“I wanted to be a writer and I just wasn’t good enough,” confesses Kim Longinotto towards the end of our interview.
Fans of the documentarian will suspect that might not be true, proving herself time and again as a world-class storyteller, though it is a relief that if Longinotto wasn’t comfortable with the pen, she certainly found her way with the camera. Her lens has acted as a two-way mirror allowing her subjects to feel comfortable sharing their stories often after surviving unspeakable horrors and her audience to let down their own guards as well to empathize and appreciate the compelling characters she finds. Giving a voice to the voiceless on such films as “Rough Aunties,” “Sisters in Law” and “Pink Saris,” where respectively she’s profiled women in South Africa, Cameroon and India who have become advocates for disenfranchise, whether it’s orphans or women in arranged marriages.
While Longinotto has openly waged war against oppression in all its forms, she’s also quietly battled the conventions of documentary filmmaking, shooting a limited amount of footage rather than keeping the camera rolling to later find her film in the edit and making no secret of her belief that her subjects are equal partners in the process as opposed to being simply there to be observed. Rather than distance herself from other nonfiction filmmakers, her approach has only seemed to increase their respect for her, as evidenced by a series of career achievement honors Longinotto has received lately, most recently the Robert and Anne Drew Award from last week’s Doc NYC Festival in New York and an online retrospective curated by SundanceNow that’s available to watch now.
Yet the British filmmaker is far from done, exemplified most prominently by her latest film “Dreamcatcher,” the tender look at a former prostitute named Brenda, who has taken it upon herself to drive around the street corners she once worked in Chicago to help young women stand on their own and take control of their lives, which took home the best director prize at Sundance earlier this year. Amidst all the time she spends on the road cultivating new subjects and, these days, collecting awards, Longinotto found the time recently to reflect on a remarkable resume of activism and gripping cinema.
It’s good, but what the awards are really for are the people in the film because it’s different to fiction. I haven’t written a script, so what’s been happening is that people have been taking the brave steps to put themselves on the line really and we’ve been doing it together. All the films are a partnership and they’re films about people who are fighting for different kinds of change, so I love these awards because it’s for them and we share them. I wish all the people I filmed over the years could be there with me and we’d get it all together. As soon as I lose sight of that, then I’m kidding myself. I’m one of these people that would love to be a rebel and an innovator or somebody special, but I’m just somebody who knows how to make films and tell a story and that’s my job. I need these incredible, unusual people who are willing to come on these amazing journeys with me. It’s not like I go in and say, “This is what we’re doing.” I go in and say, “Come on, let’s do this together.” That’s how it works.
Your films have gravitated towards the subject of women’s rights specifically. Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to devote yourself to that issue?
I think what I devoted myself to is the subject of people that are fighting back against tradition or a prevailing mindset. I wouldn’t ever say that they are films about women specifically fighting oppression. For example, if you think of Brenda in “Dreamcatcher,” it’s fighting a whole way of how people keep secrets and don’t talk about these taboo subjects and as long as they’re taboo, people will go on perpetrating these incredible cycles of abuse because they’re not listened to and they don’t speak out. You see it with those girls in the class at the very beginning of the film and it’s such a relief when people do speak out.
Brenda’s challenging that silence, and also the way people perceive people on the street. She’s challenging the way you get a whole community that’s victimized and segregated. We were staying in Chicago and I was so surprised by how you have these areas where the streetlights work and there’s bookshops and cafes and good roads and then you go half a kilometer down the road and suddenly the lights don’t work and the roads are all beaten up. That was pretty extraordinary to me. We don’t really have that in the UK in the same way. So it’s always about so many different things.
It’s the story. I’d love to go back to Japan because it’s the most amazing place and I really did fall in love with it. But I don’t ever think, oh I want to go Japan. A story will come in whatever way it comes, either somebody getting in touch with me and saying, “Look, we’re a group of women in South Africa. We’ve been filmed by local crews and it was not good,” or it’s the producer of “Dreamcatcher” saying, “I’ve got this amazing woman on film, have a look at her” and leads to totally falling in love with her at first sight. Or it’s me reading an article and being intrigued like I was with the Takarazuka, near Osaka, for “Dream Girls.” It was a theater review and I read about it and I thought, my God, I love the sound of this. I went and it was totally different than I imagined it would be. I thought would be a celebration of these women that are playing male role models on the stage. They’re fearless and they look fabulous. At first when I realized it was something else], I thought, oh no, it’s not the film I thought I was going to make. Then I thought, this is more interesting as it evolved into a film about the complexity of being a woman in Japan in the 1990s. Because we went on the journey with it, it’s a much more interesting film than it would have been if we’d blinded ourselves to the contradictions.
Have you been often surprised where these films have taken you?
It’s like Louis CK, who’s always saying, “I love my kids…oh I wish I hadn’t had my kids.” He always keeping us on our toes. I think that’s what all good films do. We all love Hollywood films like “Fury Road” where everything basically stays the same and there’s baddies and goodies or the TV shows I love like “Breaking Bad” or “The Sopranos” where the heroes start off as the bad boy and you realize that the really bad guys are much more like us than is immediately comfortable. The best fiction keeps you surprised and so do the best documentaries.
You’ve said you actually don’t shoot that much footage. How do know when to turn the camera on?
Because I get all shivery. If you and I met and we were getting to know each other, it’s like zooming in, it would be like, okay, he’s on a wide frame, we’re chatting in a bar, we’re talking about our day or something and then you might suddenly say to me, “You know what? My dad bullied me when I was a kid. He had such a high expectation for me. I used to dread exams,” then I’m zooming in and then whoops, that’s when I start filming. It’s no different from real life. I feel it in real life and I feel it when I’m filming, it’s the same thing.
Do you actually feel you’ve changed as a filmmaker at all since you first started?
Each film changes me hugely as a person and I think we make the films that reflect who we are as people. Each film is like a progression from the one before. For example, I don’t think nine years ago I would have thought of having Homer, the [former] pimp [in “Dreamcatcher”] be such a part of the film. I wouldn’t have made an effort to get to know him, but now I really do see that men and women are so much closer.
That’s when you asked me that first question, I don’t really see things so much anymore in terms of men and women – I see things in terms of authority, tradition, culture and particularly in England, America, Australia, and Western Europe, we’re losing all these old stereotypes. We don’t see [the term] “feminine” men anymore and thank God we’ve got same sex marriage in UK. That’s helping to redefine roles. Now transgender people are becoming more vocal in the UK. Gender and gender roles are much more flexible and I really celebrate this. I think we’ll all be happier people as a result of it. Otherwise, it causes us pain – men trying to be what they perceive men being and women thinking, oh, I’m not adventurous or brave or practical, I’m useless. When we can take attributes that aren’t gender-specific and just find out what suits us, we can be who we are more.
You mentioned earlier that you consider these films partnerships which flies in the face of most documentarians, who talk about objectivity and how important it is. Your films do ultimately end, I feel, with similar results, but when did you decide for yourself that this was the right approach?
Stephen, they are so not objective I’m afraid. I try desperately to be and I’ve given that up. When the girls at the beginning of “Dreamcatcher” suddenly start telling us things they’ve never told anyone before, I was crying, not with sadness, but with joy and recognition and pride in them. I’m totally not objective. That’s why I hate the expression, “Fly on the wall.” I’m not a fly on the wall. I’m a great, big blob right in the middle of the room. I never say to them, “Don’t look at the camera” because they can do what the hell they want. It’s their film too. If they want to talk to me, they can and if I have a burning question I’m desperate to ask, like when I really want to know [something], hopefully the audience wants to know as well. I don’t ask for the film, I ask for me, which is also for the film.
It’s always unbelievably clear. For example, there’s a film called “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go” that I made about kids. This little boy who we had been following through this extraordinary journey he goes on was given a recorder as a reward for not having pissed on the floor of his bedroom and this song comes on the radio – it’s this really gorgeous, triumphant song. The words are so beautiful. I filmed it with him singing the song and then at the end, I said, “Robert, that’s the end of the film.” And he looked at me, it must have been a very strange thing too because he’s just putting this record on and of course, that was the end of film. There was no other end.
Is there still any subject left you haven’t covered that you still want to?
Whenever I make a film I think, oh God, I want to do something else. One day I was really depressed and I went and saw this lovely guy who worked in the deli on the corner of the street where I live. He said, “Why are you looking so down? and I said, “Oh God, it’s so hard to raise money and it’s so difficult.” He said, “Look, you can always come and work here.” I was so tempted, but then something will come. It’s what I do. What we do becomes who we are in a way. I can’t really think that I would ever get this buzz from doing anything else, but it’s a painful thing as well. Sometimes it feels too big for me and I can’t quite do it and maybe I’m messing it up, so I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s the one question I can’t answer.