Friday, March 13, 2015

DVD Documentary Review: Positive Force: More than a Witness

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Positive Force: More Than a Witness – 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action
Directed by Robin Bell
We Are Family DC
69 minutes, 2014

As with any other kind of music, there are not only different styles of punk, but reasons for existence. Everyone knows the populist cars, girls, surfin’, beer attitude that was especially prevalent in the First Wave, the anarchy in the [fill in the blank] anti-politics of Second Wave and the anything goes of the Third Wave [quick nod here to Jersey fanzine publisher Paul Decolator, RIP, 2002] hardcore scene.

However, in each one of these, there was also an undercurrent of political activism that did not get as much mass media attention, as the mainstream focused on the anti- rather than the pro-. Remember Joy Ryder (d. 2015)/Avis Davis Band in the 1980 film No Nukes? Probably not, as the film focused more on the big money makers like Springsteen and Carly Simon/James Taylor.

There were other bands from around the world whose focus was political, such as Crass, D.O.A., the Dead Kennedys (to some extent), and just about anything associated with Ian MacKaye.  Though the one person who is the thread that runs through everything is Mark Anderson, who helped found the organization, and is still it’s voice and face after all these years.

Positive Force is a Washington DC-based punk activist collective (there’s a word to make the Republicans shiver under the covers) initiated in 1985 as a reaction to Ronnie Reagan’s (and others’) destructive pattern of 1% government that would continue until this day as the Re-PIG-licans (a term used by Long Island, NY activist and punk rocker Jimi LaLumia) take over both of the US’s Houses after years of obstructionism and blaming.   But I digress…

Early on, this documentary shows its hand by quoting Karl Marx. No, no, no, I’m not saying I’m pro- or anti-Communism, as I believe that most forms of government have positive and negative aspects depending on the actions of the leaders and/or number of constituents involved. For Positive Force, being a relatively small organization with big ambitions and ideals, communal-think is beneficial for them. Along with other DC organizations and bands, they produced a large amount of material that questioned the government, took action against poverty and animal cruelty, and made awareness of world issues more prevalent.

As for this documentary, there are a lot of big names giving talking heads testimony, including among many, MacKaye (Minor Threat / Fugazi), Henry Rollins (Dead Kennedys), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), the ubiquitous Dave Grohl (Scream / Nirvana / Foo Fighters), Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines), and members of other bands including 7 Seconds. Lots of topics are covered, such as (listed on the DVD cover): “homelessness, hunger, racism, corporate globalization, sexism, homophobia, war, gentrification, ageing, and animal / earth liberation.”  The problem with this kind of thing is that left-leaning (which includes me) activists tend to be, well, kinda boring. 

The reason for this is the same / flip problem with Middle American conservatism: seeing issues through “isms” and code words (my friend and punker Tony SQNS would call this PC), or slogans. “1-2-3-4 / “We don’t want [pick a topic] any more” is all well and good – and necessary – but it becomes underwhelming in its simplicity. The earnestness of those involved here makes their causes almost a religion. For example, those of us old enough remember when Ian MacKaye’s Strait-Edge became a synergic thing unto itself that had followers demeaning those who have the odd and rare drinks (like me) as if they were raging alcoholics (e.g., I once wrote a blog about this called “On Being Straight-Edge, Kinda Sorta,” and the response I received was as follows [errors included]: these is only one level to straight edge. you are or you arnt. no gray area. I think its cool that you arnt a junky, but you arnt straight edge. These is no closes with straight edge. If you are close to being completely sober, why not take it to the next step and commit?). The point is the zealousness of activism can both raise awareness and bully it closed.

I admire people who can find a focus that is important enough to them to give themselves to it. There is someone close to FFanzeen who works with the charity God’s Love We Deliver and promotes the foundation, but doesn’t beat anyone’s head over it. Hell, I’ve marched in a number of protests for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, to rally against the raising of tuition at CUNY schools, and even participated in one of the Yusef Hawkins marches in my Bensonhurst neighborhood. Point is, there is commitment and there is commitment. Believing in a cause can be constructive, but if it reaches a certain level of shrill, well, it’s no better than the NRA. Left wing nutjobs are as annoying as right wing nutjobs. I offer PETA as an example.

That being posited, I think this documentary is important, because it needs to be said that not all punk is nihilistic, and that there is a strong level of many wanting to improve, as well. The question I have is what is the percentage of people represented here who came to punk through political activism, and how many found activism through punk rock (both of which are suggested by the end)? That would make an interesting documentary in itself. Kathleen Hana does broach the subject when discussing the origins of the Riot Grrrl movement (e.g., Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, and perhaps Hole), which I consider much more interesting than the male-based alternative bands in Seattle at the time (Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.).

About halfway through the documentary, the tone of focus changes from the formation of the political / activism movement to a more music / activism direction, which is additionally interesting. Starting with the Riot Grrrl, as I mentioned, what is discussed is the corporatization of punk starting with the Seattle scene (Fourth Wave, if you want to label Alternative as Punk). Positive Force co-founder Mark Andersen correctly discusses how before Nirvana, Rolling Stone magazine had no interest in punk, and Henry Rollins posits that punk music was good and eventually the corporate music entities would become more involved as the interest (money) started to flow.

There is a lot of good clips of music by many interesting bands, such as Bikini Kill (doing a rare live version of “Girl Soldier”), 7 Seconds, Fugazi, and others. A longer version of these performances totaling 34 minutes is included along with three (30-minutes each, on average) short doucmentaries included as extras, films between 1991 and 2014. The first is “Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force,” another one-sided stroke-fest. “Green Hair, Grey Hair” is a bit more interesting as we follow the We Are Family organization, founded with a donation by Good Charlotte (also from DC), which focuses on destitute elderly African-Americans displaced by gentrification, and how Positive Force punkers help deliver food and company to them (similar to the aforementioned God’s Love We Deliver, FYI).

The last film is called “Punks Votes, Riots,” which deals with the Punk Vote movement that was started by Fat Mike of NoFX to get rid of George Bush in favor of whomever was running against him, and the riots that followed the benefits. This is the best of the three, and explains how the movement caused a rift within Postiive Force. My only issue with this one is the maaaaany jump cuts, and the lack of identification of the speakers, some obvious like Jello Biafra and Ian MacKay, others not so much for those outside of DC. Of course, the live music is the best part, hands down.

Of course, I realize that this documentary was produced by the very group that is being discussed, so there is not going to be critical thinking about its mission as much as self-back slapping, as it is a self-promotion tool. His makes it sound preachy, and a lot like those late night Christian Feed the Children infomercials. That to me is the core of the problem here, and what makes it less interesting, even though the topic being discussed is incredibly important. And yet, if you are interested in activism, this is a worthy manifesto to check out.

Bonus video from DVD:

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