With the release of a new DVD of Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway, and a new film appearing at Sundance this month, it’s an opportunity to highlight Kim Longinotto’s work. A British documentarian, who doesn’t quite seem to attract the recognition of some other documentary makers, her work is phenomenal in its range and its capturing of the emotional worlds of its subjects. Hold me Tight, Let me Go (2007), (pictured left) which has aired recently on UK television, is a powerful piece of work about the work of the Mulberry Bush School, for children who are severely emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Longinotto’s triumph here is to weave all the different strands, of all of these different stories together, firstly without judgement and, structurally, without a sense of those narratives become eclectic and disjointed.
Longinotto, in contrast to the ‘celebrity’ documentarians that have accompanied documentary’s renaissance in recent years, does aim to efface herself from the storytelling and to allow the ‘protagonists’ to speak for themselves. There are problems with attempting to do this, since the documentary maker inevitably shapes the material they produce through editing and decisions about accessed voices. However, her work is always affecting in its intense humanity in relation to its subjects. In Sisters in Law (2005) she, her collaborator Florence Ayisi and sound recordist Mary Milton, follow the work of a campaigning prosecutor, Vera Ngassa, and judge, Beatrice Ntuba, in Cameroon. Both women seek to redress the balance of endemic injustice by pursuing groundbreaking prosecutions of husbands for rape and violence and adults for abuse of children.
Despite the grim nature of this material, which the documentary gives unflinching coverage to, what emerges is the triumph of people’s humanity and a female drive for justice. Longinotto’s stated intention is to stand beside those in the culture and to film their stories as truthfully to the emotions as possible. “The women we’re following know that we’re there to tell their stories. We’re part of their fight, we’re on their side. And the amazing thing is how they make use of our presence. Suddenly, there’s a witness and that gives them confidence.” (www.redpepper.org). Longinotto is appealing to the universality of these emotions, of the connectedness of all experience.
In Divorce Iranian Style (1998) which is included on this new DVD, her stated role is to give back an identity, a named identity to the faceless and the powerless: “I just thought I’m so glad that I’m making films because I’m giving those little girls names… Really, I’m just balancing it a tiny bit.” (www.dfgdocs.com). Therefore, she intends a celebration of her subjects and their bravery, using film to give them an identity rather than herself. Working as a Western director on this material does raise issues of perspective and ideology, but Longinotto’s commitment to her subjects is not in doubt.
Quietly and sure-footedly, she has been building a reputation in the industry. Amongst others, Hold me Tight, Let me Go, won the Best British Documentary award at the Britdoc Festival 2007 and Sisters in Law won the Prix Art Et Essai award at Cannes Film Festival.
Longinotto’s work seems to spring from her own deep wellspring of emotions about her early experiences, and I feel she draws powerfully on these in her documentaries. They simply never fail to move and engage you.
Her latest work, Rough Aunties (2008), concerns women who care for abused and neglected children in Durban, South Africa. It is in competition at Sundance Film Festival this month.
There is much material for Longinotto on the web, but here’s an interesting interview on BAFTA’s website: http://www.bafta.org/learning/20-questions-kim-longinotto,547,BA.html#overlay=hidden.
The new DVD is released by Second Run. Sisters in Law is also available on DVD.