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Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Two guys find strength in documenting "Girls Rock!"

The journey to the documentary "Girls Rock!," which opens for a weeklong run at SIFF Cinema Friday, began with a 10-year-old guitarist in...

Seattle Times movie critic

The journey to the documentary "Girls Rock!," which opens for a weeklong run at SIFF Cinema Friday, began with a 10-year-old guitarist in a pizza parlor and a pair of longtime friends who suddenly found a story they wanted to tell.

Arne Johnson heard about the Portland (Oregon) Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls when Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein (who's taught at the camp) mentioned it at an event in San Jose, Calif. He mentioned it to Shane King — the two have been friends since they were about the age of that guitarist — and King, who soon afterward happened to be in Portland visiting his family, shot some footage of a concert presented by the camp. (Both men grew up in Portland and now live in the Bay Area, working and teaching in the film industry.)

"We watched it together," remembered King, in Seattle last spring for the film's premiere at Seattle International Film Festival. "There was this one performance, we got choked up every time we watched it. Just this incredibly powerful performance by this 10-year-old girl playing the guitar.

"And so, a lot of the filmmaking was just trying to figure out what was going on, why that was so impactful and emotional. So it led us on this journey across the country, meeting all the girls we could that were going to be attending the camp the following summer, and talking to them and realizing what a rough thing it is to be a girl in 2005. Actually sitting there with these girls, hearing what their lives were like, was pretty mind-blowing, and it turned the movie into a mission, rather than trying to capture the story of cute girls with guitars."

A raucous tale of female empowerment, "Girls Rock!" became a three-year saga for Johnson (co-director, co-editor, producer) and King (co-director, co-editor, cinematographer), whose first collaboration was a Super 8mm movie in seventh grade. They shot about 250 hours of footage, both at the camp and around the country at the homes of the girls. And they worried about whether a couple of guys were the right people to tell a story that centered on the struggles of young girls facing adolescence — issues of self-esteem, body image, pressure to fit in — and on a female community where girls could be themselves.

"We thought, would the girls be comfortable, could we really tell this story?" said Johnson. "And I think there was a point where we started to realize that it was sort of a strength in a way. We realized the girls were excited to tell us about this. We were outsiders, and we were people who had to be told."

During the film's long editing process, four girls emerged as the center of the story: 7-year-old singer Palace; 8-year-old guitarist/songwriter Amelia; 15-year-old heavy metal singer Laura; and 17-year-old bass player Misty. Since the bulk of the filming took place during the 2005 camp, Johnson and King have been fascinated to find how the four — with whom they've kept in touch — have changed in the intervening years. "We kind of keep forgetting that these girls aren't frozen in time," said Johnson.

Palace, now 10, has taken up the drums and "has gotten a bit shy." Amelia still attends the rock camp and came to Seattle for the SIFF premiere with her band King. Misty, a troubled teen whose life story encompasses darker issues than the other girls profiled (drugs, group homes, family strife), is "doing pretty well."

And Laura, the filmmakers said, is getting ready for college and has been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Texas. "She was really of all the girls, the most impacted by the camp," said Johnson. "She's just become a much more vocal, involved person in her life, and she feels more comfortable with being who she is."

After a brief round on the festival circuit, which included screenings in Spain and Iceland, "Girls Rock!" now opens in seven cities across the U.S. this week. Johnson and King, finally ready to move on to the next project, are kicking around a few other ideas for collaborations, possibly a zombie movie or another documentary. But they're excited to have a wider audience see their film and be inspired to talk about the issues it raises.

"Really, the most momentous thing in some ways was seeing how little it took," said Johnson, of the way the camp changed the girls. "That was shattering. All you have to do is take boys out of the way, and take media out of the way, and for a week these girls feel like they are themselves. I was like, holy crap, is that all? We can stop this, this is something we actually can do, we can turn those TVs off, we can make people stop feeding this stuff to our girls, we can start making school safer for them. This is not some weird chemistry/biology thing. This is all they did — keep that stuff out, and then you can be here. And that was enough."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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