British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto, the subject of a five-title retrospective season at this year's Antenna Documentary Festival including her latest, the powerful Indian story Salma, is one of Britain's most internationally admired documentary makers. You could, though, be forgiven for asking, “Kim who?”
I’m interested in rebels and pioneers
It's fair to assume not many Australians have heard of her, despite that hard-to-forget surname (from her Italian father) and the plentiful retrospectives and piles of official honours accorded her work – invariably about women.
Google the Fairfax papers' Daily Life sections (i.e. the 'women's pages' in all but name) or a popular female-oriented website like Mia Freedman's Mamamia, for articles or reviews, and you'll draw a blank. Which is kind of weird, given that nobody has amassed such an impressive, fascinating and often moving body of work on the condition of women around the globe, be they Japanese wrestlers (Gaea Girls, 2000), Cameroonian domestic abuse prosecutors (Sisters in Law, 2005), Iranian wives seeking divorce (Divorce Iranian Style, 1998), or an Indian women's rights campaigner (Pink Saris, 2010).
You might imagine from all this that Longinotto is a seasoned feminist campaigner with a sharp line in flame-throwing rhetoric. But in conversation she's distinctly upbeat and focused on the positive. This is no surprise if you've seen even only a handful, or indeed only one, of her films. It's striking just how spirited and frequently endearing are the many diverse women whose stories she keeps telling.
Salma, the subject of her most recent film, is a great example, an Indian woman abandoned by her mother at birth who survived being locked away in a room with a single window when she hit puberty aged 13 – customary for Muslim girls in her part of rural India. In conditions that might have sent her mad, she survived mentally by writing verse and emerged years later to become a campaigning politician and an acclaimed poet.
Salma's infectiously positive character is “exactly what I look for” when seeking subjects to film, says Longinotto from the US where she is working on a documentary about two former sex workers helping Chicago prostitutes. “I wouldn't want to go to the cinema and feel depressed, I want to come out feeling stronger. I'm interested in rebels and pioneers. The thing is, these are not just self-contained stories in their own world. They need to speak to us.”
So how does she find her subjects? Often while working on one film, she says, she will discover another story that demands to be told. In India she was screening Pink Saris to an audience that made viewers feel downbeat “until one woman stood up and told us the story of Salma, and I thought it was an incredible story. The main reason I thought that is that there are millions of girls shut away at puberty all around the world and you don't know about them. Very few come out to tell their stories.
“Also, it wasn't a victim, it was a survivor, someone who had tried to stand up. It was incredibly brave to do, because if [some] people strand up to tradition, [other] people get very angry.” When Salma accompanied the film to the Berlin Film Festival, she had to have bodyguards because of the threats made against her life.
If Longinotto has an obviously feminist take on the world, it's a small 'f', one rooted in humanism. As a filmmaker she is clearly focused on the power of storytelling, especially the struggle of the underdog, rather than in an abstract and elaborately applied ideology. The world is “so much more complicated and subtle and interesting” than ideology usually allows, she says. “Life is so contradictory and so complex. If you asked me, did I want to write a political tract, or did I want to write a novel, it would be the novel. That's hard to do in a film often, to show the contradictions of life. To me, the story of the person is so much more interesting [than an ideological take].”
With Salma, “the women's stories are so much more interesting than the men's stories, as they are the ones trying to change things,” she says before observing that the men in Salma's village “are just as frightened as the women, but in a different way.” The male selected for Salma's arranged marriage, for example, “knew that she didn't want to marry him, and that terrified him. The issue in India is not individual men, it's the idea of the whole mindset of traditional values, this way of being that's been going on for 100s and 100s of generations, and it's easier to fit in with this than to stand up to it.”
Although her subjects clearly put a great deal of trust in her, Longinotto surprisingly doesn't spend a lot of time getting to know them before filming. “Often when you meet people for the first time, they tell you things and I wouldn't want to be there without the camera.” Neither does she work hard at persuading people to appear in her films. “They either want to be in the film and they jump in, or they don't.”
While she hasn't suffered anything as extreme as, say, Salma or the mistreated wives of Divorce Iranian Style, Longinotto's own background story is pretty extraordinary in itself, involving an authoritarian father and a draconian girls' boarding school, where she was officially but temporarily sent to Coventry for a minor misdemeanor and then found herself being ignored for the next two years by all her classmates. After school, she went to live in London and made herself ill living rough before getting into Essex University to study literature and surviving by shoplifting but getting caught and sentenced to two years probation.
She'd wanted to become a writer but that wasn't working out. At this point, lost for direction, she took the advice of an ex-boyfriend from her school days who had gone on to study at film school and thought she should get her life together and try moving in the same direction. She agreed, was accepted into a film foundation course in Bristol and then got into the National Film and Television School. The friend was Nick Broomfield, who, of course, has been a major documentary maker for several decades.
The director of such films as Kurt and Courtney, Chicken Ranch and Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is still a good friend – in her words, “a fabulous person – a scamp”. This might sound an unlikely relationship, given their filmmaking styles are so dramatically opposed in style, her unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style contrasting with Broomfield's famous habit of putting himself on camera, which he began years before Michael Moore.
The irony, though, is that his early work was observational and it influenced her stylistic direction, especially his 1981 film about US female army recruits in training, Soldier Girl (co-directed with Joan Churchill). As for his later documentary style, she could never follow suit and appear on camera because “I know the people I'm filming are way more interesting than anything I could do.”
The attraction of her vivid subjects is that they are so unlike her. “All my childhood I was trying to fit in, I wasn't one of those wonderful rebels,” Longinotto says. “Salma didn't take the easy way, she fought. I think most of us are trying to take the easy way, to find the least pain. At school, I never challenged their ridiculous rules. That's why I like people like Salma. They're fighting and they never give up.”
Antenna Documentary Festival runs in Sydney October 2-7 and Melbourne October 17-20. For more information on the Longinotto retrospective, click here.