One of England's most respected documentary filmmakers, Kim Longinotto's work has been compared to cinéma-vérité master Frederick Wiseman. She's scrupulous about not spinning the truth, though she does admit to one overriding bias: "I have a problem with authority."
Born in 1952, Longinotto had an unhappy childhood and was sent away to boarding school in her teens, where, because of a minor infraction, she was "sent to Coventry" - not spoken to by classmates for three years. She ran away, had a period of shoplifting, homelessness and, after an illness, ended up at National Film School - which, she has said, saved her life.
Her first film, Pride of Place, shot in black and white on tail ends of film stock while she was still in school, was a scathing look at her old boarding school, which caused her former principal to label her as a "class traitor." Her second film, Theatre Girls, also shot in black-and-white while she was still a student, was a study of a London women's shelter.
I was sitting on the ground with my camera feeling very weird, sort of on auto-pilot, thinking I need a shot of the river to get my scene. My friend, who did the sound on the film, felt morally compromised by filming it and stopped working with me.
Part of Longinotto's distrust for authority includes filmmakers who try to tell viewers what to think. Whether talking to women who live as men in Japan, monitoring an Iraq divorce court or showing us the fight against female circumcision in Kenya, she offers an honest window into the lives of women in critical moments of social transition. Though it's exactly the opposite of the first-person documentary style that has dominated most of the last decade, recently Longinotto's work has begun earning increased international acclaim.
Last year, Rough Aunties, won the Grand Jury Prize for international documentaries at Sundance, and the Museum of Modern Art held a two-week retrospective of her films. This year, she'll receive the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Hot Docs festival, which will be presented in Toronto tonight.
You've been making films for more than 30 years. You seem to use fewer onscreen interviews and less explanatory text as you go along. How do you feel you've evolved?
I'm gradually learning how to tell stories better - how to make a film with a beginning, middle and end. I never wanted to have voice-over and interviews. The main criticism I get from people is that there isn't enough context, not enough facts and figures. But nowadays, you know, if you want more information, you can look it up. Take Sisters in Law [a profile of a woman prosecutor and judge in Cameroon] I could have said at the beginning of the film that there are 280 women out of 600 judges in Cameroon. But they weren't like Vera and Beatrix in my film. If every episode of The Sopranos opened by saying, "There are 3,000 Mafia in New Jersey," well, you'd be thinking about something else instead of experiencing the lives of Tony and his family.
Do you try to establish a relationship with your subjects before you begin filming?
No - that wouldn't work. There are points in a film when you can become too close. There was a scene in Rough Aunties where a little boy drowned. There were two groups of people - the witnesses who were standing apart and the close friends who were comforting the mother. I was sitting on the ground with my camera feeling very weird, sort of on auto-pilot, thinking I need a shot of the river to get my scene. My friend, who did the sound on the film, felt morally compromised by filming it and stopped working with me.
Another disturbing scene is your film about female genital mutilation in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget, where we see a little girl is held down and then we hear her screams when she's cut.
It was the most painful thing and I thought, God, what am I doing here? We felt we should be stopping it, getting her out of there and running away with her. But Nurse Fardhosa, who ran the clinic that's the subject of the film, was very clear: We mustn't do anything to interfere and we must trust her.
We were also pushed by the woman who was our Swahili translator, who said: "Kim, I had that done to me. If they can't watch it, they won't understand it."
The women, from South Africa, Japan or Iran, all have a very acute and universal idea of justice, which seems to contradict some ideas about cultural relativism.
Vera [the judge from Sisters in Law]was very clear about that. We attended this United Nations debate together and the woman before her said, "We have to respect culture and tradition. We at the UN work within tradition." Vera said, "My whole life has been spent fighting tradition."
You've made five of 16 feature films in Japan. What was the special attraction?
It started in the late eighties, I read about Hanayagi Genchi, this Japanese entertainer who got eight months in jail for stabbing and wounding the head of her dancing school. When I was really young, I remember seeing a Kurosawa film in which the women were sitting quietly in the background. They would kneel down and touch their fingertips together when they saw the samurai. She was this extraordinary woman, who emerged from the lowest of the low socially, a travelling player, sleeping in bars, who had this brave, revolutionary perspective.
What are you working on now?
I've just shot a film in Northern India about a woman, Sampat Pal Devi, who organized this women's vigilante group called the Gulabi Gang, or Pink Saris, who are trying to change things. I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but I thought the girl was really pretty wet - waiting to be rescued by the guy. India's an emerging superpower but a lot of women's roles are really still pretty crap and this is about some women changing things. My dream is to have it shown in villages in India.