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“Positive Force: More Than a Witness”: Robin Bell’s documentary on “30 years of punk politics in action”
Positive Force: More Than a Witness, award-winning videographer Robin Bell’s 2014 documentary on “thirty years of punk politics in action” — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — tells the story of the Washington DC-based punk activist collective Positive Force, who emerged during the so-called Reagan-era “Revolution Summer” of 1985.
Bell’s feature-length film features archival footage — including vintage live concert footage of bands like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill, and more — along with interviews from some of punk’s most influential pioneers, like Ian MacKaye (founder and owner of Arlington, VA-based Dischord Records, and the leader of Fugazi) to Penny Rimbaud (of the UK anarcho-punks Crass), along with supporters and followers, many of whom have played Positive Force gigs, people like Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines, Tsunami), Jello Biafra, Dave Grohl, Ted Leo, Riot Grrrl co-founders Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile) and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), and others.
It all begins thirty-plus years ago, in the summer of 1985, on June 21st.
Bell’s film lays it all out with a variety of perspectives who approached the revolution individually and collectively, some of them taking their personal political punk proselytizing to extremes, while others were more passive participants in the socially-conscious DC punk movement (the majority of bands recorded for Dischord Records).
Fugazi live on January 12, 1991, at Lafayette Park in Washington, DC
Actually, the true “positive force” movement began even earlier — in Reno, Nevada, in 1984, centered around the band 7 Seconds — but their ideas quickly spread across the U.S., promoted through a March 1985 article in Maximum RocknRoll, and the focus in the documentary is on what happened in Washington DC.
At the center of those is the film’s anchor, Mark Andersen, one of the young co-founders of the Positive Force punk collective (along with Kevin Mattson), which began during that so-called “Revolution Summer.”
Andersen (co-author, along with Mark Jenkins, of a book on the history of DC punk called Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk In the Nation’s Capital) describes what happened during the summer of ’85 this way, writing last summer in an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post:
“On June 21, 1985, a few dozen scruffily dressed kids declared ‘Revolution Summer’ with a thunderous ‘punk percussion protest’ at the apartheid-era South African Embassy. That night, the band Rites of Spring officially welcomed the new season with a sweat- and passion-drenched show at the 9:30 Club. Ridiculed by some at the time, 30 years later it has become clear these were ‘shots heard around the world.'”
Rites of Spring at the 9:30 club, July 16, 1981 in Washington, DC. (Lucian Perkins/Washington Post)
The Washington DC-based punk activist organization Positive Force originally became a loosely-organized group of young volunteers, an arts and social justice collaborative — some of them driven by their anarchist convictions or socialist convictions — whose “central mission,” according to Ian MacKaye, founder of DC’s Dischord Records and leader of the band Fugazi says, “was to organize benefits… they do protests and organize some demonstrations.”
The whole point, from the beginning, was to build caring, just and inclusive community, reaching out to those in need and building bridges between diverse communities. they organized punk rock concerts and educational events — some of them in such then-unconventional venues as churches and parks — which were all-ages and liquor-free, and all proceeds went to progressive groups who provided help and worked with seniors, the homeless, and other marginalized folks, regardless of their race, class, religion, sexual orientation, culture, nationality, and even language.
Proceeds also went towards fighting such varied issues as homelessness, hunger, racism, corporate globalization, sexism, homophobia, war, gentrification, and animal/earth liberation.
The DC collective originally gathered together at the Positive Force communal house in Arlington, Virginia (“a garden of radical possibilities”), which became a kind of community center and focal point from which that “central mission” MacKaye speaks of grew outward, into DC and beyond.
“The idea caught on and came to life in conversations, group houses, punk shows and protests. It was a rebellion against punk-as-usual and business-as-usual. This simultaneous challenge to the subculture and the wider world included new musical styles, an opposition to ‘slam-dancing’ and skinhead gang violence, and a critique of the sexism of the scene. It embraced confrontational, creative protest, animal rights, vegetarianism and communal living.”
Of course, the bands themselves were part of the reason that the music began merging politics with the hardcore punk climate that existed from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. Back then, DC’s dynamic local scene had sparked to life originally with bands like Bad Brains and Minor, to name just a few, but after that initial burst of energy the scene changed, but its influence and inspiration spread across the country, continuing to inspire new bands, like Nirvana.
In the documentary, Foo Fighter and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl recalls playing his first gig with the DC band Scream, a 1987 Positive Force benefit concert and march for Amnesty International: “I’m where I am today because of that show, that band, that march.”
In 1991, a group of girls and women in the bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and the Nation of Ulysses were inspired by what Positive Force was doing and it lit the fire that became the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, which they christened”Revolution (Summer) Girl Style Now.”
Today, Andersen’s DC-based Positive Force faction is the only one still active. As of January 2000, they had organized nearly 300 benefit concerts, raising more than $200,000 for organizations who help DC residents meet their basic needs or to produce “progressive/revolutionary change.”
Andersen occasionally organizes benefits from an office he shares with the We Are Family senior outreach network.
The film’s director, Robin Bell — a professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design and founder and owner of Bell Visuals, a boutique production company that supports social justice groups and environmentally sustainable companies — partially funded Positive Force: More Than a Witness with monies received from a class action settlement from his own wrongful arrest at a DC protest in 2002.