Everything in Life is a Bit Dangerous, Isn’t It? – Interview with Kim Longinotto
I’ve come across your statement that documentaries should be watched the same way fiction is. Can you elaborate?
It’s not that I think people should watch documentaries the way I want. I am not telling them ‚this is the way you should approach films‘. But I definitely do try to make documentaries so they can give the audience the intimacy that only fiction tends to have. I don’t want the viewers to feel separated from the film because they’re given information and instruction.
I guess lately this has been more common – contemporary documentaries often feel like narrative films.
Since Google came to prominence, people are not so interested in information. When I started, they would say: ‚Look, you’ve gone to Japan so I want the information about it. I want you to tell me all the details, all the background, just everything you saw.‘ But they never do that now because they can google everything they need to know about politics, geography and history. And that’s a good thing because now documentary filmmakers are relieved from these kinds of demands which couldn’t have been fulfilled anyway – no one film can give you every piece of information on the topic.
The straitjacket is gone and documentary filmmakers can cease to be the public service for answering basic questions. We can observe the world with finer precision, focusing on what’s important to us, using the advantages of fiction storytelling.
But when you approach reality as if it were a fictional story, isn’t it necessary to shape the movie in the editing room much more? Doesn’t it lead to the omission of important things that just didn’t fit in the story?
In my case, the opposite is true. I don’t shape my films in the editing room, I try to find the shape during shooting. When I start to edit, I already know the story, the beginning, middle and end, its basic structure – and I follow it. It is a surprisingly controlled process because I can’t go back and do reshoots.
I don’t believe in looking for a story in the editing room. Probably because I’m not used to having an extensive amount of raw material. For example, in the case of Sisters in Law we had thirteen hours. That’s because I tend to shoot less and less when I already know what my story is and where I should aim my attention.
That’s interesting because I believe that today it’s more and more common to have a hundred, even two hundred hours of raw material. The structure comes only with the editing process.
I would never, never, never do that! That’s way too much. Twenty-five hours – that would be a lot for me. What you’re describing feels terrible and frightening. I wouldn’t want my editor to have to watch two hundred hours of raw film, I want his life to be pleasurable in the editing room and I want his energy to be spent on editing, not looking through hours of useless material. I want his creativity to be well used.
What’s your dynamic with editors?
I think the editor, Ollie Huddleston, is probably the most important person I need to work with. His sense of rhythm and structure determines how the film will end up. The important thing is that the editor is not there when we shoot. I am often full of emotions about the situations and it is obvious to me how they should be read. I see them through my personal experience. But the editor doesn’t and is able to fix some things that were muddled because of my presumptions. He can be much more detached and clinical and I always respect his decisions. Usually I do what my editor says.
When you are abroad in the middle of a third-world country only with your sound designer, do you ever feel in danger?
Everything in life is a bit dangerous, isn’t it? I mean… Everywhere you are, there is something to be afraid of.
Surely us sitting here and drinking coffee isn’t as dangerous as you defending a lower caste woman in India. Aren’t you cautious?
You’re protected in a way in this situation. When you care about something as I care about my movies, you often forget about the danger and you just focus on the work. The only thing that frightens me is the idea of a bad movie. It’s so scary to think that I won’t be able to do justice to the story! Everything else is secondary to that.
Have you ever been in real danger?
Sure I have. I’ll give you one example. We were making a movie The Day I Will Never Forget about female circumcision in Kenya. We followed one girl’s story after she ran away from her village but later she returned briefly to visit her mother. We were there with her when she went back and the villagers were extremely angry at her and us for filming her. Luckily, our driver was local so he understood what was going on. He told us we must immediately walk to the car and go. As we did, we saw villagers with spears behind us. It is possible they would attack us in a moment.
What I find fascinating about your films is how they show what is normal in other places of the world. The man who says ‚yes, I do beat my wife, I kidnapped her when she was almost a child and now she is mine‘ without any hesitation.
That is really something strange. But to be honest, beating of women is not something strange for western culture. The only difference is that it stays more hidden.
Women and condition of their lives are among your main topics.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that ‚women‘ is my topic. I would rather say my topic is people that are rebellious, people who stand up against unjust traditions or who are victims of some kind of oppression. If it was a man who was being beaten, I would watch his struggle to escape. But of course, that is much less common. I am interested in rebels and rebels are often women.
You mentioned unjust traditions. As a British person you are on thin ice here. How to comment on postcolonial cultures without looking like one of ex-colonists judging their former land?
That is a very important question. We can’t judge the whole culture, we must follow this specific unjust situation. And as I’ve already said: If we call beating up women or child abuse a tradition, then we have this tradition in Britain as well. Only we are more clever in hiding it. So when I watch these stories, I do it to fight these crimes which are not defining for any single culture.
Is it hard to find rebels willing to stand before the camera? And what about the people they rebel against? Are they really so clueless that they don’t ever realize their behavior shouldn’t be spread around the world?
My rebels usually love it. It’s in their spirit. And those others aren’t able to imagine they are not in the right. As we said before, they are willing to confess violence on children without hesitation. They don’t see how anybody could criticize them. That’s why we must talk about it – they will never change on their own. They don’t even see there is anything to talk about. It is all normal.
Where is a place for documentaries in this discussion? Do they even matter? Can they change anything? Aren’t there more efficient means of communication?
If documentaries became more like fiction, meaning more involving and emotional, they can be still influential. Today, people don’t watch documentaries because they think they are boring. So don’t make them that way! People will learn these films can be interesting and then they will return.
Isn’t it hard for viewers in the West to watch stories from India or Africa and not to think of them as something completely strange and uninvolving?
The power of film as a medium is that you forget you’re seeing something outside your reach and you just get to know other people’s stories. There’s a film called The Lives of Others where a man has to watch and spy on other people. But through watching them his life is changed. And I think this is the great strength of films. By seeing somebody who is the other, you think about your own life.
So empathy is the key?
Yes, I believe so. That’s the job of a filmmaker – to bring empathy. So that the viewers forget they see another culture, another country and just feel: That could be my sister! That could be my mother! That could be my friend!
Lately, we’ve seen the mainstream attempting to accept activism with movies like Wonder Woman or Black Panther. The media create a lot of buzz but isn’t it too little, too late for you as a filmmaker pursuing these topics for a long time?
Right now, it isn’t important that it should have come earlier. The important thing is that the mainstream is finally ready to offer more than a white male straight protagonist. We must be glad for films like Black Panther. A lot of my black friends tell me that they grew up without any black role models on the screen, which is just sad. Now we have A Fantastic Woman, which I recommend to everyone, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out and other films where all sorts of people can find their heroes. It is wonderful and it changes things without people realizing it. The thing about Hollywood is that when we watch its movies, we see them as normal. As a neutral reflection of the world. Which, of course, is not true. It’s all propaganda of one way of life. Now there are more stories being told. And they are successful – which is really the one thing in Hollywood that can change status quo. So, thankfully, now we can wait for more interesting things to come.