The recent spate of riot grrrl-inspired revivalism (Sara Marcus’s Girls To The Front, The Kathleen Hanna Project, Russia’s Pussy Riot) has inspired timely dialogues debunking the myth that riot grrrl, like punk, was (is) a prejudice-free subculture, something Oden’s subjects speak on with authority. Since making ‘From The Back Of The Room’, Oden has earned an MA in gender and the media and currently works as a freelance producer / director / editor in the D.C. area. Charlotte Richardson Andrews caught up with her to discuss the film, and her plans for the future.
How long have you been making documentaries, and what drew you to the medium?
I’ve been working in video since I was in high school. It’s hard to say what drew me to the medium except that I think I recognised the power of visual media at an early age.
Are you a self-taught filmmaker?
Not really. I was fortunate enough to have a video department at my high school, and my BA is actually in broadcast journalism. I’m only now starting to delve a bit more into my creative side when I film. I’m pretty straightforward that way.
Were there any female filmmakers who inspired you at the time?
There weren’t any, really. Penelope Spheeris is pretty awesome, and I like Herzog even though he’s very stylised. I was more influenced by media literacy scholars and feminists, such as Jean Kilbourne and her contemporaries. Their sentiments drove home the idea that media was political for me.
How did you get into punk and what was it about punk that resonated for you, on a personal/political level?
I didn’t get involved with punk for the politics; that came later for me. Like many folks, I was drawn to the aesthetic of punk because I was pissed at a lot of things when I was a kid.
When did you first become aware of sexism (as well as racism, homophobia and class issues) in punk?
In my late teens/early 20s I started really applying the ideas I’d been reading about to my own life. I knew sexism existed, but I always felt that it was a mainstream problem until then.
Have you ever been in a band?
Yes. I have sung for two bands from D.C. – one called Starve, and an all-girl band called Hot Mess. Currently I’m playing with some folks on a metal-crust project.
How has your work and background in D.C. impacted you and your perspective on punk, and how do you frame your work in relation to the city’s punk lineage?
I think D.C. punk is both a very political thing and a thing that is interested in archiving itself. I view my work as stemming out of both of those concepts, definitely.
How did the idea for ‘From The Back Of The Room’ come about?
It was something I’d thought about, but the co-producer [Brian Kruglak] approached me because he’d heard that I was a girl around town that filmed stuff and he wanted to do the project. I figured it was better to work with someone else than alone, so we started together in August of 2007 after having our first meeting at a coffee shop on 14th Street, where we generated a “dream team” list of women we wanted to interview.
How did you fund it, and how long did it take from start to completion?
We raised all the money for the film by doing a series of DIY events in the D.C. area. We booked shows, film screenings, local business raffles, and it was really an exercise in upping our organisation skills. It took about two years to raise all the money, and three (overlapping) years to make the film. So four years in total.
As a young(ish) feminist growing up in a post-riot grrrl world, hearing critical dialogues of riot grrrl was vital in terms of evolving my own activism and understanding punk feminism herstory. I’d been sucked into what I now see as this dominant trend of framing riot grrrl as a golden age of feminist utopia. Things like Adam Rathe’s oral history of queercore and films like ‘From The Back Of The Room’ helped me to critique that scene in order to better assess my own present-day feminist activism, and to acknowledge riot grrrl’s failings as much as its triumphs. I’m interested in how riot grrrl (and its legend) unwittingly usurped and silenced queercore and other DIY punk feminist scenes. Was this aspect of the film important to you?
Yes, absolutely. I think in punk, but also in feminist academia, there tends to be this riot grrrl decontextualisation and worship. I love riot grrrl and I think some of the fundamental principles of it still hold weight, but I think it’s important to understand that it had precursors, and that women are still doing amazing work today.
Did your plan for the film change at all during the filming process, i.e. were there any unexpected turns, revelations or shifts of consciousness as you met and talked with the women you featured, or did all the dialogues affirm the message that you’d anticipated for the film?
I’ve heard from documentarians that their projects often shift and develop as they’re working – this one was no different, I suppose. It’s like any research project. You have an idea (or two) and then develop your argument around that idea.
You travelled around the US and Canada to do the interviews, and managed to cover a lot of smaller scenes in places people don’t always thing of as being on the punk map (Missouri, for example). How did you choose where to go and who to talk to?
I really just planned around people I knew I wanted to interview – simple as that!
Was there anyone you’d like to have talked to but didn’t manage to hook up with?
Amy [Miret] from Nausea is the big one that I really wanted but couldn’t get.
Was there any one moment, on or off camera, that stood out for you personally?
The anecdotes that I got to hear were great, and I’m sad that a lot of them didn’t make it into the film.
What was the most rewarding part of the filmmaking process for you?
Getting to meet and have conversations with interesting folks is always the best for me. I think this film really endowed me with a sense of my own history, which was a really amazing journey to go on.
What makes your work difficult?
The fact that in the United States we don’t value the arts enough. It’s very hard for filmmakers to get money to fund their work, and it’s really hard to feel like it’s worth it when people want to (for instance) screen it for free, or something like that.
What makes your work rewarding?
Talking to people that have gotten something out of it; that feels really great, honestly. When someone takes you and your work seriously, that’s always nice.
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps with filmmaking and activism?
I’d tell them to stick through the projects they start. A lot of films get abandoned at various stages; I know so many people who get freelance work on projects, and then don’t wind up being able to put the credit on their reel because it doesn’t exist. Finishing the film was the hardest part, that’s for sure, so I’d tell them to keep moving, no matter what.
Tell us about MHz Networks, and what your job there involved.
I worked there for seven years, and produced a lot of short-form documentary content for them. The station is a non-profit, with a mission involving bringing multicultural content to American audiences. I started really viewing the work I was doing as an empowerment project while I was there. I think there’s a tangible service being done by stations like this for immigrant populations, at least in the D.C. area, and it’s really important for people to feel like they’re visible in the media, and not erased from society. I liked the work I did there very much. I left in 2011 when the station laid off about a third of its work force, and have been focused on my thesis and degree for the last year.
We’ve heard that a relocation from D.C. may be on the cards for you.
I’m not in a position to make anyone any promises about where I’m going to be in a few months. I’d like to leave D.C. if at all possible, because I believe it’s time for me to switch locations in order to keep growing. Change is healthy, and I’ve been thinking about going somewhere else after graduation for a long time.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
I’m working on two new projects right now. The first is called ‘Opting Out’ and it’s about the recession and gender roles, specifically the broadening of our ideas about masculinity in a time of economic crisis. The second is called ‘Exotic’ and is about the commercial sex industry in Guam; how it relies on migration, how it’s developed in a way that places it squarely between America and Asia. It’s a very wild place! I spent a month filming in strip clubs and massage parlours there, and I’m trying to go back at some point to keep working on it.