Rival D.C. punk documentaries race for the big screen

They filled every seat in the house and every last bit of standing room at the Black Cat’s Backstage: graying punks with fading flag tattoos. Young music fans who dreamed of being part of one of Washington’s most famous subcultures.

Filmmakers James Schneider and Paul Bishow could barely quiet the sold-out room last week to show the crowd what they’d come to see, clips of the project the two have been working on in some form or other since the 1990s.

Punk the Capital,” their documentary capturing the riotous heyday of D.C. punk, is nearly complete, and in the audience, eager to get a peek, were such icons as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando.

The next night: Different crowd, same story.

In a colorless screening room at a Shaw public library, another set of faces piled into seats to catch a glimpse of the other D.C. punk documentary set to come out this year, “Salad Days,” from journalist Scott Crawford and photographer Jim Saah.

More than three decades after the D.C. punk scene exploded into a sneering youth culture with national significance, both sets of documentarians are racing to bring its sweaty, teen-driven dissonance to the big screen. They are not alone.

Besides the feature-length documentaries “Salad Days” and “Punk the Capital,” in the works are a movie about Bad Brains’ enigmatic singer H.R.; a portrait of the city’s punk activists; and an HBO series directed by the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, which will, in at least one episode, focus on Washington’s legendary recording playground Inner Ear Studios. All are expected to land before the year is through.

The timing, some of the filmmakers say, is purely coincidental. But the glut — or embarrassment of riches — does presume there is an insatiable demand for tales from the D.C. punk scene.

“You’re talking about a half a dozen films,” says Mark Andersen, co-author of the tome “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital,” whose mug will appear in at least three of the movies slated for release this year. “The answer is that the story of the D.C. punk scene is extraordinary. That’s why people would make this many films, and that’s why people will go see them.” (They will also have a stake in seeing the movies completed: Via Kickstarter, friends, family and fans of the music have contributed more than $100,000 to the various D.C. punk documentary projects.)

* * *

Punk isn’t native to Washington, but it thrived here, taking root in D.C. basements and back rooms through the 1970s and ’80s as an anarchic and particularly loud response to life in the nation’s capital. Washington’s punk heroes, including the bands Bad Brains and Minor Threat, were mostly boys barely old enough to drive, the children of high-level government types, academics and journalists who converged here for work. And they were furious. Their music scorched a path across the city and suburbs because Washington was, and still can be, an almost suffocatingly insular city. Power chords travel fast.

The city’s grittiness in the ’80s helped fuel D.C. punk. Now, the city is dotted with new-construction condos and 200-seat restaurants. That dramatic change — and a desire to remember what the city once was — is perhaps spurring all the projects, filmmakers concede.

Then there is the other matter: The punks are getting old.

“Some of the people we’ve interviewed have already passed away,” says Schneider, 42. “There is this memory that’s leaving.”

“It’s time to archive and to document but really also to check out what we have,” adds Robin Bell, 36, whose hour-long documentary, “Positive Force: More Than a Witness,” about the scene’s activist streak, is slated for completion this fall.

* * *

If one issue dogs the filmmakers, it’s that all must draw from the same well. In “Salad Days” and “Punk the Capital,” the same faces appear repeatedly: MacKaye. Singer and professional pontificator Henry Rollins. The restless, riotous barnstormers Bad Brains, who ruled the scene.

Washington’s punk heyday also largely predates cheap video cameras, leaving the filmmakers without much historical footage — or the same handful of friends with grainy videos to ask for favors.

“I’m sure it must be weird for those guys to have to hit up the same people to ask, ‘Hey, can you dig up some photos for me?,’ ” Ferrando — a one-time drummer in punk bands Gray Matter and Ignition — says after the Black Cat event. He has hosted events for both the “Salad Days” and “Punk the Capital” filmmakers at his club, as well as offered up old artifacts, he says, that would have otherwise simply rotted in boxes.

“I’m sure on some level, there’s a competition, but I don’t think it’s some aggro-competition, like, ‘Who’s going to win the war of the documentaries?,’ ” Ferrando adds with a chuckle.

The filmmakers themselves are careful to say they are not competing. The duos had several meetings to discuss their films and even briefly kicked around the idea of making a single documentary together. Crawford, of “Salad Days,” dismissed the idea. “I really just wanted to stick with my vision and my story,” he says.

* * *

“Punk the Capital,” the labor of love for Bishow, a projectionist, and Schneider, a longtime filmmaker, may not even look that much like a typical documentary.

Central to their story is the old Madam’s Organ, one of the earliest punk stomping grounds. Bishow, 61, was in his late 20s and living in Adams Morgan when he began to shoot at the underground hotbed, capturing it all in distinctive Super 8 film, in an artful blur of limbs and guitars.

“Paul’s films are very fragmentary,” Schneider says when the pair agree to meet up at Bishow’s Adams Morgan apartment. “He’s filming off the TV. There’s bits of newspaper. There’s bits of text. There are people hanging around in the kitchen.” He shot the audiences at these shows, too. “I felt as close as to them as the band,” Bishow explains. “They were as important.”

The result could be film that looks less like a “talking head” film, as Schneider puts it, and more like an artwork. “If you’re going to make a film about punk,” he says, “it can’t look like a Discovery Channel film.”

* * *

Crawford’s camp, on the other hand, will take a journalistic approach.

Scott Crawford was 12 when he began pasting together MetroZine, a photocopied punk newsletter that assessed some of music’s most legendary cassettes in pithy two-line takes.

Covering music was a bug that he never seemed to shake; in 2000, he launched the music magazine Harp. It folded, like many larger magazines, in a particularly bumpy period in publishing in 2008. Since then he has been a freelance designer and journalist.

“Salad Days” is his first film. When he launched the project, he called Saah, whom Crawford, 42, had known since he was the baby-faced preteen cowering on the edge of the stage at d.c. space and the Wilson Center, and Saah, 49, was a record-store employee snapping photos at the same shows.

Saah wasn’t sold. “These are people I’ve known and grew up with. I just wanted to do them right,” he recalls thinking. “There are so many emotions. This is fraught.”

Like the “Punk the Capital” team, the duo say they’ve done more than a hundred interviews, many of them surprising choices, such as crime novelist George Pelecanos, comedian and musician Fred Armisen and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who offer outsiders’ perspectives.

The bumper crop of D.C. punk documentaries isn’t an epitaph for the scene or a chance to wax poetic, the filmmakers say.

Crawford, in fact, named “Salad Days” for a song by Minor Threat that shuns any longing for the good old days.

“Let’s face it, the music was great,” he says. “I still get goose bumps when I hear it. But . . . I don’t look back on those days and say those were my best days, they’re all behind me.”

That’s what his movie is all about, he says. The potential for a movement as transformative as punk to captivate the District all over again. “If it could happen then — in 1980 — then it can happen now.”

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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