Kim Longinotto is a documentarian whose time has finally come. Since the mid-1970s, Longinotto has been taking her cameras to corners of the world where women battle to survive cultures that are fundamentally hostile to their interests. Intersectional long before the term had been coined let alone entered the cultural mainstream; Kim Longinotto’s films explore the plight of women with a sensitivity to sexuality, race, class and culture that is never anything less thought-provoking. Though unabashedly moral, Longinotto’s films are never moralising… they forego easy villains and reductive narratives, focusing instead upon trying to understand the views of local women and placing those views within a broader cultural context. For example, Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway depict Iran as a country where every deck is stacked against women but the women who feature in the films all seem to be aware of the hands they have been dealt and play them as well as they possibly can whilst continuing to obey the rules. Conversely, Longinotto’s Shinjuku Boys and Gaea Girls depict the men of Japan as absentee landlords and women as bold experimentalists who relentlessly push at the limits of conventional gender roles in order to find a place they can be themselves. More confrontational and optimistic than either set of films, Sisters in Law travels to Cameroon where a small group of female judicial activists use commonly un-enforced laws to put pressure on traditional practices and raise awareness about the treatment of women and children. Focused on the Somali community living in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget takes a long, hard look at the practice of female circumcision and asks it works, what it means, why it continues to be practiced, and why that practice might eventually come to an end.
The film opens with what could almost be called a best-case scenario. A young Somali woman prepares for her marriage as the local Somali community bustle around her; we see the wedding dress being fitted, we see the application of henna to her skin, we see her hair being made up. Then we are transported to the Somali equivalent of a hen night where the young woman’s friends and female relatives dance and sing in front of a groom who is manifestly trying his best not to be intimidated. One woman sings that Somali woman are always mistreated by their men and the point of the exercise becomes clear: Mess with one of us, and you will regret it. The Day I Will Never Forget is about that bond of community… for good and ill.
The next thing we see is a local nurse examining the young woman. The nurse is one of those wonderfully Longinottian figures who has devoted her life to improving the lot of women. As a medical professional with ties to the local community, she knows both the medical facts about female circumcision and the social realities that inform women’s decision-making processes. Always smiling and never openly critical of either men or the status quo, the nurse convinces the Somali woman to not let her husband undo her stitches but when the Somali woman turns out to need a general anaesthetic, she struggles to convince the husband who is afraid that his friends will think him weak if he has to wait a couple of weeks before having sex with his wife.
I refer to this sequence as a “best-case scenario” as the young Somali woman has a support network, access to medical care and a husband who can at least be convinced to forego sex on his wedding night for the sake of his wife’s health. As hellish as the young Somali woman’s prospects may seem… she is actually one of the happier figures in this film.
Having introduced us to the problem – namely that many women are subjected to a range of procedures known collectively as female circumcision or female genital mutilation – Longinotto sets about exploring the social and cultural forces keeping FGM alive as a practice.
On a social level, many of the women interviewed by Longinotto insist that they do it to their daughters simply because it was done to them. Quite often, they will claim that their religion commands it but when it is pointed out that (for example) Islam does not actually demand that women be circumcised, they retreat into claims about their culture. When someone points out that it was actually the Egyptians who introduced FGM to parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the justifications become a lot more interesting.
One of the most shocking ideas to emerge from Longinotto’s films about Iran is that Iranian culture seemed to view men as being completely unaccountable for their actions. For example, the film features women who have been forced to stay in-doors for their own safety because all men are potential rapists. Rather than holding men accountable for their actions and trying to control male aggression, the culture shifts the need for social control away from the aggressors and towards the victims. The Day I Will Never Forget suggests that similar thinking underpins the use of female genital mutilation.
As soon as Longinotto and her collaborators deprive the circumcision advocates of their usual excuses, an inhuman logic bubbles to the surface: Women must be circumcised because they are the property of their families and a woman with a full set of sexual organs is liable to act on her urges in a way that might deprive the family of money or status. A practitioner of female circumcision talks about how much nicer it looks when a woman has been circumcised and one of her friends adds that a little cut and a few stitches provide families with the security of daughters who stay in school and do as they are told. Turns out that clitoridectomies make good citizens.
As in the case of Iran’s treatment of women, female genital mutilation emerged as a solution to very real problems and the practice endures because those problems are still a source of concern for modern parents. The families of people with daughters do need to worry about the sex lives of their children as a knocked-up teenaged daughter is a financial risk while a virgin daughter can form the basis for a lasting and profitable relationship between families. There is no denying that these practices make some sort of sense… what makes them inhuman is the fact that the cost of implementing these particular solutions outweighs not only the costs of the problem but also the costs of alternate solutions. This is where sexism and cultural differences enter the picture…
As Longinotto’s films about Iran suggest, Iranians lock up their daughters as a solution to the problem of male rape. This makes some sort of sense until you realise the human cost of locking up Iran’s daughters when compared to alternative solutions such as punishing rapists and educating little boys to stop them growing into rapists. A similar inhumanity is present in the decision to use female circumcision to counter the problem of teen pregnancy; is denying women the ability to enjoy sex really a reasonable price to pay when compared to that of educating kids about safe sex and keeping a closer eye on them in general? Sexism is what we call the assumption that all prices are reasonable as long as it is women who do the paying.
As brilliant as the film is on issues such as these, The Day I Will Never Forget really hits its stride when it begins to explore the local marketplace of ideas and how various cultural worldviews are competing for control of Kenya’s children.
About a third of the way through the film, Longinotto films a speech given by a man from a group teaching what they claim to be traditional religious practices including polygamy and female genital mutilation. I’m going to quote the man’s speech at some length, as I think it shines a fascinating light on how certain cultural groups explain their commitment to female genital mutilation:
Our organisation is called the Thaai Fraternity of Kenya bent on salvaging our sinking boat or ship of our African traditional religion reviving the lost values of our forefathers. I am not propagating anything but I am saying that our forefathers were instructed by the almighty, the creator, so in our society we do not have mutilation. What we have and still advocate for is female clitoridectomy. This is very simple biologically for those who know that a man and a woman have got both organs. So, I Ngoya, before I was circumcised, had both organs. I had two organs in me and time had to come when the two organs were supposed to be separated. For the woman, the female organ is that thing they keep fighting for – the clitoris. And for the man, what represents the woman in the man is the foreskin. So, you see, because of the wisdom of the almighty, the creator, the foreskin had to be taken off, so that we can now meet free people together.
The fact that the man delivers this speech in the middle of a town square really drives home the sense that Kenya is a marketplace of ideas in which various worldviews are in explicit competition. FGM endures as a practice because those memes have embedded themselves in both the local variant of Islam and the revived traditional practices of the Thaai Fraternity of Kenya. Longinotto demonstrates this by cutting between interviews with Somali Muslim women and women from the Thaai Fraternity of Kenya who justify the use of female circumcision in very similar terms. Particularly telling is the way that both groups bring very young children into groups of much older women and then put the children on the spot by asking them if they consent to circumcision. Intimidated, ignorant and way too young to make an informed decision, the young women all consent to being circumcised for the simple reason that saying no would mean defying the authority of the entire community. Thus we see the double-edged sword of strong community bonds.
Having given the practitioners of female genital mutilation the chance to be heard, Longinotto shows us the realities of the practice. Just as the young Somali woman howls the second the nurse tries to undo her stitches at the beginning of the film, the young women who undergo circumcision howl and fight until physically restrained. When one young girl says that she has changed her mind, the women simply grab her and wrestle her to the ground. Images of women screaming in pain feature throughout the film almost as a recurring motif. The unpleasantness and savagery of these scenes stand in stark contrast to the politeness of the discourse that surrounds the practice: Old men may make speeches and old women may make jokes but the reality of female genital mutilation is a young woman screaming in agony.
As in her film Sisters in Law, Longinotto explores attempts to use the law of the land to crack down on traditional customs that brutalise and demean women. This section focuses on a young woman who ran away after being circumcised and ‘given’ to an older man who raped her. We meet the young woman in a shelter and then follow her to a Christian school that takes in survivors of female genital mutilation and encourages them to file restraining order against their parents. However, unlike the triumphant victories of Sisters in Law, these court cases feel like shots fired in a cultural war between a Christian church that doesn’t allow female genital mutilation and non-Christian religions that encourage it. Longinotto underlines the questionable motivations behind these court cases by suggesting that the young woman we met at the beginning of the section may have been bullied and abused by the Christians looking after her. Given that the Christian church seems happy to brutalise and mistreat the young women in its care, it seems reasonable to suggest that the church’s anti-FGM stance might well be a deliberate ploy to attract younger people to the church. Longinotto further underlines this point in a scene where the girls are all ‘convinced’ to file restraining orders at the same time. Like their contemporaries who agree to undergo the procedure, these young women had the choice to opt out of a community practice but doing so would have meant taking on the entire community.
Watching The Day I Will Never Forget after a number of Longinotto’s works, I am struck by the sheer complexity of the problems she tackles. FGM isn’t just an issue of men mistreating women, it’s about cultural systems supporting particular practices. It is difficult to go after FGM without also seeming to go after Islam and traditional African religions. Similarly, supporting an anti-FGM movement can also mean supporting Christian churches looking to grow at the expense of other religious forms. It is one thing to declare these practices inherently wrong but quite another to go about convincing people to stop using them. The Day I Will Never Forget is a powerful reminder of the tightrope that activists are forced to walk in order to improve the lives of women.
Jonathan, I’ve been fascinated by your writing on Longinotto’s documentaries. Thank you for covering these films!
Unfortunately watching them seems to be rather trickier. Do you happen to know where one can do so? For example, individual films seem to go for between £15 and £20 on Amazon (ugh), whilst the only trace I can find of a lesser-spotted box set is a single used set on sale for £100 via Amazon marketplace.
With material like this I’d rather watch legitimately in a way that supports the filmmaker than pursue the obvious alternative avenues.
Thanks Shaun :-) It’s been a really interesting experience as it has helped me to better understand a lot of the concepts that feminist thinkers throw around.
Her films are frustratingly difficult to track down… The Gaea Girls/Shinjukju Boys and Divorce Iranian Style/Runaway collections are both less than £10 on Amazon second hand and you could sell them on after watching them.
I was lucky enough to pick up the box set when it was still cheap but I’m now trying to track down her other films without much success :-(
Hurrah! I spotted several copies of Sisters in Law for a few pounds, so I picked up one of those alongside a DIS/Runaway double. That should keep me going. :)
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