“Woman is woman’s natural ally.” – Euripides
“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” – Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox
British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto has earned a reputation for creating emotionally engrossing stories about women and girls heroically claiming their power where often they have none. Her films breathe life into those of us who feel starved for hope and healing. With sensitivity and compassion, they pose important questions: what is our moral obligation to one another; how do you forgive the crimes of the past and create a better future; what does it mean to be human? Be it a shelter for runaway girls or a divorce court in Iran, a tribal circumcision ceremony or a progressive health clinic in Kenya, a women’s co-operative in rural Egypt or a grueling training camp for female wrestlers in Japan, Longinotto is willing to go to places mainstream media fear to tread. As both director and cinematographer, she uses her camera as an empathic tool showing us what social change actually looks like. Acts of defiance become paradigm shifts. Longinotto takes us to the threshold of unfamiliar situations and invites us in; we feel safe even if we’re not always comfortable.
Her latest groundbreaking offering is Sisters in Law (2005), co-directed with Florence Ayisi. Shot in Kumba, Cameroon, the film follows the daily dealings of Vera Ngassa, a charismatic state prosecutor, and Judge Beatrice Ntuba. Interweaving four cases in a local court, we meet Amina and Ladi, two Muslim women seeking emancipation from their abusive husbands, Manka, an eight year- old badly beaten by her aunt, and Sonita, a girl accusing a neighbor of rape. The only documentary chosen for the Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it won the Prix Art et Essai and a special mention in their Europa Cinemas section. Sisters in Law will open the prestigious 18th International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA).
After the profound experience of making The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), which focused on female genital mutilation (FGM), Longinotto wanted to return to Africa. “I’d met all these amazing girls and thought there must be loads more stories that we never hear about.” She went to Cameroon in search of a story of triumph or change, a sense that the society is shifting. In Ayisi’s hometown, they met Vera who knew a woman who was about to become a judge. Given such remarkable circumstances, “there was a lot of stress and strain. All the men were furious and all the women were delighted.” The original shoot went well but even paying someone to put the film onto a plane to prevent it from being X-rayed proved problematic. The rushes were ruined and they had to start afresh. “Nothing like this had ever happened to us before,” says Longinotto. “We weren’t sure what to tell Vera, who’d been more of a secondary character. She said, ‘Well, 7 o’clock tomorrow morning then.’ Sometimes when you get into a panic you can feel like it’s the end, but actually it’s just the beginning of something else. And life’s like that anyway.”
Longinotto has made close to 20 films, won countless awards and top prizes from prestigious film festivals worldwide, yet feels that, “I’m just starting to really get the hang of how to tell a story in the way that I want to tell it because it’s been quite difficult to work out how to do it. I don’t like films where you just get interview, interview, interview and then bits of cutaway in-between and that’s meant to be a film. With each film I try to make a story that people can get totally lost in and have an emotional experience.”
The maidens and mothers who populate her films are unassuming social revolutionaries fighting for the right to be free, to be themselves. In Eat the Kimono (1989), performer and activist Haneyagi Genshu affirms that, “If you make friends with people, you realize that everyone’s the same, we all come from a mother’s womb.” A woman in Divorce Iranian Style (1998) pleads, “Aren’t I a person too? Don’t I want a life?” Later in the film, a small girl props herself up at the judge’s stand; she’s the daughter of a court clerk and an emerging voice of the next generation: “Silence! When a woman is trying so hard to live with you and be respectful, why do you treat her badly?” In Runaway (2001), a teenage girl asks, “Don’t I have any rights in this life?”
Often the best teachers are those who’ve descended into darkness, survived their own personal trauma and brought back a treasure to share. Longinotto had an unhappy childhood and was at odds with the values around her. Her final film while studying at The National Film School in London was a searing exposé on her boarding school. Pride of Place (1976) actually led to the school’s closing. “We were humiliated and treated really badly. So I think everything I do is about redressing that—making people who are in those kinds of situations feel better.” Internal necessity led to social responsibility.
Like a cinematic shaman, she is a conduit in service of the story that’s literally happening through her. A female cross-dresser in Dream Girls (1993) croons, “If you want to make our dream come true, let’s gaze into each other’s eyes. Let’s understand everything about each other.” The trust Longinotto achieves allows for incredibly intimate access, enriching the process and final product. “We all do things differently and I’m not saying there’s only one way, but I try to be invisible. I don’t do zooms or flashy camera. I don’t draw attention to the filmmaking,” she explains. “I want it to feel like things are coming straight through the camera, that the audience is standing where I’m standing, seeing what I’m seeing – through my eyes – the same way I think about my friends back home telling them, ‘This is what you’re going to see now.’”
It’s disorienting being privy to such hidden worlds and private moments—the contradictions can be blinding. Many of the women and girls in her films are considered outcasts because they’ve gone against their tradition and family. Love still whispers in the shadows but real change takes time and these complex realities are steeped in rationalizations like, “It’s our culture” and “It’s always been this way.” In The Day I Will Never Forget, a girl is asked, “Who do you fear, your mother or your father?” She answers, “My mother.” A reminder that both genders are to blame for such endemic problems. Longinotto is a silent witness recording personal revelations that serve as both catharsis and catalyst for the one speaking and the one listening.
There’s a scene in Sisters in Law when Lum Rose, the aunt who’s been brutally abusing little Manka, asks for forgiveness. “It’s so theatrical because it’s being done for the family’s benefit. You can see that the tears are false tears, she’s not sorry yet,” feels Longinotto. “She’s going through a strange journey coming to terms with the fact that what she’s done is wrong. Even though Manka wasn’t comfortable with this woman that’s terrified her and nearly killed her kneeling at her feet, it felt extraordinary while I was filming. It reminded me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa where perpetrators of violence ask for forgiveness from the victims, not for themselves but for the victims to somehow get a measure of self-respect back.”
The same morning of POV’s interview with Longinotto during the 30th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the Premier of Ontario ruled against the practice of the Islamic Sharia law, which discriminates against women, preventing its use in settling family disputes. “It’s a 6th century law trying to operate in the 21st century. It’s madness. What’s fascinating is that it’s women who are challenging it every step of the way,” says Longinotto. In Sisters in Law, which had terrific screenings at TIFF, one sees, for the first time in 17 years, a man convicted of spousal abuse in Cameroon. After winning her case, Ladi poetically says, “It’s like I swallowed a big bone which was stuck tight in my neck. Then they gave me water and it washes it down. I’m very happy today because that bone is gone, it’s not sticking in my throat.” Amina’s friends, inspired by the example she’s also set, confide that they were dying in silence but now their eyes are open. Her response, “Experience is the best teacher.”
“It’s very humbling because you’re completely dependent on what’s going on around you. I loved Amina so much and felt so proud of her,” says Longinotto. “At the beginning she’s so scared and has such a low opinion about herself. Then you see her blossom throughout the film. But she was the powerful one because she could have told us to stop at any time. And yet we’re aware in another dimension, we have the power because we’re making the film.” Sisters in Law ends with privileged young women in a university law class applauding Ladi and Amina. It’s an incredible moment for them, because they’d never been in a school before. “I love that Vera wore a headscarf as a tribute to them saying, ‘These two Muslim women are making your world better!’ That was another scene where I was crying. At the end Mary (Milton, her sound recordist) said to me, ‘C’mon, we’ll go and have a cup of tea.’”
Working with an all-woman crew helps. In Runway, Longinotto, Milton and co-director Ziba Mir-Hosseini wanted to film girls in some sort of crisis. But the woman who ran the shelter said they could only shoot for three days. As the first center of its sort in post-revolutionary Iran, there had been a lot of people filming there and upsetting the girls. “On the first day the girls said to us, ‘Who are you going to interview?’ We said, ‘We’re going to do something together and see what happens.’ The girls asked us to come up to the bedrooms on the second floor where crews are normally not allowed to go, especially not men. They put on this Iranian music and said, ‘Go on, we want to see you dance.’ The girls were hysterical, rolling on the floor and crying with laughter. They weren’t laughing with us, they were really laughing at us and we were laughing with them because we knew we looked so ridiculous. At the end of the three days when we asked if we could stay, the women said, ‘You can stay as long as you like.’”
Longinotto’s lens captured another landmark court case with The Day I Will Never Forget. Sixteen young girls risked everything, saying no to FGM (female genital mutilation). They ended up changing the law and their society forever: educate a girl and you educate the whole village. “The court victory wasn’t even seen locally in Kenya. It’s so nice to feel that you’re documenting something that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. They’re these amazing girls and young women doing extraordinarily brave things. Once you have control of your body, then you start to be able to think about controlling other things.”
A girl looks directly into the camera and recites a poem about the day she was circumcised. Language has the power to inform and transform: “I love that scene with Fouzia because it seemed such a miracle that a little girl of nine should boss me around in such a beautiful way just because of her determination…(she) set up this kind of confrontation with her mum and wanted us to film it.” Longinotto has told this story often and is still moved by it. “It was a protest, like a Bob Dylan song. She was standing up for her two year-old sister but also arguing on behalf of everybody. I don’t think I’d have had the courage to script a fiction film with this little girl, whose whole family and community are for this tradition, who confronts her mother to save her sister because I wouldn’t have believed that a girl like that existed.”
Her films can make one feel breathless with anger, exhausted by humanity’s still-strong fear of the feminine, yet exhilarated with inspiration. Deepak Chopra believes, “The new intelligence is a female intelligence. It’s non-linear, holistic, intuitive, creative, nourishing and wise. It’s non-predatory, not always about winning or losing and needs to be embraced by both men and women.” Her documentaries exemplify this “new intelligence.” They’re relevant, experiential gifts reminding us of our interconnectedness and potential for positive social change.
Kim Longinotto creates what philosopher Herbert Marcuse called a “cosmos of hope,” stories that move the spirit, open hearts and reveal a direction forward. Her working philosophy may well have been summed up in The Good Wife of Tokyo (1992): “We women should continue our mission to love everyone.” To Longinotto, they’re “all the same. That’s why it’s quite nice to go to different countries because then it’s not so clear that they’re all the same film, people rebelling against authority. They’re all rebellion films.”
Kim Longinotto Filmography
Sisters in Law, co-directed with Florence Ayisi, 2005
The Day I Will Never Forget, 2002
Runaway, co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, 2001
Gaea Girls, co-directed with Jano Williams, 2000
Steve & Dave, Best Friends series, Channel 4, 1999
Rob & Chris, Best Friends series, Channel 4, 1999
Divorce Iranian Style, co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, 1998
Rock Wives, Channel 4, 1996
Shinjuku Boys, co-directed with Jano Williams, 1995
Dream Girls, co-directed with Jano Williams, 1993
The Good Wife of Tokyo, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 1992
Hidden Faces, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 1990
Eat the Kimono, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 1989
Tragic but Brave, Channel 4, 1988
Underage, made independently, shown on Channel 4, 1984
Fireraiser, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 1983
Cross and Passion, made independently, shown on Channel 4, 1981
Theatre Girls, made at The National Film School, shown on ITV, 1978
Pride of Place, made at The National Film School, 1976
Kim Longinotto’s films are distributed internationally by London-based The Royal Anthropological Institute: therai.org.uk
All of the features are distributed in North America through Women Make Movies. Established in 1972, Women Make Movies is a US-based non-profit media organization and the largest distributor of films made exclusively by and about women. WMM’s collection of more than 500 films are used by thousands of educational, community and cultural organizations annually, exhibited at film festivals worldwide and broadcast on television and cable stations in the U.S. and abroad. For more information, visit www.wmm.com