Filmmaker Kim Longinotto has been building her extraordinary body of documentary work over the past couple of decades. The vivid, intensely dramatic stories she tells are centered around strong female entities, women not known, certainly not celebrated, nor even noticed, really, by the societies in which they live and work. Yet, in film after film, Longinotto discovers the heroic and the extraordinary in the most unlikely of subjects. Sometimes co-directing with another woman, always working solo accompanied only by a sound recordist, she bears fierce and stoic witness to quite painful and intimate stories, and consistently renews our sense of hope by shining a light of love and recognition on these unsung human beings.
Longinotto studied camera operating and directing at the National Film School in London. Her first student project called Pride of Place took a critical look at her boarding school (which she still talks about with, decidedly, not fond memories). Before helming her own films, she worked as a DP on a variety of documentaries for British television. Collaborating with filmmaker Claire Hunt, she made Fireraiser, Eat the Kimono, about Hanayagi Genshu, a Japanese dancer and activist, Hidden Faces, about Egyptian women, and The Good Wife of Tokyo about women, love and marriage in Japan. Working with Jano Williams, she made Dream Girls about the Takarazuka Theatre revue in Japan, and Shinjuku Boys about women in Tokyo who choose to live as men. Divorce Iranian Style, co-directed with Ziba Mir Hosseini, is a groundbreaking film set in a family law court in Tehran, Iran. Gaea Girls came next and was about women wrestlers in Japan, and then she made Runaway, set in a refuge for girls, also in Tehran. The Day I Will Never Forget is about young girls in Kenya challenging the tradition of female circumcision (the title is taken from a young Kenyan girl's poem). The multiple award-winning Sisters In Law, which debuted at Cannes in 2005 (where it won the Prix Art Essai) was filmed in Kumba in South West Cameroon, and tells the story of two extraordinary female judges. Just this past June, the film was awarded a Peabody. This was the first film I saw of hers when it showed at the Los Angeles Film Festival on its circuit that year, and I promptly spent the next month watching all the other films she made before that. At the IDFA this past year, she debuted a film called Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go about the Mulberry Bush School in Oxford. A special jury prize was awarded to this extraordinary piece. Women Make Movies distributes most of her catalog in North America; all photos are courtesy of their web site.
When I contacted this non-stop dynamo, she had just finished editing her latest piece about five extraordinary women working to save children in Durban, South Africa. She is working once more with long-time collaborator and friend, Ollie Huddleston, who also edited the beautiful We Are Together. (Rise Films is also producing the South African project). She invited me to come meet her at Molinare on D'Arblay Street in Soho, and I must say, it was one of the absolute highlights of my stay here in London (thank you very much, Sandra Whipham!). The film will debut this fall in Amsterdam.
I found myself asking very personal questions of this prolific artist, curious to know how her own personal narrative informs and influences her work, the inner compulsions that accompany her on these deep forays into the heart of the stories she tells. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): You stand behind your camera and move yourself into these disparate worlds. You don’t know where you are, really; there’s no real strong point of reference except maybe the physical latitude and longitude of the place. Have you always had that kind of adventurous spirit, the kind that purposely makes you want to place yourself in these situations? Can you pinpoint a time when you knew that that would be the way you would experience the world?
Kim Longinotto (KL): I don’t see it so much as an adventurous spirit. It’s more like a curiosity to find out about other people.
SIM: It’s an impulsive curiosity, though, and seems to be only satisfied viscerally. Maybe most people’s curiosity would be satisfied by books, or research or some other passive way of “finding out about other people.” Where did that impulse "to get in the face of it" come from?
KL: You know, that’s a really good question [laughing]. I haven’t a clue. I suppose I had a very sheltered childhood, a boring childhood, a rather depressing childhood. Maybe it was a reaction to that; I don’t know. I know that I grew up with a great unease with authority. I went to a very strict boarding school. I don’t know if you have them in the States the same as we do here.
SIM: Somewhat yes, and a good amount of scandal has come out of those institutions, as well. The things that go on there “pop out” into the public sphere once in a while, which is only an indication of what must go on at these places that are sheltered, gated.
KL: They’re like that because the people that run them have complete power. My school was right in the middle of the countryside. They weren’t accountable to anybody. You’d go home and say things to your parents but your parents didn’t really care because they wanted to get rid of you. And you didn’t really want to be with your parents, either. There was no way out of it, really. I suppose there was very much a feeling for me of actually trying to find people that I could like. Until I was of the age where I was old enough to leave home, I’d never really liked anyone I’d met. To me, that’s the absolute joy of making films. Every time I go and make a film, I meet wonderful, wonderful people that I, sort of, fall in love with. It makes me feel good about being alive and about being a human being. So, if I had to think of a reason, that would be it. But I don’t even know if that’s the reason at all.
SIM: What is it then about film, specifically? How did you discover that that would be your tool in order for you to find those people?
KL: When I was living at home on some of the holidays, I lived very much through books. I used to read all the time. I didn’t really see my parents very much. I always thought I’d be a writer. I always knew I would want to tell stories, and I suppose filmmaking was just the way I found to tell stories, rather than writing. If I’m going to be honest, it’s probably that I wasn’t able to be a writer. I tried and it just wasn’t something that came naturally to me, whereas making films did.
SIM: Writing could be seen as just more kind of isolation, as well. That’s one of the bigger challenges of that particular craft.
KL: Definitely; a continuation of a really lonely childhood. I love working in a team and I love being with people, getting to know them and filming their lives. People always ask if I keep in touch with the people I film. I suppose I do, up to a point. I leave it very much to them. The two women of Sisters In Law [Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba, pictured below], they email me all the time.
SIM: I met them in Los Angeles, actually.
KL: Did you? Oh, wow.
SIM: I saw the film as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, the first year they held it in Westwood Village, and they were there. It was funny because the audience was so disappointed to learn you weren’t there. But when they announced that Vera and Beatrice were, everyone cheered; we were so thrilled to have an opportunity to talk to them in person.
KL: They’re very special. You can imagine what kind of thrill it is getting to know people like that. It’s very strange, this thing of making films because you get incredibly close to people; you’re right in the middle of their lives, on a day-to-day basis. You’re watching them go through these very powerful experiences. It can never be like that again. I’ve met some of them quite a few times since; we’ve been to festivals together and stayed at hotels together and have had lovely chats. It’s much more equal now. When I was making the film, they were very much “up there,” the big, important people, and I was on the sidelines watching. They feel more like friends now. You can never get that incredible intensity of really living through someone. It’s not just me; it’s a mutual thing. We’re very good friends, but we’ll never be as close as we were during that time.
SIM: It’s kind of like a passionate love affair, in a way.
KL: That’s exactly what it is like.
SIM: I think your films reflect that. There are these various schools of thought about narration, about the lightness or heaviness of the storyteller’s hand or presence, etc. Somehow, you’ve organically found your cinematic “voice.” It’s also in vogue these days for the filmmaker to actually put him- or herself in front of the camera. I notice there’s a much lesser propensity for a female to do that than a male, unless it’s directly her own story she’s telling. I don’t know what that says, actually.
KL: No, neither do I!
SIM: But, it’s a whole different way of storytelling, isn’t it? Yet, when I watch your films, this very palpable benevolent presence is there. It’s an unrelenting gaze, but a loving one. I think Maysles has that, too--he's obviously not female. It makes me, as a viewer, connect so much more quickly with these individuals. I'm spending this time with these people and, initially, I think that I don't have anything in common with them. But then, I walk away loving them just as much as you obviously do. Does that result from what you bring as an individual, or do you consciously try to create that intimacy as quickly as you can?
KL: I suppose what I’m consciously trying to create is a feeling in the audience that they’re there.
SIM: So you’re aware of "audience" from the outset?
KL: Well, to me, that audience is just one person. It’s either my editor, Ollie or it’s Peter Dale [former head of documentaries at Channel 4]—just one person that I know. I imagine that they’re me and that they’re seeing it through me, when I think about the audience. What I try and do is make it as direct as possible, so that there’s nothing between them and what’s happening. When somebody’s talking to me or when something’s happening, then they’re being spoken to. They can feel that that person can be their sister or that person could be their mother, that kind of bond can be felt in an emotional way. I don’t want the audience to feel like they’re being told to feel anything or that they’re being “taught” something. It’s sort of ironic because I never ask anyone to do anything or set anything up, ever. But I hope that the overall effect of the film is more like fiction than conventional documentary.
SIM: In what sense?
KL: In the sense that when you’re watching a fiction film, when it works, you forget you’re watching a film. You’re just in the action; you’re going through an emotional experience. You come out and you feel like the people are living in you and the scenes are living in you. Things come back to you; you’ve actually gone through something very deep. I’m gradually learning to get better at doing that. I want to enable people to really be in that place and be with those people in a very open way. It’s very much the kind of film that I, myself, like. I don’t like films where I’m being told things through a commentary or have facts and figures coming at me. You don’t really take them in anyway, when you’re told lots of things that way. You learn things in a far more lasting way by experiencing it. We all know this; it’s an obvious thing—one learns by experience.
SIM: It sounds very basic, but it’s such a difficult transition to make—from the idea of wanting to do that to creating something cinematically where that intention comes through quite clearly. You’ve been doing this for a long while now. Is there a bit of self-consciousness of which you have to be careful about more than when you started out?
KL: It doesn’t seem like that to me at all. When I work, it’s just me and a sound recordist [another female, most likely, Mary Milton, Jano Williams, long-time collaborators]. Nobody knows who we are. Nobody’s heard of us. Nobody takes us that seriously because we’re two women. We’re usually pretty dirty from kneeling in the ground to get shots. So it’s the opposite of being self-conscious. Actually, what’s very strange is that, at the beginning, it’s quite difficult. When you’re making a film, you have to be very humble. You lose everything. You lose your home; you lose your friends, everything you’re used to. And you’re in the middle of this world that belongs to other people. It doesn’t matter what country, even if it’s here at Oxford at the school [in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go]. You’re in a foreign place, a strange place. You have to go by other people’s rules. People can boss you around and tell you what to do and be angry with you and tell you not to film—whatever. You’re completely at their mercy. This is something that seems to get more powerful each time. With each film, I seem to have less self-consciousness, less power, and am more open to terrible doubts, I might add. Things I thought were certain in my life become less and less so.
For example, in Hold Me Tight, when I went, I had this very strong sense that family wasn’t that important. That very much stems from my own experience in how I survived my own childhood. It didn’t matter who your parents were; that had no impact on the person you would become. I had parents that I very strongly disliked. I never wanted to be with them and supposed that that was how lots of people felt. It wasn’t important, that relationship. And then I go to this school where there are these children that have been very badly treated at home quite often and not wanted by their parents or abused by them in some way. And they want their parents. I remember that that was one of the first things that really shocked me. I thought, gosh, here are these children and they’re in this wonderful school, much nicer than any school I could think of and they have this longing to be with their families, no matter who their fathers are or what they’ve done to them; they want their fathers. So that was the first shock.
The second shock was being in a place where children weren’t punished. My school was all about punishment. You had this very strong sense as a pupil that none of the adults really liked children; they were just putting up with you. You didn’t feel like a child. I don’t think that any of us had a sense that we were children. We were called by our surnames and, sort of, very regimented. One didn’t have a sense of childhood at all. Then you go to someplace where childhood is seen as something precious and they’re trying to give back a sense of childhood. When children behave badly, they’re not punished. They’re asked why they’re doing it. I thought that it seemed like such a wonderful, wonderful thing. Every day at that school, I would go, “ah!” Everything I thought before was being shocked and opened up and I started looking at my own life. I looked at how I treated other people in the past. If you’ve grown up not really caring about anyone and they don’t really care about you, then you think that’s the norm. Not with your friends, but in relationships; you think, actually, they’re not that important. So there were lots of things I had to face up to. That’s happened with every film. It always does it to me. Every time I think it’s going to be easy, something will come round the back, and it’ll teach me some lessons I’d maybe rather not learn.
SIM: You’ve scooted around the globe quite a bit, from Asia to Africa to the Middle East where you find your stories and you ensconce yourself in these various cultures. I would assume, at a certain point, that the world gets very small for you, in a way. I’m not so much talking about differences or similarities between disparate cultures or what the mode of life happens to be, how “strange” the customs are, but in the people that you meet along the way. Do you feel like you really could go anywhere on the planet and find some sort of safe harbor that feels like “home”?
KL: It’s very weird, but what I find in every film, in every project, in every culture, are these very strong women. Every time I go to the next place, I find women that I really, really admire. At the school [Mulberry Bush], there were these very lovely, gentle men who were very nice to little boys. That was so nice to see. But also very strong women teachers who are people that wouldn’t be recognized or who even thought what they, themselves, were doing was amazing. Every day, they were able to give out all this love and patience and calm and affection in the midst of being spat at and beaten and hit and all those things.
With this last film that I’m just finishing now, there are these incredibly brave women who go into quite violent, difficult situations. It’s set in South Africa, in Durban, about these five amazing women, two white women and three black women. They work as a team. For me, it was a very good film to make because my dad grew up in Johannesburg and throughout my childhood, I would hear about South Africa. Both my parents were intensely racist. I’ve come to realize, it was good for me, actually. I didn’t like them anyway. And what I realized through being a child was that the more racist you are, the more unhappy you are. It’s everything against life. My parents were so unhappy and bitter and being with them was really kind of cold, nothing good. I don’t remember them laughing much. The only good people [in their eyes] were white Germans or English people. I can’t think of anything else that met with their approval. And then they had to be titled.
SIM: Did they approve of one another?
KL: When my dad got older, my mum really disliked him. I think she was frightened of him. When she stopped being frightened of him, she was able to dislike him. So I’ve known that kind of person all my life, learned about all the things that were wrong, who you don’t want to be. They didn’t show me the kind of person I wanted to be. That’s what I’m still learning—what I want to be. That’s what these people teach me that I need to know, the good things to be.
SIM: What are these women doing as a team?
KL: They’re rescuing children. They’re arresting rapists. They’re supporting each other. They’re part of a small organization that fights child abuse in South Africa, which is a really big problem there. I suppose they’re ordinary women in the way that the teachers in Hold Me Tight are ordinary women. But they are extraordinary women. I suppose that’s what I meant to say to you earlier. You meet people that you think of as being ordinary but they are extraordinary, stronger than I ever could be., more patient, more loving, more giving, more generous, all of those things that I could never be. But what I can do is that I can film them. I can show them to the world.
One of the teachers in Hold Me Tight went to America with the film. She learned from the audience that what she’s doing is worthwhile. She never really thought she was doing anything special.
SIM: That’s a wonderful gift that you’re bestowing, as well, on people like her. There’s an exchange there. You’re not the only recipient of something life-changing. I think you’re aware, too, that by focusing your lens on someone like that, who’s “just doing their job” or what have you, that is a huge gift, that validation of a life lived. For me, that’s where the emotional resonance of your films happens. That’s something, as a viewer, that moves me deeply, in your work, and in works that I see that celebrate that, especially when you know very well that it’s not normally celebrated at all, especially by them.
KL: Beatrice [Sisters In Law] had that same experience. In that first screening at Cannes, the audience stood right up (which they do very well in France), and gave them a standing ovation. They [Vera and Beatrice] were absolutely dumbfounded. They had had no real sense of what they were doing; they were just going to work every day and doing what they’ve done for eighteen years. And then, suddenly, here were people saying, “You’re wonderful women; we want your autograph.”
SIM: Do you go to films? Do you watch a lot of films? What gets you excited?
KL: I watch a lot of fiction, actually. I love telly. I love “The Sopranos.” They remind me of my dad, I suppose [laughs]. I could never get enough of “Sopranos.” I love Larry David. I love telly, actually; I watch a lot of TV. A feature film I love is The Lives of Others, the German film—I loved that.
SIM: Me too—it was devastating.
KL: That film has changed my life. That was really important to me, that film. It was all about authority and about being inspired by looking at someone’s else’s life. I didn’t realize this until about a year after seeing that film, but I suppose that what I’m trying to do is similar to when that man was looking at, spying on, that family and fell in love with them. I’m hoping that people will do that through watching my films, that they watch these lives and they fall in love with these people and it enriches their lives, opens their minds, in whatever way it can do, in the small way that films can do. You have to be in the mood for it and ready for it, you know?
SIM: That’s true. But I think those moments, if they do impact you in that way, are very strong and they can carry you through a lot.
KL: They can.
SIM: It also resonates in ways that you aren’t really conscious of or aware of until much later after viewing it. Sometimes, it’s so powerful, you simply can’t process it at the time.
KL: I remember just sobbing at the end of Lives of Others, and hardly being able to stand up. It sounds so over the top. I remember going outside and thinking, “What was that? Why did I get so emotional?” But I felt incredibly uplifted; it was an extraordinary feeling; I was so full of energy and happy. And then I could look back and realize, it’s actually a film about the redemptive power of books and music and art. It made me feel so hopeful.
SIM: It’s interesting, because those people who are truly, truly in love with what they do, those that create art or whatever they decide to call it, talk about that so much. That’s almost what might be the hidden imperative in any of us that want to create something. We try to match that ability to do that for other people in the same way that we’ve been affected, impacted, changed.
In the stories you think about, the ones in your imagination, what do you anticipate might be out there in terms of what you might want to tell. Do you have any idea?
KL: That’s precisely why I love documentary. Because, what happens is—well, for example, this last film [in South Africa]. I have an idea of what it’s going to be. And then it’s miles bigger, more life changing than I ever thought it could be, the experience of it and the things that people are doing. I thought it would be a film about people rescuing kids. It’s not about that at all. It’s about those five women. They go through these incredible life changes. I feel very weird about it because there were two deaths while we were filming and they happened to the two people we were closest to. People very close to them died. I was trying to film it as best as I could, so that it will be accessible for people to watch. But at the same time, I’m thinking, god, this terrible thing has happened and I’m grieving for my friends, feeling very split while the filming is going on, do you know what I mean? I’ve found that in every film, more happens than I could have imagined. That’s why I’m not a writer. I feel like my imagination can only go so far. Reality is always much more surprising and shocking and tricks me and does horrible things to me, as well, more than I was expecting. One thing this film did do for me was that I felt that, somehow—I’m not quite sure how—that by making a film in South Africa about black and white people working together and about the hope for change and, in a way, a celebration of the new South Africa, somehow laid a few little ghosts, little gremlins, to rest, from my dad. I can’t forget about him, really. When I was back here and editing it and felt safe, I could think about that. I didn’t tell anyone there that my dad had grown up in South Africa or what he was like or thought. But things would come back.
I remember that I once ran away from home and went to my grandmother. She said, very casually, “Oh, your dad had a pickaninny he used to play with.” That’s what she called it. And then she said, “And then your father started dancing and so we drove into the bush and we left the child there.” I remember saying, “But, Grandma, what happened?” And she said, “Oh, they live in the bushes.” She was thinking of black people as though they were, sort of, feral. It was just this weird, really shocking thing. I was very young and I remember being really shocked and thinking, oh god, my grandmother’s the enemy, too; she’s really evil—and having to get away from her. I was surrounded by all these people. I don’t consider them evil now. There’s no such thing as evil. But they were disturbed, deluded, destructive people who saw things completely from their own point of view and couldn’t relate to other people as human, or as anything, really. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do in my films is to get people to make that imaginative leap and live in other people’s lives.
SIM: As I’m sitting here listening to you, I’m thinking about how you could have turned out so differently, so much more like them, if not exactly like them. Was there a conscious moment in your young life when you decided that that was absolutely not how you wanted to be? I suppose that they were a product, too, of their upbringings, society, what have you. That just doesn’t happen by accident.
KL: Yeah, I’ve thought about this actually, because I’ve read a lot of books about children of the Nazis. There’s one called Hitler’s Children that’s quite interesting. The people that seemed to have been the most damaged are the people that like their parents. Somehow, they try to identify with who their parents are or maybe they hang on to it. You hear of old people who are still Nazis. But, I knew from a very young age that they weren’t nice people and I think that really protected me. It meant that I was able to not be upset by them or what they thought or felt. I knew they were bad people. I knew the way they lived wasn’t a nice way to live. I could see that. I’m much luckier than people who like their parents.
SIM: Who was the first person that you did like, someone who presented ideas and thoughts and ways of seeing life that did make sense to you? Obviously, from an early age, all this other stuff didn’t make sense to you at all.
KL: I think when I was about thirty, or when I was in my late twenties, I met a really nice man. [We both laugh.] And I really liked him. But I behaved very badly because I didn’t know how to do that sort of thing and I destroyed it all. But the first person that I really loved was my best friend, Penny, at school. She was half-Indian; her mum was Indian and her dad was an Irish doctor. She was really nice. I couldn’t work out why my parents didn’t like her. They sent us to separate schools to keep us away from each other. I really liked her. But when you’re very young—well, it’s something I held on to all through my school years, you know? I had had a really nice friend.
SIM: You’re a parent now. You have one grown son and he also makes films [Moby Longinotto].
KL: He’s lovely; he’s really nice.
SIM: And very much his own person who’s found his own voice and been given the confidence to explore on his own, create his own identity.
KL: He’s a nice person; I’m very lucky.
SIM: And considering your theory, you really had nothing to do with that, right?
KL: I don’t know what to think, really. But I have to believe that parents don’t have much to do with how their kids are. Otherwise, that would be too frightening for me. I tell myself that it’s nothing to do with it. A lot of it is just chance in terms of who they are.
SIM: You’re going against hundreds of years of psychotherapeutic theory!
KL: I don’t think parents have a lot to do with who their children are. I don’t know. For me, I think it was more the books that I read. I can’t remember many conversations with my parents. They were just these figures that . . .
KL: Yes. They didn’t hurt me.
SIM: I don’t know too much of what it’s like here in the UK, but in the States, it seems that documentary has become rather sexy—or at least those of us who work in nonfiction like to think so—in a way that it really hasn’t before. And that nonfiction filmmaking can match fiction cinematically, emotionally, in every way that captures an audience. You’ve been working under this supposition for years, it seems. Do you see what you do changing at all in terms of capturing a larger audience through documentary storytelling?
KL: It’s what I’ve always thought. I think what’s happened is that people have started thinking that you’re not going to have a boring time watching a documentary. Before, it might be the short before the main feature or it was a subject on which you were doing some kind of thesis or something. A few films have turned people on to thinking, “Wow, we can go to the cinema and really get something that relates more directly to our lives that we’re not getting in fiction." I love “Sopranos” because it reminds me of people I know, but I very rarely am going to walk into a bar where there are people shooting one another. Let’s hope, you know!
But what “Sopranos” doesn’t do is that it doesn’t give you a whole lot of information about the Mafia as a kind of text or voiceover. You just live in the Mafia and you realize things. You know that lots of people have lived through things; there’s a sense of realness to it. And not. You learn to see. I think audiences are much more sophisticated than old-fashioned documentary commissioning editors thought they were, that they don’t have to be told everything. They can go on the ‘net if they want to find out more. People even ask me why, at the beginning of the film [Sisters], I didn’t put how many women judges there are in Cameroon. Okay, well there are 148. But maybe twenty of them are like Vera and Beatrice, trying to find justice in what they do. It would have to be a long thing because they really care about justice; they’re not just in it for themselves. They’re not corrupt. Maybe the same amount of men are the same. And then all the rest are. . . . You know, you’d have to just go on and on and on to explain it all. They can find out on their own. Who cares how many there are who are actually like them? It would have given the wrong idea that there are 148 Veras and Beatrices, which there are not. There was one judge that worked in the same compound as Vera and Beatrice, the same complex. She used to push people off the road if they were in the way. She had a sort of sidekick and he used to push people out of the way so she could walk through and not be bothered. That was a female judge. I’d have to put her in another category.
Some think that if you give people "facts"—well, what they don’t realize is that actually facts, themselves, are political.
SIM: Facts are sometimes false. A fact is not necessarily a true thing. We know this from Wikipedia, for goodness’ sakes. We know this from all kinds of things.
KL: Exactly. Why are you putting those particular facts there? And what do you mean by it? Someone I do love, also, is Michael Moore.
SIM: He’s quite the divisive figure in documentary criticism, and in the community itself.
KL: I know. I think a lot of people are jealous of him.
SIM: That’s kind of my theory, too.
KL: I remember seeing Bowling for Columbine. What was happening in the world left a lot of us feeling so distressed, so angry, feeling so powerless. And you go see this film and you feel empowered. And you can laugh at the things that frighten you. As an audience, you can feel you’re together. Moore is this shambolic, rather overweight guy with a baseball hat on and he’s putting himself into situations where you can laugh at him, and also with him. I’m not saying there’s any one way, but his way is hugely entertaining. I think that’s what people are realizing is possible. He was at the vanguard of that, about changing people’s ideas of what a documentary is. You can go to the cinema and see a Michael Moore film and have a really good time. You feel better about life.
SIM: I think that’s what the best documentaries can do, really, to highlight that spirit of community, that sense of recognition that we’re all in the boat together. It doesn’t have anything to do with the issue at hand or with the history of how these people came to be, the social or political context.
The several films you made in Japan show this to such great effect. That’s such a wild, mysterious culture to so many people—a lot of what happens in that society is inexplicable to many Westerners. But you just dove right in to the wildest aspects of it, no holds barred, [she laughs] and showed that even those “fringy” characters are very real people, people that struggle with the same issues of identity, questioning everything about their place in life, but yet finding something that they can hold onto. It’s tremendously reassuring. We all feel like that inside. They’re very brave and I know you recognize this and show this to us because they acknowledge that they’re “freaks.” The difference between them and most is that they wear their freakishness on the outside, as well. Most of us do not—we’re too afraid of what others will think. We hide it; we internalize it. It’s secretive. It’s a lovely way to recognize a little bit of yourself in that kind of human being. You, as a filmmaker, penetrate all those other layers with such grace and respect. I look forward to seeing other stories you’ll tell in this way.
KL: So do I!
SIM: Let’s segué into festival talk for a moment and then I’ll let you get back to your work: the festival phenomenon is booming, mushrooming, both in the real and virtual worlds. I think that’s a positive thing, both for the film-going community and for filmmakers. How have your festival experiences changed over the years?
KL: I suppose what’s changed is that now, what I want to happen is that I want the people in the films to go with the film to festivals. That feels right. I remember when we were in Amsterdam, when we showed Sisters In Law. When the film finished, me and Mary Martin, the sound recordist, and Ollie, the editor, were standing on the stage. There was polite applause. And then the woman on the stage said, “And we have Vera and Beatrice in the audience.” And they shone a light on them and they stood up. The audience went wild with cheers. They want to see the people they’ve just watched. They want to learn from them. They want to ask them questions. It’s a real blast when you go to a film when the people that are in it are there. So, more and more, I’m trying to organize it so that the people in the film can go.
With the film I just did: the three black women have never been out of Durban, let alone South Africa. It’ll be just so wonderful if they can go to all these different countries and just see different things. It’ll be absolutely amazing for them. Yesterday, in the edit room, we were watching a scene where one of the main characters, Mildred, is speaking and saying some things and Ollie commented on how much of a gift she’s giving us. She’s being so honest. She gave us an incredible gift of trust. What we can help her do is to go and have a nice travel and see the world a bit.
SIM: And the gift of love and appreciation for them as people.
KL: People are going to absolutely love her. I love her so much. I love all five of them. People are going to absolutely love them; I know that. We’re almost there; we’re just putting the subtitles on and, hopefully, we’ll debut at IDFA in Amsterdam in the fall. And then we’ll try for Sundance, and then who knows after that.
SIM: Kim, thank you so much. I’ve really loved talking with you.