Kim Longinotto: 'Film-making saved my life'
She discusses her latest, award-winning documentary, about women in South Africa fighting for abused children
Kim Longinotto is in love. Not with just one person. And not in a sexual way. But she definitely loves the sound recordist on her latest film, the co-director she collaborated with in Iran, the anti-female-circumcision activist she worked with on The Day I Will Never Forget, all the teachers who so patiently held and calmed and reassured the damaged, excluded children of the Mulberry Bush school in her film Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go. She loves those damaged children too: Alex, the eight-year-old who tells his teacher he's going to kick her in the cunt; Michael, the 12-year-old who says there are "too many fucking arseholes in this fucking class". Longinotto's personality is like a long, warm bath. She loves almost everyone.
I arrive at her door, the cold whipping my back, the ridiculous, three-quarter length sleeves of my coat leaving my forearms like throbbing hams, and she pulls me in, and settles me in her kitchen with a cup of tea. I don't drink tea. Milk makes me retch. Her enthusiasm is such that I down half a mug. If part of the documentary-maker's job is to build instant relationships, instant trust, it's not difficult to see why Longinotto might forge ahead.
Often described as one of Britain's pre-eminent documentary-makers, she has been garlanded with honours – last year the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a two-week career retrospective, featuring 14 of her films. Longinotto's most recent documentary, Rough Aunties, won a 2009 Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and is being shown next month at the ICA as part of the Birds Eye View film festival. Like much of her work, the documentary focuses on a group of ordinary people living transformative lives – in this case the five women of Operation Bobbi Bear in Durban, South Africa, who fight for the rights of abused, neglected children.
The women are tough, caring, tenacious, angry, many of them rape and abuse survivors who, as Longinotto says, with some understatement, have a "very dramatic time of it". She spent 10 weeks with them and, in that short period, all of life unfolded before her camera. One of Eureka's extended family is shot. Sdudla's seven-year-old son drowns. Mildred counsels a young girl who has been vaginally and orally raped: "When I tried to bite it, he punched me," the girl tells her. Jackie takes in a 12-year-old child who has been viciously beaten by her uncle. Eureka finds a three-year-old boy abandoned in a car park.
This last encounter sums up the spirit of these women. The boy has been sodomised repeatedly; he is physically damaged. But his HIV test is negative, and the women cheer. "That was what was exciting about being with them," says Longinotto, "they were always looking for the positives. They've got this incredible energy, an infectious love of life, so that even when Sdudla's little boy dies, they sing, and then they're moving, and it becomes a dance. Incredible inner strength."
Longinotto's films focus largely on women: professional Japanese wrestlers in Gaea Girls; a Cameroonian judge and prosecutor in Sisters in Law; women in Tehran trying to leave their marriages in Divorce Iranian Style. She says that she empathises with "the outsiders, the people struggling. If women have no rights, if they are completely powerless, then they're the ones that you're going to want to make films about." She shrugs slightly. "If there was a place where men were being kicked around and women were locking them in cages, then you'd focus on [the men]."
Her feeling for outsiders isn't surprising given her own story. Longinotto was born to an Italian father and a Welsh mother and it sounds as if it was an uncomfortable, unhappy childhood. Her father was a photographer who later went bankrupt (much to her mother's chagrin), and Longinotto says that she "didn't dare argue" with him, ever. He was a "blower-upper, and I was completely in fear of him. My sister and I used to make sure all the cutlery wasn't touching at mealtimes, because we had all these little superstitions about what would make him cross."
At 10, Longinotto was sent to a draconian all-girls boarding school, where she quickly became an outcast. This didn't happen of its own accord; after getting lost during a school trip to the theatre, she was made an example of in assembly the next day, "sent to coventry, that weird phrase". None of the other girls was allowed to talk to her at all, "at first just for a term" – a whole term! – "but then it carried on for two or three years, because I'd become a pariah". She ate her meals separately, and lived in a place called Turret House, from where she would write letters to the head- mistress begging to return to the dormitory with the other girls. "I never really made friends," she says, "and what I learned was that when people have unlimited authority, there's no safety valve. There was a sense that they could do anything they wanted."
She left school at 16 for a crammer in London, where she met her first proper friend – Nick Broomfield, now another of the country's most respected documentary-makers. Longinotto was at the crammer for a year, and then left home. She had nowhere to go, no money saved, and so she lived on the streets. "I just left home with a bag," she says, "and there was something self-loathing about it really – I wanted to go right to the bottom. I became very, very ill, nearly died. It was disgusting." She pulls up her sleeve and shows me a patch of puckered flesh, a scar from the boils she developed. "I used to pretend that it was from a scorpion bite."
Longinotto went home to recover, then on to Essex University to study English and European literature, where she survived by shoplifting (she eventually felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, and was sentenced to two years' probation). She had always wanted to write, but that talent never developed, and so she did a foundation course in film at Bristol, and then followed Broomfield to the National Film and Television School. This "was my last chance to be normal really, and it saved my life. For the first time I was happy." While there, she made a documentary about her old boarding school – not a glowing portrait – and when it was shown at the London Film Festival her former headmistress spat that she was a "class traitor". The school closed the following year.
Longinotto says that as soon as she started making documentaries, "I knew it was the most important thing in my life. It became what I was doing, who I was, everything. Having lived with so many secrets, so much hate, anger, everything being bitter at home, I wanted to make films that would do the opposite. What's brilliant about making films is that you don't have to be an interesting person. It's the people you film who are interesting, and you can celebrate them."
People like the Kenyan girls in The Day I Will Never Forget, who take their parents to court to ensure they won't be circumcised. The film is immensely powerful, and contains one of the most visceral scenes ever committed to the screen. A girl is pinned down by a group of women, and a razorblade taken to her genitals. Her anguish is unbearable; she screams and heaves and keens. A young girl looks on in silent shock, and then they grab her too. The whole scene plays out again. When the film was first screened, eight people fainted.
I ask Longinotto whether she had qualms about filming this, about not stepping in, and she says that Fardhosa – the anti-circumcision activist she was working with – "really wanted it shown". Fardhosa tries to prevent circumcision in all circumstances, but when that proves impossible, she encourages local circumcisers to carry out the operation in the most minimal way, and attends so that she can ensure clean blades are used, and that the girls don't bleed to death. "Fardhosa said, 'Look, if you feel you can't cope with it, just leave, because if you try and stop it they'll do it in the [more extreme] way. If you stop it, it's only to make yourself feel better.'" It seems the scene achieved the desired effect – "We would have delegations coming to film screenings to defend the practice, and, having watched that scene, they would walk away like lambs at the end. There's no way you could watch it and defend female circumcision."
Longinotto pauses. "Having said all that, when I was filming it, I felt really nasty, really low. But we were there to film it. That's our job. You become two people. In your mind you know that you have to do it, but in your heart you feel bad."
Her subject matter is sometimes depressing; did filming the struggles of the Bobbi Bear team ever get her down? "If I'm really honest," she says, "when I think of Rough Aunties I get this feeling of joy. Because I feel so privileged to have met them, I love them so much, and I think they're so brilliant. They're working together, loving each other, part of each other's lives." After spending so much of her childhood alone, isolated, Longinotto is clearly thrilled to have found an alternative world, bursting with people she loves. Long may she film them.
12 February 2010
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