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A Conversation With Kim Longinotto (ROUGH AUNTIES)

Over the course of the past thirty years, English documentarian Kim Longinotto has amassed a body of work that ranks up there with the best of them. Longinotto makes films about marginal characters in overlooked communities, finding true heroism in the actions of so many individuals who have devoted their lives to protecting and defending abused females and children throughout the world. Whether it’s a home for emotionally scarred kids in England, a legal office in Cameroon, or a court room in Iran, Longinotto brings her inquisitive, understanding, and unobtrusive eye to each and every project. Her latest film, Rough Aunties, is an emotionally draining, yet ultimately inspiring, portrait of the women of Bobbi Bear, a child welfare group in Durban, South Africa, who confront an incomprehensible amount of tragedy on a daily basis. Just moments before the opening night screening of her MoMA retrospective, Kim Longinotto (May 7th-23rd, 2009), we sat down for an engaging conversation about the type of nonfiction cinema that she prefers, the inherent difficulties in filming such personal material, and her love for Mad Men and The Wire.

H2N: When did you have the epiphany that movies weren’t something you watched but could actually make?

KL: I always thought I was gonna be a writer, that’s what I always wanted to do. During my childhood I was alone a lot, and I used to get through it by reading. And then I went to university to study literature and then I discovered that I was really good at reading it but I wasn’t really good at writing it. (both laugh) So, filmmaking’s another way of telling stories without writing them. And also what I love about filmmaking is that you’re with people. I think writers are extraordinary because it all comes from them and they do it all on their own in solitude. I suppose I’m just made to do films rather than to be a writer.

H2N: Was your first experience with a camera in school?

KL: I went to the National Film School for three years, ‘cause I wouldn’t have had the confidence to make a film without going to film school. I wasn’t very confident. And the film school was brilliant for me. It was a very loose film school. You didn’t have specific classes or have to do certain films. They just showed you the equipment and you got used to it and did what you wanted, so it was perfect for me.

H2N: That ties into Theatre Girls, which I just watched last night for the first time. It seems over the course of your career, from those earliest films up through Rough Aunties, while the cameras and formats have changed, your overriding purpose hasn’t. In what ways have you changed as a filmmaker?

KL: I think in the last couple of years, or maybe the last year, I’ve gotten better at telling the stories. I’ve gained more confidence. And that’s because the editor’s (Ollie Huddleston) helped me a lot, he’s kind of advised me about holding shots. I look at the scenes with him and he says, “Look, you could do it this way, that would be better.” And that’s been really, really good for me. So I think I’m getting better at storytelling. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m getting more confident with it.

It’s really interesting, ‘cause Debbie (Women Make Movies’ Debra Zimmerman) and I are doing a master class on Saturday. We looked at the beginning of Sisters in Law and then the beginning of Divorce Iranian Style. They’re ten years apart and the beginnings are almost identical! The scenes are completely different—one’s in an Iranian divorce court and the other is in Cameroon in a room with a judge—but what the scenes are doing is exactly the same. They’re setting up a context, and setting up your main character. So it’s fascinating to see that I’m filming in the same way. What I’m trying to do is have it very transparent, a bit like, obviously not exactly like, but I’ve been watching Mad Men a lot. It’s my current thing! What I love about Mad Men is the subtlety of it, that you can watch a scene, and you’re sort of guessing and thinking and wondering and daydreaming while you’re watching the scene, and I love the ambivalence of everything. And the way you gradually get to know who the people are and what’s going on. I love the fact that you don’t feel bullied or forced into seeing the scene in any particular way. And I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do in the space of a film. I’m trying to make them as transparent as possible, so it’s almost like I’m the audience.

What makes it easy is I’m doing the camera, so if people look at me or appeal to me, the audience is actually where I am. Sometimes I get this weird feeling in the middle of a scene, like there’s one moment I got it very strongly. I was in the police station in Sisters in Law, and the aunt, who’d abused this little girl, fell at her feet to demand forgiveness. And she was only doing it ‘cause she was frightened the family was going to really punish her. So it was very theatrical the way she was doing it but at the same time it was real. And so I was on my knees filming her, and I was filming it but I wasn’t actually seeing it. I was sort of experiencing it as a film. It’s very strange when that happens.

H2N: I wanted to ask this later, but it ties into that exact type of moment, when one hears an almost supernatural voice that says, “Now I have a film.” Does that happen to you? It seems similar to what you’re talking about.

KL: Every single time. With Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, I remember when I filmed that last scene, when Robert gets the CD and then the music plays, the music says everything I was trying to get the film to say. When that happened, I was so emotional when I was filming it, I was crying, and when the scene ended, which was real life, I hugged them both and said, “That’s the end of the film, we’ve got the end of the film.” It’s so strange, ‘cause it was real life but that was the end of the film. And Robert was so pleased, because he realized it was the end of the film! And that always was the end, there couldn’t possibly be another end than that. And that happened with Sisters in Law. It also happened with Rough Aunties. I knew when we filmed it. It was the last thing we filmed.

H2N: Is that specific to all of your work, that you know you’ve shot the ending while you’re shooting it? Do you ever limit yourself beforehand and say, “We’re going to Cameroon for a year and what we get is what we get,” and figure out the ending when you get home? Or do you stick it out until you’re positive that you’ve just shot the ending?

KL: I stick it out. I have to get the ending. The ending somehow seems much easier when I come home, because I always know what the ending is. It’s the beginning that’s difficult. And that’s why Debbie and I were looking at the beginning of Sisters in Law and the beginning of Divorce Iranian Style. We usually edit the film quite quickly. It takes about five or six weeks. And then we take weeks and weeks and weeks trying to figure out how to begin the film. How to have the right balance between information and context, how to draw the audience in, how to set up the story. And we always have a lot of trouble with it.

H2N: I think that’s what is so appealing about your films to me is that they set a quietly immersive tone, they don’t bludgeon you at the beginning, like, “This is what this film is going to be about.”

KL: It’s something that I find really painful, ‘cause it happens to me all the time. Though I’m glad you say that. But you’d be surprised. Like, with Sisters in Law, one of my closest friends, she also makes films. At the end of the very first screening, her partner stood up and said, “I don’t like the film, it doesn’t tell you anything about Cameroon,” and then my friend said something, and another friend said something. There were about seven or eight of them watching the film, and so I went up to talk to them afterwards, and I was really kind of troubled because it was our first screening. I asked, “Well, what information would you like in the film?” She said, “Well, you’ve told me that there are three hundred eighty female judges, and that’s an amazing fact, Kim, you should have put that in the film.” And then her partner said that he wanted context on the political background of Cameroon. He wanted to know about it politically. And there were seven of them and they all said something different. As for the political background, who am I to give that? But I thought particularly about her comment, because she was the person I was closest to. And I thought, if I put, for example, “There are three hundred eighty female judges,” I’m inferring, by saying that, that there are three hundred eighty women like the two women in the film. But that is so not true. There was a woman judge in the court next door, and she used to walk around with her orderly with a stick, and he’d knock people out of the road so she could walk without being touched. (H2N laughs) And, you know, there were some good male judges. Things are loaded. You have to be so careful. If I said, “Three hundred eighty of these women,” no, they’re not ciphers, they’re not symbols.

H2N: And if you’re presenting this information in text especially, then it seems more statistical and black-and-white.

KL: Yeah, it isn’t fair.

H2N: And maybe those people are right to want that information. But in that case, they should go watch a movie about the political background of Cameroon.

KL: Or read books.

H2N: I think what’s so great about your approach to filmmaking—or at least what makes me respond to it so strongly—is that it teaches me something about these specific individuals and their community and culture on a personal level, which in turn sparks me to want to read and learn about them on a broader scale.

KL: My feeling is really that we’re still a little bit old fashioned in the way that we look at documentaries that we’re not with fiction. We’re becoming so sophisticated with how we look at fiction. Like, The Wire is quite extraordinary.

H2N: Yes it is.

KL: That couldn’t have happened even a few years ago. What they demand of the audience. And Mad Men. And The Sopranos. But if you put all these facts and figures onto fiction, say with The Sopranos, you’d say, you know, “There are so many Mafia living here and this is where they are and this is what the Mafia do and this is the history of the Mafia.” Why does documentary have to be bogged down in that way? I suppose it is because there are so few films about some of these countries. But the answer is to have more films or to actually check out books. You can’t expect one poor little film to do everything.

H2N: I feel like the greatest thing a documentary can do is engage with human beings on a personal level. Movies that are too loaded with facts, it’s similar to hearing poetry being read aloud for me. It just doesn’t work as effectively as it does on the page.

KL: Absolutely right. I suppose what it is really is that we all do things that we would like to see, so I make the films that I would like to watch. And I don’t like watching films—apart from Michael Moore, and I forgive him because I just love him and he’s been such a little trouper—but on the whole, I don’t like watching films that tell me what to think or overload me with facts. I can’t do this thing of an image and then audio that doesn’t go with the image, that’s telling me something factual over an image. I find it very difficult, because images are so seductive and sounds are so seductive, and then you have this information. I find it very difficult. And I don’t think that’s how films are meant to be watched. Personally, I think films should be an emotional experience. They should draw you in.

(conversation is interrupted by a surprisingly jovial MoMA security guard who agrees to let us chat for a few more minutes before letting ticket holders into the theater)

H2N: As video cameras have become way more pervasive, has the process of getting your subjects comfortable in front of the camera changed?

KL: I’ve found that people have always been really, really keen to be filmed. Not to be filmed, really, but to have a witness. And I’ve found that from when I very first started with my boarding school, the girls at the school were so happy I was there, and it felt so naughty and exciting to be making a film, ‘cause they knew I was making a critical film of the boarding school. And it was like we were all doing it together and it felt like it was the naughtiest thing you could ever do! (both laugh) So from that first film to Rough Aunties, where we really made it as a team, they would ring me and say, “Come on, you’ve got to do this,” you couldn’t have made that film unless they’d been with me doing it, telling me what was going on.

Most of the people I film are people who feel that they’re not recognized or don’t have a voice, or are doing something outside the norm of what’s accepted. So they’re so happy to have me there, filming them.

H2N: When it comes to the actual act of meeting people that you would like to follow and then filming them, do you have a routine with that? Do you break out the camera right away?

KL: I start right away with the camera. Definitely. It would feel very weird to be there without the camera, ‘cause I’m not there as a friend. Even though I am a friend hopefully. But I’m there to make a film, so why would I be there without the camera? I find that very weird. I know people do that, and I’m not saying that’s weird of them to do it, but I would feel very uncomfortable doing that. And then I wouldn’t know when to bring the camera out. I find that really embarrassing! (both laugh)

H2N: As far as the actual shoots themselves, do you prefer to work within a shorter time span?

KL: It’s very short. People tell me that they shoot for two, three, four years. The shortest one for me would be about nine weeks, and the longest one would be about thirteen weeks.

H2N: Really? I feel like some of your films feel like you’re there for a much longer time than that. Especially Rough Aunties.

KL: I couldn’t have lasted any longer. It did me in. It was so emotionally overwhelming.

H2N: I walked out of that with my girlfriend, and we were both just completely drained.

KL: Which part did you walk out on?

H2N: Oh, I didn’t walk out on the movie!

KL: Oh, good!

H2N: But when we left, it just seemed like we’d been totally immersed in that world for longer than thirteen weeks. Is there a high turnover rate for the Bobbi Bear women?

KL: Those aunties have been there for years. Some of them ten years. I don’t know, they’re just extraordinary people. But what they go through, how they live, the edge on which they live. I’ve just been at Sundance with Mildred and Thuli, and to them it was probably the first ever time in their lives when they haven’t been working. Their lives are just constant, you know; if they’re not working with the kids, they’re collecting water or they’re making food or they’re walking to work. Their lives are really tough.

H2N: Did they get a kick out of Park City?

KL: They loved it. We had such a hoot. It was one of the best weeks of my life. I mean even just things like getting in the Jacuzzi. They’d be screaming with laughter, ‘cause they’ve never sat in hot water. Everything was a hoot.

H2N: You’re referencing things like The Wire and Mad Men. Have you ever had the itch to apply your technique to narrative?

KL: No, because how I experience it, fiction actually isn’t as extraordinary as documentary. For example, in Sisters in Law, a little girl of six runs away from her aunt and goes to a church and gets help. And Cindy in Rough Aunties. I don’t think I would have believed a girl of thirteen could be so generous as to ask her parents to adopt another child because that child hasn’t been loved. I find Cindy extraordinary. If I’d written that as a script I don’t think people would believe it. I’m constantly amazed at how amazing real people are, ordinary people.

H2N: And with the horrifically personal narrative turn that Rough Aunties takes. If you made the most accurate fictional adaptation of that film, it still wouldn’t be the same. I was just wondering if you had any little nagging voices that were tempting you in that other direction.

KL: No. What I’m hoping is that the experience of watching these films—and this sounds weird, ‘cause none of it’s set up and I’m filming it as it’s happening—but I’m hoping the experience of watching the film is close to the experience of watching a good fiction film. That you just feel you’re there and you actually think, “Oh my God, what’s gonna happen next?” And it really is what’s gonna happen next. And that’s the feeling I’m getting when I’m filming it. I’m going, “No, what’s gonna happen next? Oh my God!” And it’s always more extraordinary and more life changing than I imagined. That’s the wonderful thing about making documentaries. The terrible thing is the first few weeks I’m normally thinking, “My God, how am I gonna make a film? Nothing’s happening! Where’s the story?” Maybe it would be a nice feeling to have a script then, you know! (she laughs)

H2N: How about the ethical dilemma. I don’t think anyone in their even somewhat wrong mind would ever accuse you of being exploitative. That said, is there any time when, even though you know your mission is a noble one, you think, “Okay, I need to put the camera down now.” Especially with regards to the shocking turn that Rough Aunties takes.

KL: A lot. When we’re by the river and Sdudla’s crying, the sound recordist Mary kept saying to me, “We should stop filming.” And I felt really terrible. I felt like a kind of monster. It’s someone you really love and they’re in pain and you’re filming them. It’s a very strange thing to do. But at the same time I knew that’s what I was there for. And what’s the point of me being there? I don’t want to watch it for the sake of watching it. And I’m there because we’re there as a team and we’re trying to do something about it. And I was so pleased that when they all came to Amsterdam to see the film, when I said, “Do you think I shouldn’t have filmed it?” They all looked at me as if I was mad. Because they’re gonna use that now to campaign, to get companies, not just people digging their drowned children out of rivers, but digging metals out and polluting the rivers and stuff that’s going on all over Africa, where companies are exploiting people and not putting any money back in. Even though it felt a terrible thing emotionally, in my head I knew we had to film it. So it’s a very difficult thing. There’s no easy answer to that, really. And that’s been in every film. There have been one or two scenes where I’ve felt it, but it’s never occurred to me for a second to stop, because there’s always a trust between the people I’m filming and me, and I always knew if they wanted me to stop they would ask me. But there’s something where you don’t feel comfortable with yourself. And I know when Ollie was watching that, when we were editing and we were looking at the rushes, he had to go out for a walk ‘cause it upset him so much.

H2N: One last question. Over here everyone’s worried about the industry. Here we are on the opening night of your own personal MoMA retrospective, you’re very well established in your field. Even taking all that into account: have you found it harder to get a film off the ground nowadays?

KL: It’s always been hard. Two years to raise the money for Divorce Iranian Style. Two years. And during those two years, I do camera for people, so it was nice that I could do that. But Ziba (Mir-Hosseini), my friend that I made it with, it was tough on her. She waited for two years and I love her for that. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly tough for me ‘cause I know other people, they wait for two years and they don’t get it. So I’m really grateful that we got the money. I think everyone finds it hard.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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