. Interview Kim Longinotto: Surviving with a smile | Ceasefire Magazine

Interview Kim Longinotto: Surviving with a smile

Kim Longinotto, one of the world's foremost female film-makers has gained worldwide acclaim for her brutally honest portrayals of oppression and violence against women and children. In an exclusive new interview, she speaks to Ceasefire's Melanie Scagliarini about life, art and the centrality of truth-telling to her work.

Ideas, Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 0:00 - 0 Comments

By Melanie Scagliarini

Kim Longinotto is a multi award-winning documentary maker, a supporter of change and a feminist but, above and before all else, she is a survivor. Indeed, with a fearful upbringing, an abusive boarding school and a homeless year and a half that was almost the death of her, it’s not difficult to work out where her warts-and-all approach to cinema – which has been breaking the boundaries of film-making as well as society’s taboos – comes from.

Despite the fact she has just won yet another award for her latest film, Pink Saris, speaking with Longinotto is a surprisingly easy-going affair. In fact, she is quite breezy about her award-winning status and rapidly brings the subject of the prize back to who she really makes films for: the girls in them and the people she hopes will watch them. “It’s just nice to know that people like the girls in the film. They seem to relate to them and that’s what I want to do”, she explained.

Longinotto’s dedication to filming things with no input nor narrative from the film-maker has resulted in some shocking moments; girls screaming as they undergo genital mutilation, a three year-old boy found in a car park who has been repeatedly sodomised, and a young girl married underage returned to her husband’s family, where her father-in-law had been raping her.

But, as those of you who have seen her work will know, she still manages to leave the viewers with a warm glow: After the little boy tests negative for HIV you see the carers celebrate joyously, and you celebrate too.

“I do like there to be some hope. That’s why I film the subjects I do. I’m trying to film change and people trying to change their lives and fighting back”, she explains. “I think sometimes if you see a film that is so bleak with no hope… Just the fact that someone’s fighting back makes you feel better, it gives you more energy.”

And they certainly do fight back. In Pink Saris, the formidable Sampat Pal pretty much dominates everyone around her. From the local police chief to the village elders, she leaves a trail of verbal hyperbole in her wake, and you can’t help fall in love with her a little bit for it.

“By talking to people and by opening up very taboo subjects and by really challenging them, Sampat is doing change in a different way, which is all she can do. She can’t really help those girls – they all go back to where they’ve come from in the end. A lot of people were quite angry about that in the film. They say she’s not changing anything as through that’s her fault. But I think she is changing something as she is challenging taboos… Things like child abuse and rape they are all hidden things we’re not supposed to talk about openly.”

After a marriage at such a young age (without a birth certificate it is hard to be exact, but it’s thought she was married when aged between 7 and 12 years old), breaking taboos is what Sampat is all about. Kim Longinotto is the first to accept that this doesn’t always work but, nonetheless, she believes it is slowly eroding, bit by bit, the secrecy that keeps such abuse alive.

“the girls have never had a voice until then. That’s what she [Sampat] does: she gives the girls a voice”, Longinotto adds.

Renu, one of the girls in the film runs away from her marriage. No one comes looking for her. She’s a girl and therefore doesn’t count. There is another case of gendercide of a girl baby, but like many others the child had no birth certificate and therefore no official proof of existence and without that it would be difficult to cry foul play.

Whilst Sampat Pal’s story is certainly one-of-a-kind, she doesn’t embody the perfect revolutionary nor is she the next Mother Teresa. Perhaps this is why Longinotto was drawn to her. This director’s habit of showing scenes in their entirety gives you Sampat’s vulnerable moments as well as those of arrogance. Sampat’s claim that she is the ‘messiah’ for the girls is certainly an eye-opener, but it somehow endears you to her as a real person with her own issues.

But that’s my opinion: as a firm believer that fact is more interesting that fiction, Longinotto prefers to allow viewers to make up their own minds. She claims that once you give a statistic or provide an overview of the issue, the viewer will “start seeing these people as examples”.

“In a way people are starting to want documentaries much closer to what they want in fiction films and that’s really good for me as that’s what I’m trying to do. What I do is: you go and watch a story, you get involved in the people and you feel things, and then if there’s stuff you want to know you look it up.”

Her patience in finding ‘a story’ has resulted in her documenting some landmark events – from the first conviction of child abuse in Sisters in Law to the successful legal injunction brought by a group of girls preventing their parents from forcing them to be circumcised. An event the local media deemed not-interesting enough to report on, according to Longinotto.

On the contrary, whilst distribution of these films is difficutl in the areas where the issues documented are rife, one hopes that they will somehow reach the girls she makes the films for. “I want them to see the films and feel empowered’, she says.

She knows how this works first-hand: her first ever film subject was her old boarding school – where the teachers punished her with silence for two years just for getting lost on a school trip. It was a public school with its own laws and ways that made the girls feel, as she describes, “worthless”. Pride of Place received accolades at the London Film Festival, after which the Headmistress called her a “traitor”. “It was a thrilling moment”, laughs Loginotto, “I think I was more excited about that than anything else”. The school was closed down 9 months later.

But Hampden House school was just one aspect of her childhood she had to fight through. With an abusive Italian father who worshipped the fascist ideology of Mussolini to the extreme that he believed only the English and German fit the bill of being Aryan, she spent her childhood as Kim Landseer believing she was a descendent of the late, great painter to Queen Victoria, Sir Edwin Landseer, and thus a part of the English upper classes. The young Kim lived in a state of fear at home, eventually running away at 17 and living in the streets for a year and a half – returning only when it was a choice between dying or going home.

Recovered and rested she went to film school where she made Pride of Place in her first year, and the rest, as they say, is history. A few years on and, like the people in her own films, she is still relentless in her work and is about to jet to Pakistan to record her next film on forced marriages. Whilst she’s not looking forward to the heat or the drudgery of lugging a camera around, she still manages to talk about it with genuine warmth and hope.

In fact, it seems to ooze out of her like a big warm hug. I find myself filled with anticipation at the release of her next film and look forward to watching a new set of formidable characters for us to fall in love with. Let’s hope there’s many more to come.

Kim Longinotto; a survivor with a smile.

Melanie Scagliarini is a freelance journalist and activist based in London.

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