Interview: Kim Longinotto

Reposting this from Genderlog.

A lot of people in India first heard of Kim Longinotto when she made Pink Saris, a documentary on Sampat Pal who has since become something of a celebrity. Longinotto, however, has been making feminist films about intriguing women — cross-dressers, divorcées in Iran, girls who are faced with FGM, women wrestlers, social workers — who resist convention and conservatism since the 1970s. Her heroines are remarkable women   who have not let their circumstances or socialisation numb them to injustice and wrongdoing. Often, they’re not able to prevent atrocities from taking place, but what gives the viewer hope is that these women have survived all they’ve faced.

Longinotto’s most recent film is titled Salma, about the Tamil poet Salma who was, as per the custom in her village, forced to leave school when she began to menstruate. For about 20 years, Salma’s life was like someone living under house arrest. The documentary is Salma’s story and offers a poignant look at the emotional and socio-political complexities that allow oppressive systems to persist. You can read more about Salma here.

I had wonderful chat with Longinotto on Skype about her work and here are excerpts. Predictably, I’m DP and she’s KL. The emphases are all mine.

‘Why would they build windows that you can’t see out of?’~ A Chat with Kim Longinotto

DP: The unconventional sense of what makes a woman comes up in a lot of the stories that you pick. Do you think the idea of a woman has shifted in this century?

KL: I love your question because it’s something that’s really close to my heart. … If you think what women are meant to be, they’re meant to be sensitive, nurturing, intuitive, sensitive and caring. Men are meant to be adventurous, they’re meant to be practical, they’re meant to be strong, they’re meant to be adaptable. …what I think we’ve started to do in the 21st century – and I think men are starting to realise this – is show that when you’re trapped in one half of the equation of what it is to be human, you actually most miss out. I think men miss out as well. Men are trapped as such as women are trapped. I think for women, it’s a much more painful trap and they really suffer for it. … If you look at what the attributes are meant to be of men and women, it becomes so ridiculous. So men aren’t meant to be nurturing? They’re not meant to love their kids? They’re not meant to show emotion? And women aren’t meant to be adventurous? Or resilient? Or all the things that men are meant to be? Once we can start shifting and start borrowing from each other, we can have much nicer lives. 


DP: Have you heard about the gang rape that happened in Delhi last year?

KL: I’m gripped by that one, and the hundreds of cases coming to light now after the Delhi gang rape.

DP: I’m not sure what it is about this particular case that has caught everyone’s attention. Not that I’m complaining.

KL: What I’ve been feeling all along, and not just in India but in my country as well, I’ve been wondering, why haven’t they happened before? We are half the world, and they are our fathers and brothers and so on. Why are we putting up with it? When we were with Sampat and none of these girls had been to school and they’d been married off and the mothers were the ones selling them off, I thought, what does it take for the mothers to all get together and say we’re not going to do this? Because it’s only going on because we’re doing it. So I would turn that around and say why has it taken so long. Thank god it’s happening. It’s got to keep happening. Why did it take so long is one of the questions we’ve got to ask. …

In my country, we’ve got this thing – one in ten rapes gets conviction. It might even be one in a 100. We’ve got this child abuse thing that’s gone on and on. And I think, why don’t they have an assembly in school in which they’ll ask if anyone’s been abused? “No, no, we can’t upset the kids.” “We don’t want to talk about such things to kids, the innocence of childhood.” But it’s happening all around us.


DP: Do you get asked if you’re a feminist?

KL: You know what I do when someone asks me that? If a man asks me that, it’s usually because they want to label you and they know that their audience, because of the media, has this very crude idea of what a feminist is. So then, I think the best thing is to turn it around and say to the person, “When you say, ‘Are you a feminist?’, do you mean that men and women shouldn’t be equally respected and have equal education?” Then that question goes, because that’s what it comes down to.


DP: With Salma, did you know what you were going into and did it pan out the way you expected it to?

KL: With Salma I knew that here was somebody that I would meet and hopefully there wouldn’t be a dark undercurrent and I wouldn’t be disappointed in her. …But also, I wanted to tell all this backstory. I thought the one responsibility I have is to tell this story because it links her to millions of women, not just now but through generations and all over the world. It links her to women in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Turkey, in UK. It’s a story of having dreams and being adventurous, being talented and wanting so much from life. She says it so beautifully herself: “I wanted a life and suddenly I only had time. And I had these dreams and they were taken away from me and I said, ‘Mum, mum, why can’t I go out? This is crazy.’” I love it when she says, “This is crazy”. Why would they build windows that you can’t see out of? Nobody else thought that it was crazy. That’s what I wanted to show, that feeling.


DP: It’s tough to talk about misogyny responsibly.

KL: It’s very complicated and it’s also to do with our own fears. When you talk to men [WHO ARE MISOGYNIST], you realise they’re complete children. There’s this fear, like, “If my wife becomes more powerful…”, then what? These are ridiculous fears. I hear women say things like, “I always make sure he feels important.” And I think, why be with a man like that, with whom you have to play all these games? You’re with a child! I’d rather live on my own than be with someone you don’t respect and have to make feel more powerful than they are.

But it’s so complicated. If it was as simple as men against women, like some sort of war, it wouldn’t have survived. It’s because there’s all these layers of meaning. It’s because the daughters love their mothers and don’t want to displease the mothers. It’s because the mothers love the fathers or are frightened of the father, or whatever. It’s all negotiation. … We’re only going to have change when we’re all willing to shift and it’s frightening for men because they feel they need this power. Because they feel weak and confused. And it’s frightening for women because they’re going to have to go out into the world.

How Salma is like she is, I don’t know. What I want people to feel in Tamil Nadu is not, “This woman’s shameless”, but that, “Here we have, living amongst us, in our generation, a hero. This is a Nelson Mandela.” Do you know, when she was in her little prison, she said all her girlfriends had photos of Bollywood stars and cricketers up on the walls in their rooms. She had Mandela and Che Guevara.

DP: That’s not normal.

KL: She’s not normal. But I don’t think you or I are any more normal.


DP: In Rough Aunties, when they find that poor boy who’s been sodomised and you think it’s a horrible situation, but the women exult that he’s not HIV positive.

KL: Yeah, it’s like “Good news!”

DP: It’s this determination to find a silver lining that you seem to have too. To find silver linings in some of the stories you tell, it’s quite incredible.

KL: But you have to, don’t you? I wouldn’t want to make a film that’s just sad. I wouldn’t want to make The Hunt, for example. I wouldn’t want to make a film that’s just depressing and negative. That’s why I search out these people. That’s why when I heard about Salma from Urvashi (Butalia), I thought, “I’ve got to do this. This is the woman I’ve got to film.” Just the fact of Salma, just the fact of Rough Aunties, that to me is so uplifting and inspiring. What I learnt from them is that they refuse to call themselves victims, they call themselves survivors and that’s what I want the UK to learn from them. We shouldn’t make them feel ashamed, we should make them feel proud that they’re speaking out. They completely changed how I felt. …

When I was making Rough Aunties, because I’d been raped once not that long ago, Mildred told me her rape and I told her mine and I felt so great. I felt differently about it. I felt it was something that we’d both come through and it just sat differently in my life history. It just changed it. That’s why I love making these films about these women.


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