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A Soft Film About Tough Punk Men: An Interview with Sami Saif
By Keva York
With The Allins, Sami Saif set out to make a “soft film” about a hardcore legend.
GG Allin is an icon of punk rock depravity. He took the rock’n’roll lifestyle to an unprecedented extreme, generating a blood- and shit-stained legacy and a sprawling body of work before dying of an overdose in 1993, at age 36. Sami Saif’s documentary The Allins is a portrait of the relatives he left behind, more than 20 years on: brother Merle continues to make music and tour with their band, The Murder Junkies. Meanwhile, mother Arleta resides in the quiet town of Franconia, New Hampshire, where she leads a decidedly un-punk life, tending to her garden and painting floral arrangements.
“’Oh my god, is this GG Allin’s mother?’” Saif recounts his immense surprise when he first came across a video clip of Arleta. “I realized that his mother was really this wonderful granny, you know…Because, honestly, I thought that his mother was dead a long time ago. So that started it all – the combination between this crazy kid and this very calm and wonderful mother. I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’”
“I don’t want to make a GG Allin story, I wanna make a documentary about you, and how you coped with these crazy kids.”
At first, Arleta was not enthusiastic about Saif’s pitch. He recalls her initial response – “’I will not make a GG Allin movie. Everybody has been asking me. I will not do it.’” But he persisted: “I said to her, ‘Listen, I know that you’ve been bothered by a lot of people making ‘the GG story.’ I don’t want to make a GG Allin story, I wanna make a documentary about you, and how you coped with these crazy kids.’” Having seen (and loved) Hated, the 1994 Tod Phillips documentary that captured the anarchy of GG’s touring life, Saif wanted to approach his infamous subject from a new angle: “I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to make a completely different film, like, a soft film,” he states. And so Arleta was won over, drawn to the idea that the project would allow her to re-affirm her connection to the son whose death she still mourns, even as she bemoans his life choices.
The Allins is not a revisionist history, however – Saif is just less interested in reinforcing the GG mythology than he is in tracing the impact of that mythology on those who loved him. GG here is still the aggressive provocateur behind tracks such as “Bite It You Scum” and “Suck My Ass It Smells,” but he’s also a member of a family – a dysfunctional, traumatised family, but a family nonetheless. Even decades after his death, he casts a long shadow over his brother and mother. “I was kind of surprised by how much GG is a part of Merle’s life,” Saif says, reflective. “His house was almost like a museum, you know, it’s kind of crazy, man.” Shrine-like, Merle’s home brims with GG memorabilia and merchandise (“He pimps everything,” quips Saif). As for Arleta, “above all, she’s struggling with that crazy kid. No matter what she does – try to paint, try to make beautiful gardens – there’s always GG saying, ‘Boo, mama!’”
The GG Allin that Merle works to commemorate is not the one that Arleta misses. Saif was nervous about how his stars would react to the completed film, given their clashing visions of GG. He worried about Merle’s reaction, “because it’s this soft film, and he’s in the trade of being a tough punk man.” But the ‘tough punk man’ approved: “He was very touched, because he was like, re-living his brother.” Arleta, on the other hand, still hasn’t seen the film, despite assurances from Merle. “I think for Arleta it was a lot about trust,” offers Saif. “She knew that in the film, there would be a lot of footage with GG doing bad things – and she hates that. She doesn’t want to see that.” Arleta was ready to become part of GG’s story, but she’s not quite ready to watch it – to give him another opportunity to say ‘Boo!’ from beyond the grave.
“I like these ‘off’ characters and I’m often driven by the idea that, you know, we all kind of judge people very fast.”
For Saif, The Allins is part of a larger filmmaking mission. “I like these ‘off’ characters and I’m often driven by the idea that, you know, we all kind of judge people very fast,” he explains. “GG – I mean, he was a crazy motherfucker, but he was also a small boy, who liked his mother, and his mother liked him, and I guess he just went wrong in life, you know.” He pauses. “But he made some good music.” And though GG Allin may seem wildly non-relatable (to most), Saif believes that real people’s stories – especially the painful ones – will always resonate with viewers. “I hope that the audience, they can somehow can get relief, you know,” he states. “Like, ‘it’s ok, we are all human, we are all fuck-ups, it’s a crazy world’…I think that the best thing we can give each other is our life stories.”
Director Sami Saif was a guest of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival, and The Allins played on the 16 and 18 August.