quite young, how many projects have you collaborated on over the years?
Well, in the movie realm, we did a super 8mm film together when we were kids. Then, in college we did an unfinished short called "Ned and Sherman". And then, as adults, about a decade ago I did some scriptwriting for various environmental video work shane was doing. We also formed a band called the Fishcats when we were 20. That lasted three whole practices.
Were you surprised by how much of the camp's focus is about giving young women the tools to communicate with each other and externalize their feelings in healthy ways?
We weren't surprised that this was a focus of the staff, because they let us know that in interviews. The surprise was how effective they were in helping the girls, and what an impact it made on their lives. A rock band is the perfect cauldron of feelings and creative expression to work these things out (and if people think it's just little girls, check out Some Kind of Monster!) Girls especially seem to have this idea that conflict is catastrophic, and the camp really works to help them believe that anything can be worked out.
How did you finance Girls Rock?
It's mostly self-financed. I cashed out my retirement and Shane took out a mortgage on his house. We received small (but very helpful!) grants from Bay Area Video Coalition and Film Arts Foundation, had fundraisers, and were given chunks of money by folks we know. But about 3/4 of the budget was our money.
How did you decide on the four girls who are the main subjects?
It was a multi-stage process, actually... First, we identified early on that we wanted to focus on girls who were going to the camp for the first time. We'd heard from many people that girls would often have powerful experiences their first times there, and so that was the first filter. Then we traveled all over the country and met about 25 girls before the camp to find out what they were going to camp for, what they were thinking about, and meet their families and such. We started seeing that this movie was going to be about more than a story of a fun rock camp, and started identifying recurrent themes in what the girls were telling us.
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