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June/July 2006
Witness Through a Camera Lens

The Satya Interview with Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto, renowned for producing films that draw attention to oppressed and victimized women, constantly films the unfilmable. In The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), she examines the tradition of female circumcision in Kenya. In Divorce Iranian Style (1998), she obtained entry to Iran’s guarded divorce courts. And in Shinjuku Boys (1995), she deals with Japanese annabes, women who live as men and have girlfriends. She films with an air of compassion, be it the Iranian teenage girls who break out of abusive homes in Runaway (2001) or the cross-dressing Japanese women who live an extremely restricted and isolated way of life in Dream Girls (1994).

Longinotto was destined to be a documentary maker. As a teenager, she filmed Pride of Place, a critical look at her boarding school. Located in an isolated castle in Buckinghamshire, the school has since been compared to a miniature state with bizarre rules, indigestible food and absurd and unfair punishments. Her film led to the school’s closure.

Her latest film, Sisters in Law, winner of the Prix Art et Essai at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and screened at more than 90 festivals around the world, was filmed in Cameroon with Florence Ayisi. It follows two women, a judge and a state prosecutor, as they deal with cases of domestic violence, child abuse and divorce in a deeply traditional community. While filming Sisters in Law, Kim not only lost the first six weeks of film to an airport X-ray, but also battled typhoid fever and malaria. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to attend the NYC premier of Sisters in Law and speak with Kim Longinotto about filming compassionate documentaries that take viewers into typically inaccessible lives of girls and women standing up for their rights in the face of tradition.

From behind the camera, you have witnessed the ritual of female circumcision, the trial of a man accused of raping a nine year-old girl, and many other instances of women struggling against abuse. What inspires you to take on such projects?
We don’t often read about these kinds of stories—stories about ordinary women making changes happen. To give you an example, in Kenya we were filming The Day I Will Never Forget, about 16 girls who take their parents to court to stop from being circumcised. Circumcision is something that has gone on for thousands and thousands of years. This case could change the face of that whole area forever. There was a local TV crew there that day but the magistrate was at a conference and told us to come back. So we asked the TV crew if they were going to come back in two weeks, but they said they probably wouldn’t because it wasn’t a big deal like local politicians, sports and such. That’s when I realized why we don’t really hear about these stories, they are not viewed as important. It is also because they are women’s stories. I know that sounds strange, but I really can’t think of any other reason why that case wasn’t a massive story. All of a sudden, I was really glad I was filming this. I understood how otherwise, these stories would never be told.

Do you consider yourself an activist?
No, I consider myself somebody lucky enough to be able to make films. I think the real activists, the real heroes are the people I film. I am doing it the easy way, they have to do all the hard work. Hopefully the films can be part of change, but I am not doing anything but filming. I am not making the change.

Oh, I don’t think that is true—your films reach so many people. Without them people would be kept in the dark…
But to be really straight with you, it is the people in the film who are the activists. They are taking the big risks. I mean, I was pretty scared of my dad. The thought of taking him to court, well I just can’t imagine what that must be like…

No, I couldn’t imagine either. You seem to always find ways to integrate women-centered feminist ideals into your filmmaking.
I think just by following women’s stories—I like making films about strong women and particularly women who are brave outsiders. We seem to see them too rarely on our screens and yet, wherever I go, I meet them. People often ask why don’t I make films about men, which I never really know how to answer. I am sure that people do not ask men, why they do not make films about women, it just never occurs to them. It is really unbalanced.

How do you persuade people to open up on camera about such deep and personal issues?
I have never felt that I have to do anything to have them open up. Often the women are ready to be filmed and feel their stories haven’t been told, that they have never had a voice before. They really just grab the opportunity. It is really kind of inspiring for them to be part of a film, they seem to really enjoy it. For example, Amina, who we filmed in Sisters in Law, really wanted us to be there—to witness what she was going through. Her case was the first successful conviction in Cameroon for spousal abuse. She’s going against everyone; all her family is telling her to stop. She’s fighting for her life, as she sees it. In that situation, I suspect she really appreciates having us in the courtroom alongside her. I think it was not just the film, but that there are people following her story, who are on her side. When working on a lot of the films like Sisters in Law, Shinjuku Boys, The Day I Will Never Forget, it was almost like we were witnesses, and this was their chance to speak. Sometimes filming things reverses the balance of power between people and enables weaker people to be stronger.

Can you tell us about your filming Sisters in Law?
I sort of fell in love with Vera Ngassa, the judge in the film. Vera was the most amazing person in the world. I just really admired her. And she made everything easy. She kind of took us by hand. She was just very matter of fact, the way she is in the film, a very straight-forward way she has. And she never made a fuss about being filmed or made it difficult.

How did you get access to film inside the prison?
When we visited the prison, at the end of the film, we went with Vera. I think it would have been a very difficult place to go without her. That was down to Vera. She was going to visit an inmate whose trial we’d filmed, and she sort of swept us along with her. She’s been visiting that prison for ages, making sure that people have enough to eat, and that people who’re there who shouldn’t be there get out…she’s amazing. People are very fond of her there, and in awe of her as well. So I think there was no way that anyone was going to tell her who she could or couldn’t bring in with her.

In Sisters in Law, the victims of crime include an abused child, a girl daring to accuse a man of rape, and women trying to end brutal marriages in a society where divorce—especially woman-initiated divorce—is taboo. How do you cope with the stress of what you witnessed?
Well, there is a lot of hugging going on, except with Beatrice and Vera, they were very self-possessed. They had to hold their jobs together. So I was very much in awe of them and I have gotten much closer to them since we have stopped filming. I think we are proper friends now. I am quite an emotional person and I kept telling myself I mustn’t cry because they were being so calm. When Vera first saw the screening of Sisters in Law, she cried and I thought “Oh, isn’t that wonderful, Vera is crying and I am not.” I think it was because she wasn’t at work and could just be herself.

What has the audience response to Sisters in Law been?
Oh, it has been amazing. I don’t think we have had a bad screening anywhere. We have had occasionally one or two people who have made a fuss. For example, a man made a fuss in South Africa about the little girl Sonita being in the same room as her rapist, but Vera and Beatrice talk about it really interestingly. Cameroon doesn’t have counseling. So to stand up in front of your rapist and demand justice in front of him is part of the healing process. I also love the part in the police station where Manka’s aunt kneels at her feet begging for forgiveness for beating her, and I know Manka looks a bit embarrassed but she said afterward that it felt really good. I think that is all part of getting your self respect back, your dignity back. But people still sometimes find that really disturbing.

The only other thing that people have criticized was wanting more context. They want the political history of Cameroon, specifics on the judges. But really, everybody wants something different. And it all seems very arrogant to me, to give some sort of commentary on Cameroon’s political history. Because it is very dependent on who you are and where you are coming from. I wanted this to be a film of universal story, to make the links between Cameroonians and people from other countries. As soon as you start talking about policies and statistics, it kind of separates you from people in the film and makes them part of a lesson or part of the statistic.

Like, go read a book, this film is about the people…
Exactly. I thought if I put all the things that everyone wanted in, there would be no space left for Manka and Amina. Today you can Google so easily. But it can be upsetting. I usually try to find out what it is people want. And I try and talk to them and see what is missing. There is very little written about the law in Cameroon. I wish there was a book I could point people to. Vera has been threatening to write one. We’ll see.

Right, but it would complicate the film. Right now you see the little girls, you feel for the women standing up for themselves, and how brave they are.
I know, I know. I don’t want to lose that. I want people to get lost in the film, lost emotionally. In the end, I make the kind of film I like to watch. I want the audience to feel close to the people in my films, to identify with them in some way, to think, “that could be my sister, my daughter.”

Are you still in touch with people you have filmed?
I am in touch with practically everyone from Sisters in Law. Vera and Beatrice email me every single day and if I don’t email them for a few days they get all ‘what’s happened? Have you forgotten us?’ So I know we will be in touch for ages. I hope for the rest of my life really. And I am in touch with Amina, but it is harder because she has to find someone to email for her. Her little girl is at school and I am hoping that when she is a bit older we can email too. And little Manka, I get emails from her uncle. So I am really in touch with them all. It really helps that they speak English. It makes it a lot easier.

What gives you hope?
I suppose we always hear the bad things in the news, how some woman was raped in London and nobody did anything. But whenever I go out into the streets, people seem to be helping and supporting each other. I just got off the bus just now and a woman fell down and four people ran to help her up. It is the sort of thing you don’t notice, really you take for granted. I suppose it is all the little stories that we don’t hear about, all the little things.

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