‘Positive Force: More Than a Witness’ profiles a D.C. group that’s hard-core in its pursuit of change

By Dean Essner
Washington Post
November 13th, 2014

If Robin Bell’s new documentary “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” is out to prove anything, it’s that D.C. punk is as much about ideals as it is about attitude.

The film chronicles the origins of Positive Force, an activist group founded in 1985 that channels punk’s raw anger and discontent to foster social change — be it delivering groceries to the elderly or raising money through benefit concerts.

It may not be as widely known or celebrated as the music itself, but the Positive Force story is inextricably linked with D.C. punk.

“I think a group like Positive Force is really unique,” says Bell, 37, whose film screens at St. Stephen’s this weekend. “It’s an all-volunteer group. So many influential people have been a part of it and worked with it. There’s so much [there] that it almost feels like a disservice that we’re trying to fit it all into a film.”

Even the seeds of the project were rooted in rebellion. Bell was arrested in 2002 while on assignment for the D.C. Independent Media Center, covering demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He filed two class-action lawsuits against the D.C. government — one for that incident, and one for a similar arrest in 2000 — and received $25,000.

“I was trying to figure out something creative to use the money for, and I was like, ‘Well, make an activist film,’ ” says Bell, who plans to donate the movie’s proceeds to Positive Force-affiliated organization We Are Family. (An additional $16,000 in funding for the film came from Kickstarter contributions.)

“Positive Force: More Than a Witness,” which is also available on DVD, is framed by intimate pieces of old concert footage that reinforce how bands and Positive Force worked together. In one striking sequence from Jan. 12, 1991, Fugazi rips through “KYEO” at an outdoor benefit show for the homeless with the White House looming in the background. Both the band and the audience were willing to brave the cold because the cause, and the music, were important to them.

Bell’s film further comes to life through candid interviews with Positive Force founders Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson, as well as iconic punk rockers like Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl, Kathleen Hanna and Ian Svenonius. Yet his subjects’ stories and political stances don’t always intersect or even agree with each other.

For Bell, these incongruences were vital. Positive Force has never been about any singular point of view or opinion. It’s about the very idea of possessing an opinion — and having the wherewithal to do something about it. That ethos lives on, even as Positive Force members come and go.

“[Viewers] want you to create this drama 45 minutes into the film that has some kind of resolution at the end,” Bell says. “There’s always been contention. [But] for Positive Force and our film, there is no resolution at the end. It’s going on.”

And on … and on … and on.

That other movie about the D.C. punk scene

While Positive Force: More Than a Witness is about the activism surrounding D.C. punk, Scott Crawford’s new film Salad Days is more about the music itself, documenting the origin story of bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Black Flag through interviews with scene veterans like — you guessed it — Ian MacKaye and Dave Grohl. The film, which tracks D.C.’s punk and hardcore scenes in the 1980s, makes its local premiere on Dec. 19, 21 and 22 at the AFI Silver Theatre. While the first three screenings sold out quickly, tickets for a Dec. 22 showing at 7:15 p.m. are still available. The Black Cat then screens the film on Dec. 26. Tickets are on-sale Friday.

Back to Robin Bell’s Artist Page