Backyard belonging

Angela Boatwright talks about community, diversity and music in Los Punks.

by Jennie Kermode

Angela Boatwright: For all the insanity of the shows I never saw race, gender or body type be an issue – I can’t think of one time
Angela Boatwright: For all the insanity of the shows I never saw race, gender or body type be an issue – I can’t think of one time Photo: Angela Boatwright
A documentary tour of the Los Angeles backyard punk scene, Angela Boatwright’s Los Punks is an insider’s look at a culture often misunderstood by outsiders, revealing the personal stories and social connections behind the music and the parties. I managed to find a slot in Angela’s busy schedule to ask her about the film and how it developed. It’s a long story, she warns me with a laugh, but she’s clearly somebody who’s fascinated by stories of all kinds; and like many stories, it begins with a personal connection.

“I lived in New York City for 19 years,” she says. “I moved to Los Angeles four years ago so at that time I was interested in making new contacts as well as looking for work. I was asked to pitch ideas for a documentary campaign... A the same time I was desperately trying to find like-minded people. I’d grown up with heavy metal, punk and hardcore, all that kind of thing, and I knew Los Angeles had a legendary punk scene so I wanted to investigate. I mentioned that I was going to backyard shows and I thought they could make a good subject, and [the production company] said ‘great!’”

Did her own background help her get better access to her subjects?

Angela Boatwright
Angela Boatwright Photo: Angela Boatwright
“Yes and no,” she says. “I think knowing the music was a huge asset, for sure. Knowing who the bands were.” Yet although some people within the scene have an incredible amount of musical knowledge, she doesn’t see that as the only unifying aspect of it – there are others who are there mainly because they want to spend time with their friends.

Her background wasn’t always an advantage, though. She explains that it makes it difficult to anticipate how outsiders to the scene might interpret the film or what they might find surprising about it. There are cultural differences between New York and LA and the fact she’s not Hispanic, as most of the film’s subjects are, increased the culture gap, but sometimes people who have no familiarity with the scene at all astound her by what they pick out of it. “I’ve had a couple of comments where people asked me what the mosh pit was. They’d never heard of one before! One of them called it a shoving circle, which is a cool term. I think it’s fairly accurate.”

One thing that comes through clearly in the film, I note, is the diversity of the scene. As a kid, I found my local punk scene was the first place where I ever felt safe to be myself without fear of prejudice, and Angela has identified something similar. For her, it was particularly good to be able to include a lot of female voices in the film.

“As a female I like to focus on females and they’re an important part of the punk rock scene,” she notes. “I wanted to showcase the stories of females in the scene. It is shockingly inclusive. All types of people feel comfortable at backyard shows but then they’re all outsiders of some sort. For all the insanity of the shows I never saw race, gender or body type be an issue – I can’t think of one time. There’s chit chat and gossip and typical things like that, but that’s all.”

Some of those featured in the film come from really tough backgrounds but it also illustrates how life can be made difficult by simple differences of opinion. I ask if that was a factor in choosing one of the subjects, Alex, whose problem, summed up by his father, is that: “He likes Black Flag and I like Ronald Reagan.”

“Obviously we chose the characters based on what we knew at the start and we wanted to incorporate variety,” says Angela. “We actually had no idea that Alex’s parents were going to be there that day. I’m not sure I was even aware of his ethnic background. We’d just arranged to do some filming there and they turned up, and they were happy to sit down with us and talk to us about Alex.”

Angela Boatwright: 'Obviously we chose the characters based on what we knew at the start and we wanted to incorporate variety'
Angela Boatwright: 'Obviously we chose the characters based on what we knew at the start and we wanted to incorporate variety' Photo: Angela Boatwright
This was a treat as far as she was concerned because she has an insatiable curiosity about people’s family backgrounds and loves getting to know her subjects in detail – the same applies to her work as a photographer, she explains, and sometimes events just come together to create something magical. Working on this film offered a mixed bag of experiences as different people related very differently to the camera, but generally she feels it went well.

“We interviewed hundreds of participants. A lot of them were very aggressive at first but I feel like that shows more of who they are than who they think they are. When people are catty or sarcastic to the camera because they think they’re being cool it comes across in a certain way. There were also some people who asked not be filmed but they were by far the minority. Sometimes people are just shy. Once they got used to us, for the most part they were happy to interact.”

Have they seen the film now?

“Almost all of them have!” she says. “House of Vans [the production company] was very gracious in holding a special screening just for the punk community. Over 600 punks came. It was amazing. It was very widely talked about so whoever didn’t show up had no excuse. There were free tacos available too. I was very nervous; I was actually shaking, sitting there wondering if they’d hate it, but they didn’t. It was one of the best days of my life, to have everybody love the film so much. I spoke to everyone and I was so nervous that I started crying, and about a hundred punks came up and hugged me and posed for photos. The best you can hope for sometimes is that people will be cool so it was amazingly cool to get that very positive reaction.”

Angela Boatwright: 'I wanted to showcase the stories of females in the scene. It is shockingly inclusive'
Angela Boatwright: 'I wanted to showcase the stories of females in the scene. It is shockingly inclusive' Photo: Angela Boatwright
The film has also enjoyed some success on the festival circuit, premièring at Slamdance and enjoying a lot of special screenings before getting a release on iTunes. Angela tells me that she’s just got it into a festival in Dallas and is looking forward to taking it to London. It was well received in Mexico, but taking it abroad has given her a fresh perspective on some aspects of it.

“In other countries it became very apparent how much American politics is wrapped up in the movie. Trying to explain that in China was really interesting. The reception it’s getting is great but in some ways I wouldn’t mind having more negative reactions. I like it when people aren’t happy – they talk about it more.”

Angela is now focusing on some short form film projects she wants to develop, but she plans to continue her involvement with the backyard scene through her work as a photographer. Having photographed it for years, she hopes to bring out a coffee table book of images from the scene, all shot on film – something for fans of Los Punks to look out for.

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