Mia Zapata was no easy target. The Seattle punk rocker, the lead singer of the Gits in the early ’90s, was a feminist force of nature with a ferocious scream and an abrasive, suffer-no-fools stage persona. She hung out with chicks who demanded to be heard, who relished making people uncomfortable, who took up space.
So when she was beaten, raped, and strangled to death with the hoodstrings of her own sweatshirt on the way home from legendary punk hangout Comet Tavern in July 1993, her friends were devastated, yes—but terrified, too. If Mia could be made a victim, they thought, why not us?
What happened next is the topic of Rock, Rage & Self Defense: An Oral History of Seattle’s Home Alive, a film that’s screening at the Black Cat on Sunday and will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers Leah Michaels and Rozz Therriend. The pseudo-documentary chronicles the origins of Home Alive, a DIY self-defense collective started by Zapata’s friends and admirers after her death.
Zapata’s murder came just eight months before Kurt Cobain‘s suicide. But while the nation grieved for the grunge scene’s reluctant poster boy, Seattle was still reeling from the loss of another of its promising young musicians. “Zapata’s death affected the local Seattle scene almost more than Cobain’s did,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers in the film. “She was here all the time.”
Through a dizzying number of interviews (I lost count after 13) and a few archival photos and videos, the film pieces together the story of a group of women who upended traditional narratives of self-defense lit. Where other classes gave women mixed messages (Make eye contact with your attacker! Avoid eye contact with your attacker!) and blamed them for their own assaults (You showed cleavage! You went alone to a metal show!) Home Alive taught women to fight back by any means necessary because—-and this was the most important bit—-their lives were worth saving. In addition to courses on traditional martial arts and boxing, Home Alive offered one class that taught women to use broken bottles, knives, and chains to defend themselves. Another brought firearms into the equation, using guns donated by both the NRA and the Black Panthers as practice weapons.
In the film, Home Alive’s founders look back on the organization’s roots with palpable rage; back then, with Zapata’s killer still on the loose (he was eventually collared a decade later, thanks to DNA testing), it felt like life-or-death. Still, making consensus-based decisions in a group of nine is no easy task, even when everyone’s passionate as hell about the cause. Watching the founders rehash disagreements over fundraising tactics, accepting corporate backing, and excluding men from classes will hit home for any organizer-activist, and the film unpacks some timeless issues that grassroots groups face as they deal with growing pains. Though most of the original crew has moved on, Home Alive still exists in Seattle as a low-or-no-cost self-defense workshop, and it’s spawned several copycat groups around the country. But it looks very, very different now, and not everyone’s pleased with the outcome.
I’d place Rock, Rage & Self Defense in the lowest stratum of lo-fi—there’s blown-out audio, editing blips, and a talking-head interview that’s so out of focus it made my eyes tear up. It’s more of an oral history, as the title suggests, than a true doc—there’s very little b-roll (or any visual interest, for that matter) and few pauses from the chatter to let the viewer absorb what she’s hearing. If it weren’t for some golden ’90s-era videos of the Gits in concert and Home Alive’s first classes, I’d wonder why it was a video project instead of an audio one.
But, of course, the gritty execution is part of the point. Rock, Rage & Self Defense isborn of the DIY ethos, which says that if you can’t handle a misspelling or a shaky camera or the same photo of Comet Tavern used four times in a row, this film isn’t for you—-and you probably wouldn’t get the message, anyway. You don’t need to be a certified martial artist to teach a self-defense class, and you don’t need fancy equipment or a big crew to make a raw, teachable account of a movement that harnessed a community’s grief for the greater good.
The screening and Q&A will run at Black Cat Backstage this Sunday, May 4. Doors at 8:30 p.m., $8. Advance tickets are available.