Film-maker Kim Longinotto: Uncovering a global crime

Filmmaker Kim Longinotto Director Kim Longinotto says attending film school gave her the confidence she needed

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London-based film-director Kim Longinotto focuses on the lives of extraordinary, often oppressed women. She tells BBC Religion & Ethics why she was desperate to tell her latest story, and reveals a scene she filmed that will always haunt her.

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I think she's a hero like Nelson Mandela: she's like a one in a million pioneer”

End Quote Kim Longinotto talking about Salma

A 13-year old South Indian girl is locked away by her family in her own home. Her only crime is being born into an Islamic community where tradition sees girls being banned from attending school and leaving the house as soon as they reach puberty.

For the next 25 years, words become her solace, the only way to escape her prison. She secretly writes poems, until she manages to smuggle them out and get them published under the pseudonym Salma, her voice finally breaking free.

Kim Longinotto's filmography

  • Salma (2013)
  • Pink Saris (2010)
  • Rough Aunties (2008)
  • Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (2007)
  • Sisters in Law (2005)
  • The Day I Will Never Forget (2002)
  • Runaway (2001)
  • Gaea Girls (2000)
  • Divorce Iranian Style (1998)
  • Shinjuku Boys (1995)
  • Dream Girls (1993)
  • The Good Wife of Tokyo (1992)
  • Hidden Faces (1990)
  • Eat the Kimono (1989)
  • Theatre Girls (1978)
  • Pride of Place (1976)

Her story is unveiled in Kim's latest documentary, Salma: "I was desperate to tell her story, because it's happening to millions of girls all over the world, and we never talk about it", says the director.

"I see it as a crime that's going on worldwide that is just not acknowledged."

Salma told her own story in a recent BBC World Service programme, explaining how, in her part of the world, many women go through similar experiences.

She wrote verses on the back of tiny little squares of calendar in the toilet, in the middle of the night, and would then hide her pen in a sanitary towel box.

Salma found a really laborious way of smuggling these tiny scraps of paper out, until eventually her mother sent the poems to a publisher and they got published.

Ms Longinotto immediately saw similarities between Salma's story and Nelson Mandela's, as the South-African activist also smuggled his autobiography out on tiny bits of toilet paper when he was imprisoned on Robben Island.

When a prisoner was released, they would take pieces of his book out with them. It was then pieced together painstakingly and made into his book, to avoid the authorities finding out about it, as they were so opposed to him writing.

"That shows you the power of the word and why people are so frightened of it.

"Salma did the same thing, but millions of us were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela. None of us know about girls like Salma; we know that it's happening but they're not brought to attention the way that Nelson Mandela was.

Salma's engagement party - picture courtesy of Rajathi Salma Salma's engagement party. The engagement arrangement was finalised, against her will, when she was 11

"They are now, because Salma has come out and had the courage to talk about her culture, her background - to break all the taboos, and incur tremendous wrath on her head.

"I think she's a hero like Nelson Mandela; she's like a one in a million pioneer."

Salma is a very different documentary from Ms Longinotto's usual work.

She is usually defined as a representative of 'observational film', or 'cinéma vérité', in which most of the action is not staged or scripted, and the story is filmed as events unfold. In Salma, on the other hand, Ms Longinotto was dealing with the poet's past and memories.

"It was so scary," she admits. "I didn't really sleep the first three or four weeks 'cause I was thinking: 'I shouldn't be doing this. This isn't the kind of film I should be making, I'm not good at this.'

"But actually, the story itself just grabbed me, I couldn't not do it."

As well as a well-recognised poet, Salma also became the head of her village: she was encouraged to stand by her husband Malik. Her family, says Ms Longinotto "has sort of given way to the inevitable. They understood that they're not going to be able to control her anymore."

Malik took Salma's place as head of village when she became minister. As her political party has been voted out of office, Salma is now dedicating most of her time to writing short stories and poems.

After a huge success at its premiere at London's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Salma's story will be shown at the Sheffield Film Festival in June and other screenings will be arranged across the UK. Being a Channel 4 commission, it will also be broadcast next year.

'I felt like a monster'

Working on the plight of oppressed women often comes with huge ethical dilemmas, like the one Ms Longinotto faced when making a film about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.

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The girl was screaming and was actually hanging on to my leg. I felt absolutely terrible; I felt like a monster”

End Quote Kim Longinotto Film-maker

She and her crew were filming a scene with a doctor, Fardhosa Mohamed, who had spent the last ten years of her life trying to educate people about the practice, actively standing up against her Somali culture and speaking out against FGM.

"She was adamant we would film, [to show] what it meant for a young girl to be cut and for her little sister to watch her and then to be the next," recalls the director.

Ms Longinotto says she was very scared about filming the operation, but Ms Mohamed explained that, if she felt she could not cope, she should just leave the house.

She told Ms Longinotto she should not do anything to stop it, because the presence of the crew meant that those performing the operations would do it in "the least painful way; the least damaging way."

"I knew that if she wasn't there, some of the girls could bleed to death," says the film-maker. "But when it was actually happening, the girl was screaming and was actually hanging on to my leg.

"I felt absolutely terrible; I felt like a monster. I wanted to stop it but I didn't. I filmed the scene."

The scene has also been used by several African film-makers, although Ms Longinotto usually asks them if they can also use the following scene, where the film crew visits the girls the day after the operation, because they are looking quite cheerful and sitting in bed recovering.

"That seems to give them [back] a bit of their dignity," adds the director, "but I'll never really feel comfortable about filming that scene."

Hidden ambushes

Yet Ms Longinotto does not specifically say that was the hardest story she has worked on. She explains that every single story is really tough, and usually for different reasons, and that all the films have been inspiring to her because they are about "pioneers and rebels and people trying to change things in some way."

"Sometimes I have to face difficult personal truth about things I've done wrong in my own life. They've always got either hidden ambushes or are very disturbing in other ways."

Ms Longinotto's next documentary is a story about women helping other women in a rough area of Chicago. The director does not exclude that, one day, she might shift the focus of her work from oppressed women to other groups, but her films will always be about "change and cultural shifts."

"Change is a very mysterious thing and comes in different forms, from radio to articles, to films," she says.

"I just want to be part of hope - to be part of hope and change."

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