Documenting Women's Rites: An Interview with Filmmaker Kim Longinotto
By Carol Nahra
It's difficult to get too far along in a discussion about British documentaries without Kim Longinotto's name coming up. Over the last 20 years she has built a unique body of work, and is much admired in the UK for her integrity, compassion and, above all, her memorably compelling films. Her documentaries succeed in telling unique personal stories at the same time that they show the universality of womanhood: how woman everywhere, no matter how different their circumstances, have the same types of hopes, fears and aspirations.
A graduate of the prestigious National Film School in London, Longinotto, in the last 15 years, has carved a reputation for observational films about women around the world. Her modus operandi, by and large, is to arrive in a country, often with a native collaborator, and immerse herself in the world of women in a given situation. In collaboration with Jano Williams and Claire Hunt, she made four films in Japan that ranged in subject matter from women living as men (Eat the Kimono, 1989) to the blood-soaked arenas of the professional women wrestling circuit (Gaea Girls, 2000). Indeed, Longinotto has found herself in many tight situations, with women living out their extreme passions or fears in front of her camera. Divorce, Iranian Style (1998), made with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, took viewers inside Tehran's tension-filled divorce courts, where women were given a brief amount of time to argue for a release from oppressive marriages.
Longinotto's latest film, The Day I Will Never Forget, which airs on HBO in January 2004, is no exception. In its unblinking examination of the defenses and cultural baggage surrounding female circumcision in Kenya, the film succeeds in what Longinotto does best: opening up a seldom seen world. International Documentary talked to Longinotto about her work and the success of The Day I Will Never Forget, which has screened at festivals around the world, picking up a clutch of awards.
The Day I Will Never Forget includes a harrowing scene where you filmed the circumcision of two sisters. What was it like to film this?
Kim Longinotto: The community nurse, Fhardosa, told me, "If you find it difficult, you'll just have to leave because the work that I'm doing depends on good relationships in the community." I coped more or less okay with the first girl, but the second girl really, really did me in because she grabbed onto my leg and was screaming. And in my mind I said, "Well, I mustn't do anything," because I knew Fhradosa was around. I wouldn't have been able to get those five women off her anyway. And I know Mary Milton, who was doing the sound, got really, really angry and said, "I'm never doing anything like this again." But when we went back the following morning, it was kind of a relief to hear them say that they'd wanted it. If we'd saved those girls, they'd have asked to have it done again. I suppose that sounds defensive. I still do feel terribly guilty.
What are some of the reactions you've had to the film?
People do get angry. But Fardhosa's sister was adamant [that] we have that scene in. Several of the characters were adamant. They said, "We had to go through it; how dare people say they can't watch it!" At the London Film Festival there was a big group of Kenyan woman in the front two rows. They were going to protest, but they couldn't stand up afterwards and say anything. That's what that particular scene does—it says, "This is actually the indefensible."
You balance social issues with the telling of compelling narrative, something not very easy to do. How do you do it?
I try to make a film that I would like to watch. And I really don't like films where I'm being told what to think, unless it's a report on the news. If I'm going in for 90 minutes, I like to discover things as I go along and feel I'm getting to know people for myself. And that's why it really helps that I'm doing the camera; in a way I'm thinking that I'm the audience and they're seeing what I'm seeing. So you're always trying to find a story that people can be a part of and watch.
But you must have made The Day I Will Never Forget for the issues which would emerge.
In a way it was the most difficult and the most scary for me, ever. Because it's about something quite concrete; it's about female circumcision, so I knew there were things that people would have to know about, exactly how it's done. The first couple of weeks I was there I was really terrified. I thought, How are we going to do this and how are we going to find a story? And the woman I went with said, "Nobody is going to want to talk about it."
How do people respond to you as a foreign filmmaker?
For each film it helps—or doesn't help—with being an outsider. It is scary to go to another country and have to somehow come up with stories. You just think, "Well, how?" It's so frightening because you're completely at the mercy of people trusting and taking you in-because they have the power, and they have the power either to let you in or not. Which is why documentary is so hard; you're nothing, really, and you're only as involved as people want you to be.
In Tehran, being foreign was wonderful. I was with Ziba and with her all the time, so we were very close and it was very much a shared thing. And people were so welcoming there. And women and men are so separate there. So when you're with women, you're a part of something and immediately accepted. There's a real warmth; it was a really nice experience filming.
And what was it like in Kenya?
We were going from one community to another, as I didn't want it to be in one community. And each community was different, and you had to adjust to different things. Something that quite surprised me was the Kenyan woman I went with, whom I had only known for a couple of weeks. She would talk about all the other tribes; some of them she'd like and some of them she wouldn't. Being an outsider, I didn't have any of those prejudices. And I've made terrible mistakes sometimes, thinking that being with someone from the country makes it better. Sometimes it makes it worse. It's so clear to me now; there are questions of gender, of power, of hierarchy.
With The Day I Will Never Forget, there were times when it was a real disadvantage being an outsider because half the time I wouldn't know what was going on. But I was able to be open to everyone. [Kenyan collaborator] Eunice Munanie was really scared a lot of the time, but Mary and I were fearless.
How is it working in collaboration with a co-director?
It's different with each film. With Ziba, she's like my sister and we really get on well. And particularly with Divorce Iranian Style, she'd written a book on it. She had never made a film before, didn't know anything about it, so I could say, "Let's just do it this way."
You've made each of your films shooting on an Aaton Super-16 camera—in this day and age shooting on film with a relatively large camera. Have you ever been tempted by DV?
What's nice about DV is you can take risks. There's definitely a space for those little cameras, and films you can't make with my camera that you can make with those. But my camera has never stopped me from filming anything because it was bigger. Fardhosa, when she saw me doing the filming, at first said, "Haven't you got a smaller one?" She was really horrified, but actually it didn't matter at all. I love my camera and I love the steadiness of it. And I love that fact that it's film.
Carol Nahra is a freelance journalist and documentary producer. As head of development for the UK independent production company Stampede (www.stampede.co.uk), she develops documentary films and series for British and international broadcasters.
Kim Longinotto—Select Filmography
- Pride of Place (1979)
- The Good Wife of Tokyo (with Claire Hunt; 1992)
- Eat the Kimono (with Claire Hunt;1989)
- Dream Girls (with Jano Williams; 1993
- Shinjuku Boys (with Jano Williams; 1995)
- Divorce Iranian Style (with Ziba Mir-Hosseini; 1998)
- Hidden Faces (with Claire Hunt; 1990)
- Gaea Girls (with Jano Williams; 2000)
- Runaway (with Ziba Mir-Hosseini; 2001)
- The Day I Will Never Forget (2002)
Available from Women Make Movies