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Past is Past: Susanne Tabata Documents Vancouver's Punk History in Bloodied But Unbowed

ST (Full)
1 December 2011

Canadian documentary film-maker Susanne Tabata is a talented and passionate interviewer and documentarian. She is capable of producing works as varied as Ohanashi, a ten-part series on the Japanese-Canadians experience, and Bloodied But Unbowed an exhaustive history of the Vancouver punk scene (which has almost enough on-line webisodes to have made a ten DVD set as well!) So while she deeply mines history and keeps herself scrupulously out of the frame (unlike documentarians such as Michael Moore or Alan Zweig), it doesn’t mean that she’ll take kindly to my suggesting she might be the “Ken Burns of punk rock”.

“Yeah. Yeah…Maybe… “ she replies to that facile comparison with some awkward laughter on the part of us both. “You interpret it the way that you feel you should interpret it, right? Everyone sees things differently of course. I think the film being done fairly recently obviously (makes) it a historical essay doc, sort of, but it’s also that the music is used as the soundtrack… It’s a story about the scene rather than being about any one person.”

Then Tabata pivots, as, an experienced questioner will do, and says to me, “I’d still like to know your take on the film. What specifically did you like about it?”

I begin a shaky response that points out what a fearless act of historical preservation she has committed, not only with the candid, in-depth interviews she conducted with so many of the survivors but also with the work she has done collecting a depth of archival footage, footage which would be the envy of ANY city’s punk scene outside of London, England, Tabata lights up.

“We did a screening at North By North-East…and a lot of the film and music aficionados showed up and the first thing that came up in the question and answer was about how much of this scene did get documented in some form or another in 1978, 79, 80 and ’81. I was surprised that there wasn’t a depth of footage in Toronto; I was even more surprised to discover the Montreal punk scene has near nothing…”

“Except of course The 222’s…” I interject, in tribute to the great late seventies Montreal punk band who have almost ten vintage videos on YouTube.

“Except of course the 222’s,” Tabata echoes “and that was done by one fellow on one show. We did Pop Montreal too and the same thing the same discussion about the footage came up and there is nothing in Montreal. It was simply not archived and that’s too bad.”

As a good documentarian you can hear sadness in Tabata’s voice when she recognizes the utter absence of archival evidence of a vibrant but marginalized culture. After the Winnipeg screening of BBU, a similar lament was heard throughout the crowd of scene vets. The conclusion was that Winnipeg’s scene just doesn’t have anywhere NEAR this depth of footage.
With great interest, Tabata picks up the discussion of the film’s period footage.

“There’s a couple of things that were going on in Vancouver regarding the archiving of footage at that time, a few points of entry. One, Martin Stubbs was the station manager at North Vancouver Shaw Cable outlet and he and his buddy, Mr. Frewer, they did a lot of shooting of different gigs and all that Stanley Park stuff. “

I jump in, and tell her how impressed I was with that 1978 footage of D.O.A. playing at an “Anarchy Day in Canada Festival” in Stanley Park before being shut down the cops. (Though thanks to a permit from Christian picnic group the festival did carry on.)

“And that is unbelievable and so incredible,” she rhapsodizes. “(Stubbs) went on to do a (cable) show called Sound Proof…which highlighted local bands …and a lot of that gig footage comes from him and his sources. Subhumans at the Commodore in 1978 – that’s him. D.O.A. at Stanley Park – that’s him. The Dishrags and Art Bergmann at Battle of the Bands – that’s him. And those are really great pieces,” she says, slightly in awe of her good fortune. “Then we had three guys (Ed Ed Mowbray, Rick Martin and Dave Cochrane), that made music videos years before MTV. “ World War III” By D.O.A.. which is seminal, The Modernettes‘ “Barbara”, Subhumans’ “Slave to My Dick”, Payolas‘ “China Boys” , Art Bergmann’s “Automan”, Pointed Sticks‘ “Real Thing” are all made by the same three guys. Rick wanted to support the film and gave us all the original footage and we re-transferred it. That accounted for a chunk…

“…of the budget!”, I ill-advisedly interject.

“(laughs) Actually he just contributed it.”

We went on to talk about all the art films that added depth to the bank of footage plus Tabata’s own early eighties cable show Nite Dreems, as well as the local CBC’s de rigeur punk/new wave expose from around 1980. “It was a lot of work to secure the footage but I had a little bit of a head start simply because I was part of that scene and I did know some of these people.”

When she said that, I told her that it was those contemporary interviews with these people that she did, juxtaposed with the archival footage that helps make the film so very compelling.

“It took three and a half years to put this film together logistically and creatively. The decision to keep the performance material in historical context and to keep the interviews in the present day was an artistic and editorial decision.”

I then asked her if interviews she did were long and heavily edited or short and to the point.

“No, no no there was lots of editing. We did editing for eight months. We edited characters, we edited concepts, we edited for tone and emotion. I always had this idea that was going to be three key pieces to this. One was going to be the story of D.O.A. and them going on and on like a train that doesn’t stop, with Joe (Keithley) being the spokesman for that, then Art Bergmann as the ultimate artist and poet and then there was ultimate rebel, which is (eco-activist) Gerry Hannah. These all sort of triangulated into a story about the scene. “

After that we talked about Tabata’s own entry into the scene via her work spinning not only Vancouver bands but also The Clash, XTC and Buzzcocks at the University of British Columbia’s pioneering radio station CiTR and how her first punk show was a Subhumans’ show in some forgotten hall before we come back to the subject of editing.
We talked about the interview with Modernettes’ bassist Mary Armstrong, where the film cuts back and forth between her ex-husband, *Buck Cherry, talking about his ex-wife’s violent tendencies and her shooting at a bale of hay on her farm. I asked Tabata if this choice deliberately plays up her quirkiness or is just a reflection of who she is.

“I asked her if she would shoot the gun. I stayed there for four days and I asked her to do it because I thought it was such a kick-ass thing that she could do – and that’s a serious gun, by the way. I thought it was great, I had a shortage of women to interview in the film and I thought she really made up for the deficit of women. She’s such an interesting personality. And somebody who felt these people were her family. It wasn’t just about the music; it was about a family that never was. There was the camaraderie aspect there which plays into this little group of people in the strongest way.”

Tabata talked further about women in the punk scene including Jade Blade of the all-girl band The Dishrags and Penelope Houston of San Francisco’s The Avengers before we turned to the somewhat hyper-masculine, guy-ish nature of so many of the movie’s characters.

“It was a pretty guy-ish scene…it’s a seventies guy-ish thing….that’s the way it was and so I guess it’s the way it is too.” she says before we get down to discussing her interview with the lewd n’ crude trio of aging punks, Randy Rampage, Zippy Pinhead and Brad Kent. “That is a fabulous interview. One day I’m gonna release that entire interview… with no editing.” Tabata says. “We did that at my place, that was a forty-eight hour weekend and then I shot that interview.” When I mention that those men looked comfortable with and didn’t show any of the usual documentee stiffness, she quips, “Well there’s certainly no…stiffness there,” and we both laugh. Then she offers this thought, “If you really want to know, Zippy never took me seriously that I was making a film. I told him I was going to put his on TV. He would just laugh, he thought it was just a home video.

So I asked her if she was comfortable working in that kind of over-the-top male-dominated environment.

“Oh yeah,” she says, “it’s not my first bar-b-q. I’ve been around the documentary format and some pretty gnarly situations, like the surfing film I made (49 Degrees) when everyone’s putting on a wet wet-suits at six in the morning and that’s a fairly male-dominated environment. You can’t step on any toes and you have to be respectful and try to be as much of a fly on the wall as possible – because that’s how you get the material.”

I mentioned that she’s been quoted as saying that “Everything is about respecting the material” and I asked her how that philosophy played out in the film:

“I really did try and respect that material. We spent a lot of time in editing, the three editors on that film.” Tabata goes on to mention that it actually took four editors to finish the film and shoehorn some last-minute footage of irrepressible punk provocateur Jello Biafra. The reason this footage came so late and was left out of the first version of the film, was that when Tabata and her cameraman originally went to shoot Biafra’s interview they were turned back at the border.

“That was a really bad day and we went out and had a beer and at that point I knew we had to get this cut down without him. But when he came to Vancouver and played after the fifty-five minute television version had aired, Jon West, the lead polish editor, shot the interview and Troy (Weinreich) cut it in. But as for respecting the material, if you talk to any of the three editors who worked on the project, given the amount of time we spent sifting through material…not just respecting it but trying to make a story without putting a noose around someone’s neck and hanging them.”

After we discuss the hilarious and at times awkward meeting between three of the titans of Vancouver punk (Brian Goble and Gerry Hannah of The Subhumans and Joey Shithead of D.O.A. ) at the playground of the elementary school they attended together, Tabata takes a final look back at the project.

“There were times in the process of doing this that I just didn’t know why I’d taken it on but passion and commitment reign. If you don’t have the passion nothing’s good. “

Bloodied But Unbowed