I don’t know if films can actually change things; I think films can be part of a change and celebrate something that’s changing whether the film was there or not, but I think the film can then be used by the people to push the change a little farther forward.
—Kim Longinotto, Mother Jones 8 May 2009
With a few words, I could change the world.
—Alex, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go
Sonita, just 10 years old, sits quietly in court president Beatrice Ntuba’s chambers. Asked to describe her charge against a neighbor, she stands, only a few short feet from him, and speaks. Her story is grim: he tied her up with red cloth and raped her, leaving her body “all covered in blood.” Then, she says, “He threw me out the door.” As Ntuba listens, the accused sits just behind Sonita, shifting in his chair and sighing, shaking his head. She instructs him to be still, that she will not allow him to influence the girl’s testimony.
This scene typifies Sisters in Law, a 2005 film about the changing political and legal landscape in Kumba Town, Cameroon. It is one of 14 documentaries being screened in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Kim Longinotto’s work, from 7 May through 23 May. Including the filmmaker’s earliest work—Pride of Place (1976), made while she was completing her degree at England’s National Film School, and Theater Girls (1978)—the series covers her 30-year career through to this year’s Rough Aunties. Following a group of women who make it their business to protect neglected children of Durban, South Africa, working with the Bobbi Bear Child Welfare Organization, the movie won the World Cinema Jury Prize in Documentary at Sundance this year and is scheduled for a 2010 HBO broadcast premiere.
As the MOMA series demonstrates, Longinotto’s films are verité, in the sense that they are comprised of handheld camerawork and affect an observational distance. But they are also, always, deeply involved in their subjects’ experiences, presenting themselves outright as means for so-called outsiders to express themselves. At times such expressions seem plain, as in Shinjuku Boys (1995), which follows three onnabes, women who live as men, working as hosts at the New Marilyn Club and living with their girlfriends in Tokyo (the 53-minute film won Outstanding Documentary at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Gold Prize at the Houston Film Festival), or again, in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), which argues against female genital mutilation. But the subjects’ self-presentation may also be less coherent, as in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (2007), which looks at traumatized children and their caretakers at Oxfordshire’s Mulberry Bush School (it won the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and will premiere on PBS’ POV 28 July).
Sisters in Law
Longinotto’s documentaries explore moral and emotional intricacies, the shifting relations between individuals and communities. As Sonita in Sisters in Law responds to state prosecutor Vera Ngassa’s questions, the man behind her is both her assailant and an emblem of a system of wherein men possess women and adults children where authority and violence are coterminous. And yet the movie is less accusatory than provocative, advocating for the collective healing made possible through the recognition of women’s rights. When six-year-old Manka escapes her “auntie,” Ntuba repeatedly asks her to show the scars on her back (caused by beatings with a hanger), in front of her abuser, who breaks down and apologizes for her “mistake.” “Don’t you ‘sister’ me,” the judge snaps, horrified by the girl’s pain and the woman’s professed ignorance. The film also follows the case of a Muslim woman seeking a divorce from the man who has been beating her since their marriage when she was just 14. Declaring her newfound belief in her own rights as a consequence of working with the Women Lawyers Association, she tells her own story before a panel of local male judges, who threaten to send her back to the man who might “split her in two.” Still, she holds her ground, and eventually finds herself in a classroom full of girls, one of the first women in Cameroon to secure a divorce for reasons of spousal abuse.
For all the film’s verite look, it also represents a range of commitments to performance, and especially to documentaries’ social functions. Along with Longinotto and co-director Florence Ayisi, the subjects of Sisters in Law are asserting and redefining the legal and political dimensions of their lives. Such transformation is jumpstarted by the medium’s compelling, productive vagaries. Sonita’s accused rapist, for instance, sure of his own testimony, is visibly dismayed when Ngassa notes its absurdity (that a child “who doesn’t even have boobies,” as she puts it, would approach him for sexual intercourse and then cut herself when he rejected her). The man is visibly disappointment back in the courtroom, when he is convicted and sentenced, bowing his head and claiming that his life as an orphan has left him without proper resources and deserving of the court’s mercy.
Divorce Iranian Style
Other sorts of judgments are revealed in the BAFTA Award-winning Divorce Iranian Style (co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, 1998). In Tehran, the film states, “Unlike men, women’s access to divorce are extremely limited. ” Judge Deldar, an expert in Islamic law (who, the filmmakers note, “allowed to film in his court and made us feel welcome”), daily hears complaints and petitions, decides divorce cases, and also entertains the young daughter of his clerk, Mrs. Maher. Little Paniz, the film reveals, “has been a part of court life since she was two months old, she comes every day after school.” She has learned the language and ritual of the court, and she has learned as well where she might stand in it. Though Paniz insists she is uninterested in marriage—she sees so many divorces—when she play-acts at the judge’s desk, pounding the desktop for order, donning her knit cap as a “turban”—she also makes clear her own child’s belief in women’s rights. (Her mother, by contrast, tends to come down on the side of traditional law that prohibits women’s free movements and demands they obey their husbands).
The cases Judge Deldar arbitrates include that of Ziba, who fails “to come up with a valid reason for divorce” and so must go into arbitration with her husband Bahaman (their dispute involves whose life is most “ruined” by the failed marriage, he a villager feeling disappointed by his city-born wife, she a former child bride who resents her father’s choices back when she was 14). Jamala, for her part, is angry that her husband repeatedly leaves home to sleep in the park, and can’t keep a job. Even as she presents her case for Judge Delbar, she turns to the camera and speaks, “I’m a woman, I have my pride,” she says, “He insults me in front of the neighbors.” As her husband tearfully tries to apologize to Jamala and their sons, one rolls his eyes, also aware of the filming process.
Still another young woman, Mariam, seeks custody of her child, which she is bound to lose under Islamic law because she is divorced and recently married to another man. When she and her ex leave the judge’s office, he returns with a torn court order, claiming did the damage. Mariam appeals to the camera crew, insisting their documentation will prove she is innocent, then a few minutes later, admits to the camera that she has torn the paper, in a legitimate fit of anger. By turns charming and frustrated, Mariam is undone by the intractable law that so pointedly favors men: even when she offers to divorce her new husband in order to maintain custody of her big-eyed daughter (whose own turns to the camera are inevitably heartbreaking), the judge dismisses her from his office, her tears and laments ineffective.
As Mariam or the women in Sisters in Law enlist the camera—as defense, proof, or emotional support—they reveal understanding, however intuitive or self-serving, however rudimentary or sophisticated, of how images work. The representations of men in law, in court proceedings, and in traditions, are challenged by the intimate, emotional, and sometimes perverse possibilities of films.
Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go
Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, Longinotto’s examination of the treatment of troubled children at Mulberry Bush, presents another set of representational dilemmas. The counselors, teachers, and parents make clear (or clearish) choices as to their representations portrayals in the film, their performances indicating their comprehension of the camera as “witness,” as a device of comforting or disturbing documentation. The children, however, are unable to grant such informed consent, both by legal age and by emotional state. The boys—and all the featured subjects are boys, though girls attend the school as well—argue with adults, act out with their peers, and worry themselves into frenzies. The caretakers (there are 108 staff members for 40 children) reason with them, restrain them and reward them, hoping against hope that all will make steps forward.
“Who did you hurt today?” a teacher asks one pupil. The kids curse, hit and kick, throw furniture and yowl. Again and again, they seek attention even as they reject it. The question may be, how does “normalcy” beckon. How do the students conceive of lives outside the school? Can these fantasies only be informed by the suffering they’ve already endured? Or can they begin to think through and past what’s immediately in front of them or behind? Can they see themselves in a new way?
One day, says a teacher to Alex, “You can go to a mainstream school. But in a mainstream school, Alex, you can’t be under the table all the time, can you?” The boy is eventually moved to a doctor’s office, where he’s treated for injuries inflicted by his friend Ben. While Alex is mostly unbothered by the ordeal, Ben is horrified that he has so lost control, weeping against the chest of his caretaker. When the boys are reunited, Ben is reassured, “You don’t need to worried now because he’s back and he’s well.” Each moment, however fleeting, is precious.
The ability to imagine long-term, to see a future or to make plans, is crucial to all the subjects in Kim Longinotto’s films. More often than not, this ability is complicated by repressive current circumstances, by violence and trauma, by lost memories or nightmares that won’t go away. As Longinotto persistently makes visible these troubles and grants representation to subjects unused to being seen and heard, her documentaries become transformative experiences for viewers as well.