Hot Docs Jots

Interview with FANNY: THE RIGHT TO ROCK director Bobbi Jo Hart

Fanny was the first all-female band to release an album with a major record label and, according to David Bowie, was one of the most underrated bands of all time. I spoke with director/producer Bobbi Jo Hart about her high-decibel, time traveling, feminist rockumentary FANNY: The Right to Rock.

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Hot Docs: Fanny is made up of immigrant, Filipina, gay women making rock music in the 60s and 70s. You met them many years after their heyday. When did you meet Fanny and when did you decide that you needed to make a feature film about them?

Bobbi Jo Hart: I discovered Fanny when I was on the Taylor Guitar website looking for a new acoustic guitar for my daughter. She was 12 at the time, really into music, and had been learning for a couple of years. They had a section on the website called "stories." I clicked on that because, as a filmmaker, I like stories. I came across this photo and it was Fanny lead guitarist June Millington, with this flaming gray hair, just rocking out. I was blown away by this powerful image of this Asian-American woman. When I discovered Fanny, I was equally thrilled and equally pissed off. And those are kind of the two ingredients I need to want to make a film: "Oh my god that's so amazing" and "How come people don't know about this?".

When I look back over all the films I've made, almost all are about girls or women breaking boundaries, untold stories and underdogs. You know that saying "history is written by the victors?" Let's re-write some history. My daughter told me last year in her history class they spent about five minutes talking about residential schools and didn't even mention the abuses against children and the genocidal efforts that were made at the time, or the residual impact and trauma on Indigenous communities. That's one example of a history that needs to be rewritten. In Fanny's case, it's another story: an all-teenager rock band, self-formed, not formed by a male producer, in the 1960’s. That's incredibly groundbreaking, and they're talking about the pill, the war, women's rights and police abuse.

I finally got a hold of June Millington, and after some conversations realized that I didn't want to do a film about just looking back. I love cinema verité; I love being a fly on the wall, so I wanted to follow something in the present to contextualize Fanny today. A few years later, in 2017, I decided to go to the women's march on Washington. There's a bunch of women on stage and right behind Madonna is June Millington standing there. We were finally able to reconnect and she told me that Fanny got a new record deal and were getting together in three weeks to record a new rock album. This was the present-day event that I needed to structure the film. I went home, got in touch with DOP Claire Sanford, who is a wonderful filmmaker in her own right, and she agreed to drive down to Boston with me. Fanny and I literally met each other the first day we started filming. I was really tenacious. I was really passionate. I really wanted to make this happen.

We filmed and then cut a demo and brought it to Hot Docs. Eventually Bell Media came on board, and then the dominos started to fall in place for financing. And we went on this crazy two/three year ride of filming, following lightning in a bottle.

HD: Why did Fanny ultimately choose to give this story to you to tell?

BJH: Fanny ultimately agreed to let me make this film because there was trust. People need to know that they can trust you with their story, and you have to keep returning that trust throughout the process. It's human nature that people feel nervous or insecure about how things are progressing or maybe something they said in an interview. Fanny cared about representing their legacy, their passion for music, and I took that really seriously and wanted to honour that. It was important that the film resonate with different age groups and feel intergenerational. Fanny got their legs when they were teenagers, and so many girls who rock are either inspired by them or eventually find them. I wanted the film to help do that.

HD: Can you talk about how you went about piecing together all the archive elements, so many photos, videos, LPs, EPs, and analogue music. The film gives the impression that their careers were really well documented, even though their contributions to music history have largely been forgotten.

BJH: It was clear that archival photos and footage were going to be crucial to bring the backstory to life. And I have to give kudos right away to photographer Linda Wolfe. She lived with Fanny in their band home in the early 70s, and she's in the film as well. She gave us over 80 photos. Some music films are made and financed by the record companies, but we were just a small independent production and archival is expensive. We had to search it out and pay for or negotiate everything ourselves. I tracked down newspaper clippings, clips from TV shows, and negotiated rights one at a time. It was music and archives that put us over budget. It's not an uncommon thing, in independent documentary filmmaking, to under-budget for archival. We thought we had a reasonable amount, but it was easily double what we thought it would be. Then, as you release the film to more markets, you're going to have to pay for more. We negotiated minimal rights for festivals and theatrical first. That is the only way to make it affordable for smaller productions.

My incredible editor, Catherine Legault, had 120-130 hours of footage and archival and was just so organized, coming up with different arcs and how they intersect. She is a musician herself and so had a great ear for cutting the music into the film and really paid attention to the lyrics and different energies.

HD: How did you finance the film?

BJH: I got an initial $15,000 thousand from Cineflix. The first broadcaster on board was Bell Media, and then it was like a domino effect: the Canada Media Fund, Blue Ice Docs is our distributor in Canada, we got both Quebec and Canadian tax credits, the Roger's Cable Network Fund. I also got a little grant from California Humanities, we got Frameline's Completion Fund in the US, and our fiscal sponsor was the International Documentary Association.

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