Divorce Iranian Style can be found at the Channel 4 On Demand site. Go here to play the film.
You may not have heard of Longinotto. She has been making documentaries for a number of years, building up a body of work that addresses controversial, even harrowing, topics: female circumcision in The Day I will Never Forget (2002), the difficulties of divorce within the Iranian system in Divorce Iranian Style (1998) or tackling domestic abuse in Cameroon in Sisters-in-Law (2005). Her latest documentary, Hold me Tight, Let me Go (2007), returns home, examining the relationship between staff and pupils in a school for traumatised children in Oxford.
A signature style is the intensity of the “performances” she obtains from her subjects. In Divorce Iranian Style, we follow a number of women through the cruel bureaucracy of a Tehran divorce court. Women seeking separation from unhappy or abusive relationships, demonstrate several, separate acts of resistance and “individual” solidarity, since they, somehow, separately stand together in the same battle. They have few rights under the law, but their emotion and determination is used to powerful effect. What emerges, I think, is the humanness (but constrained humanity) of those there, both men and women. The women’s spirit is undaunted.
Longinotto’s style in this is neither obtrusive or absent. In Divorce, the filmmakers are often applied to for opinions, both by the women and by the judge. However, she tends to use a self-effacing style of camerawork, avoiding a variety of shots, she tends to use the middle distance to show all the interactions whilst keeping us at a spectator’s distance. Commentators have spoken of her “restrained gaze” that can still “radiate such warmth” (www.redpepper.org). Longinotto also states that her aim is not to lead with argument; instead, to allow viewers to find their own way through the material.
In interviews, Longinotto cames across as being incredibly humanistic and focussed on the subject matter. She makes an interesting comparison with fiction narratives: “I like it when documentary has the same constraints as fiction, when it doesn’t have to give you a lesson or teach you what to think it’s just an emotional experience.” (imdb.com)
Longinotto won Screen International magazine’s British documentary competition at Britdoc (UK documentary festival), with Hold me Tight, Let me Go. Sisters-in-Law, from which we will watch extracts, won the ‘Prix de Art et Essai’ at Cannes Film Festival. Stunning that no significant attention was paid by our prize-obsessed media.
Sisters-in-Law and Divorce Iranian Style are very similar in structure, following three/four stranded narratives. My final quote could apply to both: “Longinotto’s deeply humane, but quietly unsensational portait of African women struggling for self-determination defies received notions about … women.”