Filmmaker Susanne Tabata hopes to bring punk documentary to Saskatoon
According to veteran filmmaker Susanne Tabata, Vancouver’s rock scene has always had a fierce, grimy edge to it. But when punk first erupted like a mouthful of back alley coke and whiskey, it inadvertently helped shape the city into a West Coast underground cultural bastion.
Chronicled in Tabata’s documentary Bloodied But Unbowed, Vancouver birthed a tribe of musicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s who embraced the raucousness of bands like the Ramones and Black Flag. Caught between the mountains and the ocean, and stranded between the U.S. and the U.K., many of the groups at the time were ultimately left to create their own scene.
“Canada is a magnificent country, but it’s sizable so culture becomes an interesting thing in that there are these pockets that have nothing to do with one another,” says Tabata. “With punk nobody took it seriously. It was very transitory – I don’t think it was meant to last. It was extremely instantaneous. It was a creative combustion that was a flash in the pan; it came and it went.”
It was a zeitgeist moment for punk, hardcore, and Canadian music in general (although few would admit it until decades later).
And Tabata, who was then working at Vancouver’s CiTR radio station, was there to experience it firsthand.
“I was a teenager and a young student at the University of British Columbia when punk started really taking off in Vancouver,” she says. “It was sort of the only thing that was going on in the city that was of interest to somebody my age. In 1979 there was an unbelievable surge of incredible music that went unheard on commercial radio. So we were really excited about that – there was a lot of energy in the city and gigs were being played every night.
“It was exciting, but when you look back on something you can romanticize or mythologize that experience. In true fact, there were probably just a few hundred people who were fans of what was going on.”
Via archival footage and interviews with the musicians and scenesters, Bloodied But Unbowed unravels the story of a scene steeped in squalor and booze. Documenting bands such as D.O.A., The Subhumans, The Pointed Sticks and Art Bergmann, Tabata examines both the conditions and the people who set off the punk spark and ran with it. The wallop of the music itself is undeniable – many of the bands are now considered “classic” by those who revere punk. But, like any scene, it’s the venues, the art and the debaucheries that make a movement interesting. Tabata wholly embraces this idea, and pays a careful homage that extends well beyond figures like Joey Shithead.
“This is the story of a scene, and any scene in any city has that same sort of genesis and deconstruction to it,” says Tabata. “At the time, Vancouver was a very affordable city. And culture and creative was able to explore itself. There were abandoned warehouses and houses and people lived in them. That’s not the city anymore. Ask somebody who is at the heart of what they describe as a scene and I don’t know what they are going to say. Affordability is a major factor in allowing creativity to come forward.
“Vancouver was a real anomaly and I hope that resonates with audiences.”
While the film captures the energy of a fledgling punk scene, any one of the bands could have easily been the focus of an entire 90 minutes on their own. For example, The Subhumans may not have had the longevity of their contemporaries D.O.A., but their existence could easily fuel an entire film unto itself. Forming in 1978, the group began to splinter when bassist Gerry Hannah was arrested in connection with a series of bombings conducted by a group of underground activists dubbed The Squamish 5.
Thankfully, Tabata devotes a good chunk of the documentary to the band, who reformed in 2005 – Hannah himself remains a compelling, and fiery, figure. Similarly, D.O.A. are still plugging away somewhere, while Mr. Shithead remains a punk rock icon.
And while the documentary has been screened sporadically for the past couple of years – the movie only just premiered in Edmonton at the beginning of September this year – Tabata says that Bloodied But Unbowed has yet to see commercial release. However, there are still plans to launch the movie elsewhere in North America.
So does that mean there will be a Saskatchewan screening soon?
“We would love to and would make an effort to come out there,” says Tabata. “Saskatchewan has a great fanbase for punk. But it’s coming. We aren’t in any rush to get this over with. We think the film has a shelf life that’s timeless and we are looking forward to doing more screenings.”
So who wants to help bring Tabata’s Bloodied But Unbowed to Saskatoon?