Kim Longinottoâ€™s documentary Sisters in Law won the Prix Arts et Essais at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, bringing the director to international attention. Her previous documentaries, such as Divorce Iranian Style, set in a divorce court in Tehran, and The Day I Will Never Forget, about women working to abolish female genital mutilation in Kenya, have played at festivals and cinemas around the world.
Kim Longinotto’s documentary Sisters in Law won the Prix Arts et Essais at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, bringing the director to international attention. Her previous documentaries, such as Divorce Iranian Style, set in a divorce court in Tehran, and The Day I Will Never Forget, about women working to abolish female genital mutilation in Kenya, have played at festivals and cinemas around the world.
Longinotto has been making films since 1976, raising money independently and travelling around the world to document women’s lives. The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London celebrated the 2006 release of Sisters in Law with her first ever retrospective.
SM I’m really enjoying this season of your documentary films at the ICA. Do you have a feeling that there’s a thread running through all the stories that you tell ?
KL What I’m looking for is change. If I’m going abroad, I’ve only got a certain amount of time, six or eight weeks, and I’ve got to bring a story, so the most obvious way to do that is to film something where there is a very dramatic change taking place, like going through wrestling school, and the character’s going to make it or she’s not.
SM There’s a wrestling school in Gaea Girls, the theatre school Takarazuka in Dream Girls, Simalo’s boarding school in The Day I Will Never Forget, and they’re all very strict. Does that reflect your experience of school ?
KL I went to a boarding school that had all these stupid rules. They talked about the working classes and how we were better than them, and yet treated us with such contempt and tried to break us.
SM Given that you had an upbringing with a certain amount of privilege, what was it that made you aware of how power works, and compelled you to give voice to people who don’t have a voice ?
KL I think it was the experience of being a child, which I hated, and living at home with a father who hated anyone who was even slightly different, and a mother who was an incredible snob. I really identified with people that were somehow outside things, but I didn’t meet them until after I’d run away from home. I think people change you.
SM Is that true of the people in your films, too ?
KL Vera and Beatrice [a lawyer and judge in Cameroon, the main characters in Sisters in Law] had a great influence on me. Fardhosa, the district nurse, in The Day I Will Never Forget, I really swore after I got to know her, that I would be gentler about my convictions, that I’d try and be more like her, more openminded and softer and gentler. So I think people impress you, and you see things about them.
SM Fardhosa is gentle, but she also has very clear politics. Are your films an expression of your politics, or do you suppress your position in order to hear other people’s ?
KL It depends. The Day was the closest to wanting to make a campaigning film. I’d had friends who’d had Female Genital Mutilation, and told me how it had ruined their lives and made them not trust their parents. It seemed to be a crystallisation of this idea of tradition – that you’re meant to accept things just because they’re old and part of your culture. I wanted to show the falseness of that. I knew that I didn’t want to have victims, that I wanted there to be young girls and women fighting, not just people talking about them.
SM Your films put women at their centres, and it seems to me like they have a feminist background or leanings. Were there any works or texts that were particularly influential ?
KL One that really influenced me was a book by Nawal al-Sadaawi, which is why I went to make a film about her. It’s called The Hidden Face of Eve, and I thought that was an amazing book. My friend Safra and I went to make a film about Nawal, except that she’d become a big celebrity and had become drunk on her own power. It was very disturbing, and she behaved very badly to the people that she was meant to be on the side of.
SM Do you think that happens to anyone who gets power ?
KL Vera and Beatrice have become more and more powerful and successful, but they’ve never become compromised or affected by self-importance. They never think of themselves as better than anybody, andthey’re continually working for what they call the underdogs. They’re special, those two.
SM In each film, there are these incredible central characters, like Vera and Beatrice. Why are these characters so important in how you structure your films ?
KL What I’m hoping is that when people watch the films, they get a sense that they’re getting as close to those people as I have. That’s why I filmed Vera when she was with her little son, because I wanted to show the soft side of her. It’s choosing the moments to reveal the things you’ve grown to like about them, and that have impressed you about them. What I want people to feel is a leap of recognition that these could be people that they know. To get that closeness through watching them is like what happens in fiction as well.
SM Your films have really gripping narratives...
KL You get little twists, like with Lum Rose [a character in Sisters in Law, who Beatrice sentences to jail for beating her niece almost to death], you’re very distant from her, and you can see that there’s something very false about her. Then in that moment in the prison [when she begs Vera for medicine], you suddenly feel this jolt, you think, she really is devastated, she’s been through something I can’t even imagine. In Gaea Girls, we thought Nagayo [the wrestling teacher] was fabulous, we adored her, then we got scared of her, then we felt sorry for her, and hopefully that’s what people feel as they go through the film, that people change.
SM That happens to other characters in your films, like Simalo [a girl who has run away from her family after they circumcised her against her consent], in The Day. She seems to know what she wants so clearly, then at the end wants to go back to her family.
KL She’s amazing, she’s a real pioneer, somebody who’s really trying to change her life, and really brave enough to go for change. But she’s on her own, whereas the sixteen girls who join together, they’re changing their village from the inside, so they’re changing things in a bigger way, and they’re going to be OK. But Simalo is always going to be an outsider, and she’s going to feel a great loss at the centre of her life – her family, her friends, her village, everything – her whole identity, she has to give it up, go and learn different languages and be completely on her own. At one point she says to her social worker that at least they respected her at home.
SM I found N’Daisi, the social worker, really compelling, like the characters from Sisters in Law. They’re a group of African professional women who you rarely see when Africa is presented in the media, and you really highlight them to the extent that they are not just subjects, but collaborators in the films.
KL Absolutely. Vera and Beatrice are so impressive, and so dedicated. For example, when we went to the prison for Lum Rose, it would have been impossible for us to have got permission to film there, and Vera just swept us in with her. It was very much her making things happen and us filming it. That’s very close to what it was like with Fardhosa in Kenya, she was going around talking to women, trying to make change, and we were following in her wake and filming it. She was the one that was doing things, and we were just really privileged to be allowed to be with her.
SM Your films show women with unexpected lives – not just performers in a wealthy nation, like the wrestlers in Japan, but Muslim women fighting domestic violence in Iran and Cameroon. How did these women deal with being the subjects of a film at such a tough point in their lives ?
KL When Amina [one of the characters in Sisters in Law who successfully prosecutes her husband] was going through her divorce, she would always say to Mary [Milton, Kim’s sound recordist] and I, are you going to be there ? That makes sense, because there hadn’t been any convictions before. Amina knew that Mary and I were there as witnesses, and also we were there supporting and encouraging her, and that we were going to be there each step of the way.
SM One of the things that really fascinated me about Sisters in Law and The Day is how many lessons there are to learn from grassroots women’s movements and action that’s happening in Africa, rather than importing Western notions of feminism.
KL I think of Fazia [in The Day] who’s 8 years old, asking her mother to help her sister. She’s read the Koran and had her whole argument mapped out, and she used me to make that happen. She insisted on speaking in English so that we were real witnesses to what was happening. She set the whole scene up. When I arrived, she told me where to stand, and just told her poem into the camera. I felt like she was about 60 and I was about 10, a complete role reversal.
SM It seems like those are the moments that define what documentary can do, not just cinematically but politically.
KL Like when we filmed the girls taking their parents to court in The Day. There was a local Kenyan TV crew there, two guys with a little camera, and they started interviewing the girls. We spoke to those guys when we knew it was all going to be delayed for two weeks, and asked whether they were going to come back for the verdict, and they said, it’s not a big enough story. In terms of that community, you could hardly get a bigger story. So I felt this great relief that we were there filming it, and other girls might get to hear about it that way.
SM Was it a conscious decision to redress the balance, and focus on women’s stories, or is it just what you’re drawn to ?
KL Being a woman, I’m very drawn to filming women. It’s just what I’m interested in, and I often find that in situations where women don’t have the power, they are much more articulate and emotional because that’s all they’ve got.
SM Do you feel that your films could change that, even as they demonstrate it ?
KL It is a documentation. It is those people who are making change. Mary and I are just there filming it, which is much easier than to go home after you’ve taken your father to court and he’s furious with you and you have to live in his house. Films hopefully can be a little part of change, showing what other brave people are doing. Lots of people have met Vera and Beatrice from Sisters in Law, because of the film, but they are the ones who are doing everything.
SM What about audience reactions ? Have people told you that your films have changed things for them ?
KL Mary and I went to Cape Town with Sisters in Law, and I’ll never forget that screening. It was amazing, lots of girls came up after and said, we’ve been raped and we’re really proud that the little girl’s standing up in the film and confronting her rapist. We’ve never told anyone we’ve been raped, and we’re going to go home and tell. Really amazing things. That was very moving and exciting. It was really exciting to know that women in Africa liked it.
Films by Longinotto 1. Sisters in Law (2005) 2. The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) 3. Runaway (2001/I) 4. Gaea Girls (2000) 5. Divorce Iranian Style (1998) 6. Rock Wives (1996) (TV) 7. Shinjuku Boys (1995) 8. Dream Girls (1994) 9. The Good Wife of Tokyo (1992) 10. Eat the Kimono (1989) 11. Underage (1982)