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Interview: Filmmaker Robin Bell on “Positive Force: More than a Witness”

By Gregory Ayers
DC Music Downloads
November 14th, 2014

When I first moved to D.C., an Anglican priest from the area told me there was “Washington” and then there was “the District.” He meant there was a stark divide between Washington’s image as a seat of privilege and power and the poverty and homelessness literally in the shadows of the nation’s capital.

Positive Force is an activist collective that’s worked for thirty years on behalf of “the District,” so it’s only fitting that one of the area’s best filmmakers and media consultants made a documentary about the group.

Robin Bell, the creative force behind Bell Visuals, is known for his work as a printmaker and live video artist. His portfolio runs the gamut from the political to the artistic, and includes videos he’s done with Thievery Corporation as well as camera work and clips for groups like Pardon Chelsea Manning.

Bell’s latest project is Positive Force: More Than a Witness: Thirty Years of Punk Politics in Action. Over the course of an hour, the film features the members and musicians behind Positive Force and the activist work they’ve done over the decades. Dave Grohl, Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye, Kathleen Hanna, and Crass’s Penny Rimbaud all make appearances.

Many of Positive Force’s volunteers are featured, as well as co-founders Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson and other key figures from the group’s history. One of the great things about the film is the wealth of interviews and archival, primary-source video footage Bell incorporates into Positive Force: More Than a Witness. Missed seeing groups like Fugazi, Beefeater, Nation of Ulysses, and Rites of Spring play live? Here’s your chance to see footage of their Positive Force benefit concerts and learn about what inspired these groups and many others.

When I spoke to Bell on the phone, he went to great lengths to point out that while he directed and ultimately edited the film, he had a lot of help from a number people, including producers Meagan Coleman and Hunter Harris, both of whom also assisted with editing, and Jerry Busher and Doug Kallmeyer, who created the film’s original score with Bell.

He also emphasized that a portion of the proceeds from DVD sales will benefit the We Are Family senior outreach network.

D.C. Music Download: Why did you want to make this film? Given your background growing up in the D.C. area, did you have any personal experience with Positive Force?

Robin Bell: I shared some space with Positive Force when I was working with the DC Independent Youth Center in 2003. I never actually volunteered with Positive Force, but I was around them and always liked what they were doing.

There was an opportunity to make this film about five years ago. We were asked to meet up with Mark Andersen. The group was looking to put together a compilation of twenty-five years of footage they’d collected over the years.

The idea came up to do something a little bit bigger, and conversations around that turned into me wanting to direct a feature doc about Positive Force.

Mark Andersen – Mission of Positive Force from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: Given Positive Force had all this footage – you’re working with thirty years of all this great material – how did you decide how to frame all this information?

RB: We chose by listening. Our first interview was with Mark. The interview went for almost three hours, just in one take.

We listened to people. We talked to people. We asked them, “What was important to you?” What events meant something to you? Who were the bands? Who were the people who were part of the scene?”

Over time, there were certain bands that would keep popping up: “Nations of Ulysses, that band meant so much at this show,” or “Fugazi when they played the Wilson Center that time.” Or Beefeater. We were so excited about the Beefeater footage.

The thing with docs and storytelling is that it’s a lot of trial and error. You listen to people, you talk to people, you figure out that the story will kind of develop. You have to start to choose what kind of voice you’re going to take and what style and just stick with that.

For us, it was really important that the concept of Positive Force and Positive Force itself, the group, were the main characters. We have all these amazing people who explain it, but it’s not about the individual per se, but the individual efforts together which made something much bigger.

Ronald Grey – Discrimination in DC in 1950 from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

Jello Biafra – Making a Difference from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: What do you think is the place of Positive Force in 2014? Why are they still important?
RB: I think PF is insanely relevant today, with the mission of what they’re doing, the empowering of people to actually do something-to go out and organize collectively. It’s as simple as delivering groceries on a Saturday.

To the D.C. audience on Friday, if you still feel strongly about it [after seeing the film], you can come out at 11 a.m. on Saturday and deliver groceries to senior citizens. This is a busy time to do it. They’re also doing shows and concerts; you can help out and work on that. Or, if you have an idea, and you’d like to do something, come to the Positive Force meeting at three o’clock.

I think they’re [Positive Force] super-relevant. As a volunteer organization, it ebbs and flows. You have times where it’s really busy and there are a lot of new people and a lot of new energy. Then you have times where it kind of slows down. It’s just based on the nature of volunteer work.

One thing that’s amazing about watching the film is how people were a part of it, and then they stopped naturally. There wasn’t any trauma, there weren’t any issues. They had to go on and do their own thing. But their experience helped shaped their decision making and their ability to want to do something, which is really cool.

For Positive Force specifically, I think that’s why it’s still relevant and why it’s around today.

Dave Grohl – Community Centers from Bell Visuals on Vimeo.

DCMD: The film ends with the question, “Now what?” What’s that next step? What impact do you hope this film has on people?

RB: My goal pretty much from day one for people from an outside audience was for them to be inspired, to want to learn more, and to try something out for themselves.

In D.C., we’re really lucky to have these examples. In the film, [Positive Force veteran] Katy Otto explains how she thought that every city must have a band like Fugazi. That’s real. I think people in D.C. forget that we’ve got this insanely powerful group that makes real solid music and has a great way of carrying themselves.

Beyond any one style of music, I’m excited for friends of mine who are into electronic music, hip hop, classical music or country to listen to it and go “Wow, we don’t have a venue, let’s make a venue! Let’s organize, let’s do things,” taking a small piece of the puzzle and work on it.

Every person I’ve showed it to who isn’t familiar with the D.C. punk scene gets something out of it, and they’re still inspired by it. That’s something we set out do from the very beginning, to make a piece that’s not only about the past, but also about moving forward.

I love the bits in the credits – Penny [Rimbaud] pretty much sums it up, “It’s happening now, it’s happening now, it’s the moment.”

Positive Force: More Than a Witness premieres at 7 p.m. on November 14 and November 15 at St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church. Get more details and purchase your tickets here.

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page

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