Kathleen Hanna and Jill Reiter in In 'Search of Margo-Go'
The birth of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s saw an uprising of politically charged punk bands like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, and Bratmobile, who addressed issues like sexuality, domestic abuse, and female empowerment within a previously male-dominated scene with a DIY, fuck-you fashion. The movement largely took shape on the West Coast, exploding out of cities like Olympia and Seattle, but soon found its NYC incarnation, with burgeoning filmmaker Jill Reiter there to document it all.
Reiter made a name for herself with early films like Birthday Party and Frenzy, which made the rounds on the underground and queer film festival circuits in 1993. Her next project was to be In Search of Margo-Go, a vibrant, improv feature film starring herself and Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, complete with a cameo from Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
The film was never finished, and as such has become a lost riot grrrl gem—that is, until now. I recently had the honor of teaming up with filmmaker Kanchi Wichmann as well as ex-riot grrrl and journalist Val Phoenix to unearth what remains of Jill's film and to show it for the first time ever at this year's Fringe! Film Festival, alongside Abby Moser's Grrrl Love and Revolution and Michael Lucid's Dirty Girls.
I caught up with Jill ahead of the screening to talk about her memories of the time and her influences in filmmaking.
VICE: Hey, Jill. How did you become a filmmaker? What was your impetus?
Jill Reiter: It was definitely in the spirit of punk: just pick up an instrument or a camera and make a film without any real training. I was never really into video—more into the look of film. I was intrigued with that format, so I bought a little Super-8 camera at a flea market.
At first I was just documenting friends and bands, but then started making weird little queer films starring all of my friends. I took classes here and there at places like the Millennium Film workshop in NYC. I loved the indie/no-wave NYC filmmakers of the 70s and 80s and the new queer cinema of the early 90s. Isaac Julian'sYoung Soul Rebels,with its punk/soul/queer themes, was just fucking brilliant.
A scene from Frenzy
You're probably best known for your short film, Frenzy. Can you tell us about that?
Frenzy is a great time capsule of the people and energy happening in the NYC quee/rpunk/riot grrrl scene in the early 90s. It was supposed to be a funny take on the rock 'n' roll groupie phenomenon, turning the Rolling Stones' film Cocksucker Blues on its head, with women throwing bras and rushing the stage for other women and culminating in various seedy aftershow moments.
Everyone involved in the movie was in riot grrrl NYC at the time. The cinematography in the movie is largely by Alex Sichel, who had come to riot grrrl originally to research and write for her feature film All Over Me, but stayed and became a good friend and mentor of mine. Alex died this year of breast cancer, which is just absolutely terrible. She was a rarity in the film world—kind, non-competitive, and super encouraging.
The funniest screening of Frenzy was when a few of us in riot grrrl were invited to Princeton to show our films. The audience was so staid and retrograde, they literally couldn't handle what feels like a pretty mild film by today's standards. A woman came up to me after the film, spluttering, and said, "It was so… violent!" I think she was talking about a ridiculous throwaway scene I used for the credits, where a few of the cast members are fake sawing at a male mannequin where his genitals would be.
Oh, dear. How did the project In Search of Margo-Go come about?
Kathleen Hanna was visiting NYC and staying with me in my East Village sloping-floor, roach motel pad. I had met Kathleen in ‘92 at a Bikini Kill gig in NYC, and hung out with her that summer at the Riot Grrrl Convention in DC. We kept in touch via letters and she would crash with me sometimes when she passed through New York, which was fairly often.
We started talking and bonding about our new wave pasts, how it was this incredible lifeline to another world if you were isolated in a small town back in the 80s. Just for fun we decided to dress up "new romantic," take some photos, and go out dressed like that to see what reactions we would get.
I think one day we were talking about how weird it was that one of my iconic heroes, Margo-Go—the original bass player from the punk era Go-Go's (who started the band in 1978)—was living a few blocks from me in a legal squat. She got kicked out of the band because she wanted to stay more true to their roots and their original sound. She started to symbolize something for me, so the film really just started with that title.
Who else was involved in its making?
We had a large swath of people involved in the queer punk scene of the time cast in the movie as extras or helping in production. It started with Kathleen and me. Then I asked Iraya Robles (who had done a zine called Marks in Time: The Very Early Go-Go's 78-'80 with Eden Felt, and was in the queercore band Sta-Prest) to co-write the script with me. It became a San Francisco–NYC production and we shot on both coasts.
Kathleen and Jill in In Search of Margo-Go
Why did you decide to set the film in the 80s new wave scene, as opposed to the 90s riot grrrl here and now?
I had a strong attachment. I'm always grateful that I caught the tail end of NYC's golden era of nightlife, when 14-year-olds could get into Danceteria. Ann Magnuson, John Sex, Klaus Nomi—those people were hugely inspiring to me, and I was heartbroken that that era had ended.
I think the aesthetic, and the fact that the lead characters get stuck in the early 80s, was a desire for those of us working on the film to go back to a time we were really excited by. I was sick of how monochrome punk had become, I missed the fucking color of the late 70s/early 80s. The original, woefully undocumented punk scene of the West Coast was super weird, colorful, and arty.
There was also a crazy amount of androgynous genderfuckery happening in the new romantic scenes and new wave in general. Many queer people, women, and non-white people were heavily involved. When I was in high school and coming out as queer, there were all these brilliant new wave artists who were making these super anthemic queer manifesto albums, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Soft Cell, the Smiths, and Bronski Beat. Then things changed with the advent of hardcore punk, and that's more the milieu I grew up in—very macho with a regimented punk uniform and less playful.
What were your filmic influences?
I was massively influenced by the film Liquid Sky, which created its own completely stylized universe and musical world. I had seen it when it first opened in NYC in '83 as a teen, and it became my Rocky Horror Picture Show—watched and memorized. I loved the deadpan, droll delivery, and, of course, the insanely colorful fashion and airbrushed new wave makeup.
Many films of the same era—Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, Smithereens, Times Square—had women as writers or directors. We felt lucky that all these underground films, most of which hadn't had a major release in the US, had ended up being shown on late night TV when we were teens on a show called Night Flight), which also showed clips from bizarro West Coast bands on the LA show New Wave Theatre. We wanted to create a cult film for our generation, to document and leave something behind for the next set of weirdos to find.
What were your biggest challenges in making In Search of…?
Making it in a punk rock fashion, with many people with no film experience, seems a tad crazy in retrospect. A whole day was recorded on the Nagra sound recorder at the wrong speed—chipmunk voices! It was also stressful with a lot of women going through a carnival ride of mood swings. We had no money to pay anyone, and, eventually, just no money to finish what had started as a teeny Super-8 (then 16mm project), which was blown up into an underground feature film.
The film was never finished, but we're showing some of it now. What does that mean to you?
It's great that what was shot so long ago is resurrected after all this time. So many people helped on this film, and Kathleen was a total trooper through several long shoots and helped get some early funding to develop all the pricey 16mm. I'm glad that this is getting a special screening and also excited that some bits from the feature script that has languished for 20 years will get a night out! It's a time capsule of the queerpunk 90s, one that pays homage to the queer underground 80s.
Frenzy and In Search of Margo-Go will both show at Fringe! Film Fest in London on the November 8 as part of A Dyke in the Pit: A Day of Queer Grrrl Power.'The event will feature a Q&A with Jill Reiter and some of her contemporary riot grrrls, as well as live music from London three-piece Skinny Girl Diet.