In the mid 1980’s Seattle was bursting with pride when several independent rock bands that created a musical hybrid that incorporated rock, heavy metal, hardcore and punk gained national and international attention. Grunge music and its accompanying culture coincided with the emergence of third-wave feminism and Seattle bands featured the work of a number of strong women musicians and artists.
One of the women who rose to prominence in this era was Mia Zapata, the fearless vocalist for The Gits, a punk rock band originally from Ohio that relocated to Seattle to capitalize on the grunge scene. In 1993, Zapata was brutally raped and murdered while walking home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, leading to a public outcry within the West Coast musical community. Her friends, some who had experienced sexual assault themselves, decided to create Home Alive, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternative methods for women to protect themselves within the community.
As students at the University of Washington, Rozz Therrien and Leah Michaels were inspired by how Home Alive had made an impact in Seattle and were determined to make sure that the next generation knew about this unique collection of women. While neither had any formal training in film, their DIY ethos led to the release of this year’s Rock, Rage & Self Defense: An Oral History of Seattle's Home Alive. Fresh off the film’s premiere at the Musicians for the Equal Opportunities for Women (MEOW) Conference in Austin, Texas, Bitch recently sat down with the filmmakers to chat about how their film came about.
Photo: Filmmakers Rozz Therrien and Leah Michaels look over piles of documents.
LAINA DAWES: How did the film come about?
LEAH MICHAELS: The story actually found us. We did not have any background in filmmaking or documentary filmmaking. We were in a class together called “Making Scenes, Building Communities: Girls and Boys Play Indie-Rock.” Part of that class was building oral histories. We were assigned to different groups within the class, but both groups were assigned a founding member of Home Alive. Roz’s group was assigned Cristien Storm and my group was assigned to Zoe Abigail Bermet. When we were trying to research to conduct these interviews, we couldn’t find any serious background information on Home Alive, other than the basics of why it was founded in the aftermath of Mia’s murder.
ROZZ THERRIEN: Even then it wasn’t super clear. It was just “this woman was murdered and some of her friends got together.” There was no sense on how the community responded outside of her friends, and how it felt during that time. This is what we got when we did when we got a general Google search and through Wikipedia. There was nothing about the theory or how they approached self-defense.
MICHAELS: There was no real information out there so when we had these interviews, both women were incredibly amazing and honest in their personal histories and about Home Alive. I think that both of us were both shocked and inspired and also a bit confused as to how we both didn’t know about it. We were like, “How is this not a huge thing? How did people not really know about this at all?” I was one of those people who was into the “grunge scene” in Seattle and knew about the underground, and bands that never really made it. We found that it was really weird, like there was this lack of history talked about that no one of our generation knew about.
THERRIEN: The two of us talked about these interviews, how amazing these women were, and how they changed our lives in a way, and then we wondered what was going to happen with these interviews. When we were talking to our professors, they were like, “Oh they are just going to go into the archives so someone can use them later if they want to do a project with them. “ And we were like, “So these interviews are just going to be sitting in archives? We want to do something with them now. We want to make a documentary about Home Alive. “ And that’s how it happened.
Why do you think there wasn’t very much information on Mia or Home Alive before?
THERRIEN: In hindsight, I think that we were able to find articles on Mia’s murder in [local papers] the Seattle PI and The Stranger, but the real issue was that we couldn’t find any details on the organization. It’s mainly because technology has changed so drastically in the past 20 years, so a lot of these concerts and benefits that they put on were just posted on flyers all over the city and newsletters. No one had gone through the time to upload that. In the process, we realized that that’s why there was nothing posted online, in addition to that the organization had changed hands a few times with people coming and going.
What we have started to do with nine of the co-founders is to go through all these boxes of history and scan them in to archive them so when someone does the search they can actually fine the literature of the newsletters and zines that were written by community members about Home Alive. All of the literature was done on paper and has not been scanned in yet. When people see the film and want to know more, the Home Alive website is updated and if they want more in-depth material like pictures or posters, they can now access that information now via the Internet.
MICHAELS: The way that Home Alive got the word out through their community was by making posters, zines and newsletters, and then when they did that CD [1996’s Home Alive: the Art of Self Defense, a 44-track compilation from various artists] they got some not only national but international attention, and then they received letters and artwork from all over the world. The CD almost acted like the Internet in an artistic way that really could touch people. That’s how people found out more about Home Alive and what they were doing, as that CD could be purchased globally.
One of the interviewees said that there was a misperception about what “self-defense” constituted. That there was this fear that people might misconstrue self-defense as simply teaching women to beat someone up?
MICHAELS: When the founders originally got together for meetings and eventually decided what they were going to do with self-defense classes, Storm and Jessica Lawless (both who elaborate on this in the film) asked the question: what does self-defense mean? And not only what does self-defense mean but what do we want it to mean? One of the things they noticed and something is that most courses are geared towards stranger violence and also on a victim-blaming framework. And they thought that it didn’t make much sense when they knew that most of the violence that happens—as it happened to many of the founders—is from people that they knew. And they were like, “Telling me not to walk home in the certain neighborhood is ridiculous because I live in that neighborhood.” It’s kind of this weird idea that violence is only going to happen to a woman when she’s walking down a street, alone late at night, and then its her fault because she decided that she was going to walk down the street late at night by herself.
Part of their curriculum had to do with physical self-defense but it was also about reimagining self-defense as a whole thing, such as verbal boundary setting, which is like saying “no” when you feel uncomfortable about a situation. Or like finding escape route techniques, or really believing in yourself and your intuition, like, “I don’t feel safe in this situation; I’m just going to leave. I don’t need to explain or to rationalize why I’m feeling uncomfortable.”
One other thing that they wanted to emphasize in the film, and one of the founders, Zoe Bermet, elaborates on this in the film is that anything you can do to feel good about yourself and feel strong about yourself is going to make you feel safer. Some of the examples she gives are like writing in your journal, or going to a therapist, or talking to friends or taking a bath or exercising—anything you do to feel strong and to feel like you are taking care of yourself, is going to make you safer.
THERRIEN: In all of our interviews we asked, “What was their takeaway message?” More or less in different words, it was, “You are worth defending.” You had better do what you can to keep yourself safe, and safety means taking care of yourself and valuing yourself, as Leah was saying. The key word is ‘defending’ not that you are going out to look for a fight.
Home Alive was deactivated in 2010. What did that mean?
THERRIEN: They relinquished their nonprofit status, which is to say that for the people working there at the time the nonprofit structure wasn’t sustainable at that time. That model just didn’t work for them. When we were working on this project, we kept on hearing, “Oh, it’s deactivated,” and we weren’t sure what was going on, which was another catalyst in wanting to do this documentary. We found out that they decided to do away with the formalized, government structure of what was a nonprofit. While they don’t have a space, they do have a website in which they put up all their curriculum and they still have instructors that are available to contact. The structure is different now. It’s more grassroots, more volunteer-based and run like it was originally.
What were the positives and negatives of not having a technical background in filmmaking?
THERRIEN: What we say to each other is that we are so happy that we were naïve about working on a film project because we didn’t know anything about technical issues and we didn’t realize the true amount of time it would take us to make it. So when we approached the film, we used the tools that we had .We had written so many papers in college, so we looked at it like we were writing one really big paper using these first-hand accounts.
MICHAELS: Technical skills can be taught. We taught ourselves to edit and how to use a camera. Home Alive taught themselves to teach self-defense classes and we taught ourselves how to make a documentary.
THERRIEN: From another perspective, our film might not be a visually beautiful as some other documentaries and we were a bit self conscious of that at first, but as we got into it, us teaching ourselves and learning as we went along was true to the nature of Home Alive, which inspired us. So we can say? This is us learning, doing what we can, using the tools that we have and it tells a more honest story, in our perspective, as the organization was about women banding together and teaching themselves.
So while the film is in the can, you are still in need of some financial assistance. What are some of the ‘hidden costs’ in putting together an indie film?
MICHAELS: The funds will assist us in covering legal fees to pay for photo, music and film permissions and to cover the cost of film festival submissions and travel.
THERRIEN: We fundraised about $10,000 to make this film and a large position of that went to our professional sound editor. We have completed the film on a shoestring budget, but we are requesting funds now just to keep this process going forward and to continue on this journey. Our main thing is that we want as many people to see this film as possible.
Watch the trailer for Rock, Rage, and Self-Defense:
Photo of Home Alive sign is via The Stranger. Photo of the filmmakers is by Melissa McDiarmid.