ARNE JOHNSON AND SHANE KING have been making movies together since they were bell-bottom-clad Portland teenagers in the 1970s. While Portland is the location of their first feature-length documentary, there are no teenage boys in sight. Girls Rock!, which opens this month, explores the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls, where for the past seven years young women have been taught that it’s okay to scream, sweat, try new things, fumble, and, above all else, make loud music.
The film spotlights four campers: a Korean adoptee from Oklahoma obsessed with death metal; a 17-year-old emerging from meth addiction and homelessness; a near-friendless misfit dedicated to writing a 14-song cycle of experimental noise about her dog Pippi; and an eight-year-old who seems wise beyond her years—until she’s implicated in a biting incident. Campers have one week to learn an instrument, form a band, and write a song to play to a crowd of hundreds. They are taught by such Northwest rock luminaries as Sleater-Kinney guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein and Beth Ditto, lead vocalist of the Gossip.
How is it that two guys were inspired to make a documentary about a confidence-building camp for girls? “Growing up, Shane and I didn’t fit typical gender roles,” Johnson explains. “We weren’t jocks, we were just dorks.” Both raised by single moms, they are men who care about what happens to women “not just because of fairness and equality, but also because life is richer when their voices are heard.”
They involved women in the filmmaking process as much as possible to counteract the male domination of the movie business (which, as Johnson points out, is “almost as bad as rock”) and because they wanted women’s perspectives to help tell the story. They hired women camera operators, animators, and editing consultants. Johnson and King also spent months letting the campers and their families become comfortable around them to minimize their intrusion on a girls-only environment.
Even so, during interviews the girls would sometimes shrug shyly and say, “You know…” But Johnson and King didn’t know, and soon realized their cluelessness could be a way into the film. “The girls were like tour guides,” says Johnson. “Because we were foreigners in some ways to their experience, they got to explain to us—and to the rest of the world—how they’re feeling.” King says the girls came “up to the edge of the expectations of their gender and leaped through so courageously. They didn’t care what we thought about them—and you realize how rare that is.” Both men were transformed by the experience. “I can’t say I have the courage of any of the 12-year-old girls I know,” King reflects, “but I try.”