Kim Longinotto: "My camera is always ready"

Kim Longinotto is renowned for her films looking at the lives of women around the world, and has been named the 2015 recipient of the BBC Grierson Trustees' Award.

Looking at Longinotto's extensive catalogue of films, you could easily assume women's rights to be the filmmaker's vocation. It is, however, change that is at the heart of her powerful documentaries.

"It is not about men or women" she explains. "It is about people who make a difference. Rebels, people who bring a change about - it just happens that women are the ones who stand to lose the most."

From a prostitute on the streets of Chicago to victims of female genital mutilation in Africa, Longinotto's films patiently observe as change unfolds, making a difference to people's lives.

"I am drawn to ordinary people doing extraordinary things" she says. "People like the staff at the Oxford school for emotionally disturbed children (Hold Me Tight Don't Let Go, 2009) who do not get great recognition and do not get paid much but do amazing work. You see these people actually bringing the change about.

"They are telling their story through me, but it is about them and how great they are. They are the real heroes."

Delivering real stories by careful observation

With documentary classics such as Shinijuku Boys (1995), Divorce Iranian Style (1998), Runaway (2001), Sisters In Law (2005), Pink Saris (2010), Salma (2013) and Dreamcatcher (2015), Longinotto has spent 40 years championing the observational documentaries genre.

One of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers, Longinotto has collected a string of accolades including best documentary director at Sundance for Dreamcatcher (right) and this year's BBC Grierson Trustees' award.

Longinotto's style of observational documentary filmmaking is distinct from the reality TV label.

"I don't do reality TV," she comments. "I never liked the expression 'fly-on-the-wall' anyway. It implies that the person we are filming does not really care and is not involved.

"With observational filmmakers like me, we do like people to look at the camera and I don't want them to pretend I am not here. I am the kind of person who gets involved in the lives of the people I film and it is important for me that the film is an honest account of things and not staged in any way."

Longinotto speaks passionately against the staged style that has come to characterise the modern 'reality' sub-genre of television.

"It is just not right," she says. "I do camera work for others and remember instances where the researcher has interviewed the subject who obviously confided in him or her. The director then asks the subject to repeat the replies from the interview, which to me seems wrong. If it is published, it becomes public, but if somebody has been to see someone as a researcher and then the director knows what was said, then it is a real intrusion."

"I only film 'goose-bump moments'"

Unlike the continuous filming style that characterises the most popular reality shows, Longinotto films very little.

"My camera is always ready, but I only film 'goose-bump moments'," she argues. "I take just ten weeks to shoot a film and come back with about 20 hours of filming."

She adds that presenting a collection of ‘goose-bump moments’ doesn’t makes the process more challenging for Ollie Huddleston, her trusted editor whom she has worked with on nine films.

“We watch the footage together and Ollie is the one who creates the story. He is a master at creating tension and pace. I actually think of Ollie when I am filming and of how he will edit it. I am lucky that I trust him so much. Unlike many filmmakers who do a number of screenings in search of feedback, we only show the edited film to the commissioning editor (Peter Dale of publisher Adam Bookbinder).”
Longinotto confesses to feeling uneasy about speaking at the Grierson awards ceremony, as it is her wonderful subjects who “are the real heroes” and she would rather have them on stage. 

“They are ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” she says with great affection. “Like that eight-year-old girl in Kenya who practically bullied me into filming her at home. It was a film about female genitalia cutting (The Day I Will Never Forget, 2002) and I was tired when she approached me. I didn’t want to go but she wouldn’t give up. She took me to her home and told me where to stand, what to do. She read me a poem about how she hated mutilation. The end of the poem said ‘I am asking you my parents - Is this what I deserve?’ She then said it to the camera ‘Is that what I deserve?’ It was an amazing moment!”
Longinotto concludes: “Filmmaking is a team effort. It’s the sound person and the editor who make it work, it’s just a shame that only one gets to be called the director.”


Also on The Knowledge