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.
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FilmJuice have my review of Robert Altman’s arthouse drama 3 Women. Set in a small desert town, the film tells of a teenage girl who arrives in town and attaches herself to a slightly older woman with a similar background. Initially, the teenage girl behave likes little more than an enraptured child, hanging on the older woman’s every word as she spins lies and revels in her narrow consumerist ideas about the good life. This relationship lasts until the young woman’s naivete and the older woman’s dishonesty run afoul each other resulting in one of them being hospitalise, at which point the film gets weird:
3 Women is divided into three increasingly-short sections that are topped and tailed by these beautifully composed surrealist interludes that linger in the mind and imbue the film with a distinctly dreamlike quality. When Milly and Pinky’s first relationship falls to pieces, a dream sequence triggers a re-ordering of their friendship and a transfer of personality traits: Once childlike and naïve, Pinky now emerges as manipulative and sexually confident while the deluded and selfish Milly is replaced by a more nurturing and principled figure who tries to look after Pinky only to wind up apologising for her failings until their unhealthy relationship intersects with another woman.
The elevator pitch for this film could easily be: A Feminist Lost Highway as the exchange of personality traits and the radical reworkings of reality are very similar to those deployed by Lynch. The film was evidently quite poorly reviewed at the time and Altman himself admitted that he wasn’t entirely clear what message he was trying to get across but I was reminded quite a lot of the work of Joanna Russ in so far as the film builds towards a future without men and many of the weirder shifts are triggered by a need to find a new way to co-exist with men who are either distracted and indifferent or crude stereotypical representations of a masculinity so toxic that it borders on the absurd.
I remembered Robert Altman chiefly from the grown-up satires he produced towards the end of his career, but while The Player, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter always struck me as very similar to Altman’s breakthrough film MASH, they did absolutely nothing to endear him to me. 3 Women has completely changed my opinion of Robert Altman and while I suspect that it’s probably not worth my while investigating the rest of his back catalogue in search of films like 3 Women, I do now wonder to what extent I was simply not ready for his sensibility.
Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s documentary Sisters in Law is best understood in terms of its relationship with Longinotto’s earlier films Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. Divorce Iranian Style put Longinotto’s camera into an Iranian family court where Women tried to use their country’s sexist legal infrastructure to protect them from their abusive and manipulative husbands. Eye-opening in its depiction of Iranian female agency and moving in its uncompromising commitment to women’s stories, Divorce Italian Style is a powerful film made even more powerful by Runaway, a film about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee their family homes. Formally very similar to Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law finds the British documentarian Kim Longinotto filming various legal proceedings in the Cameroonian town of Kumba where it has been seventeen long years since the last conviction for spousal abuse.
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Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary Runaway is best viewed as a companion piece to their 1998 collaboration Divorce Iranian Style. Fusing the intense humanism of cinéma vérité with the analytical powers of feminist anthropology, Divorce Iranian Style is a fundamentally optimistic film about a group of women who use the unfair and oppressive structures of Iranian divorce law to improve their lives. I call Runaway a ‘companion piece’ to Divorce Iranian Style as while the earlier film is all about working inside the system to improve your lot, Runaway is all about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee for the sake of their own security.
Like all of Kim Longinotto’s work, Runaway provides a fascinating and genuinely moving portrait of a group of women who are trying to protect themselves from the failings of their society. In this case, the failing that women are forced to contend with is a vision of gendered sexuality that is as old as the hills and twice as tricky to erode.
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THE ZONE have my review of Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller Secret Behind the Door starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave.
Based upon Charles Perrault’s fable Bluebeard, Secret Behind the Door explores the process through which a couple get to know each other. After a whirlwind romance, Bennett’s character marries Redgrave’s secretive and intense architect. After a rudely interrupted honeymoon, Bennett’s character arrives at the architect’s home and finds him sharing it with two other women and a son from a previous marriage. As in the fable, Bennett’s character begins poking around in her husband’s background until she discovers something sinister.
Bluebeard is perhaps better known in its native France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. One reason for this is that it is one of those stories that paints women as a race of incessant and toxic meddlers whose refusal to follow simple male instructions result in the destruction of everything. Think of Else to Lohengrin. Think of Eve to Adam. Because of the story’s misogynistic roots, generations of feminist authors have been quick to reclaim the role of interfering spouse and cast it in a more positive and transformative light such as the one that bathes Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Neither misogynistic nor feminist, Lang’s adaptation of Silvia Richards’ screenplay presents Bennett’s character as a wonderfully ambiguous figure who ‘fixes’ her husband for reasons all of her own. However, while the characters are engaging and the plot is fascinating, what really grabbed me was Lang’s decision to use a voice over as the primary means of communicating inner states:
Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang’s tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor’s faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang’s generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.
Secret Behind the Door is a flawed gem and its arrival on region-free DVD is long overdue. This is a must for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and an absolute necessity for anyone who loves Fritz Lang’s film noirs.
Gestalt Mash have my fifth piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s excellent Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
The fifth volume (the last one translated to date) of the series slows the pace down after the brisk historical jaunting of the previous volume. Again, the primary concern is the failure of the Shogun to provide the sort of leadership required to steer Japan through troubled times but Yoshinaga subtly shifts the emphasis of the book opening up whole new vistas. Indeed, while the previous volumes have been all about the need for the Japanese ruling elite to reflect the changed demographics of Japanese society, enough time has now passed that we are on (at least) the second generation of female rule. In Yoshinaga’s alternative Edo period Japan, women now have exclusive control over all aspects of society. This changes the power dynamic between the sexes and so presents Japanese culture with another ‘fact’ that it needs to reflect.
Gestalt Mash has my third piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alternate history manga Ooku: The Inner Chambers.
Following hot on the heels of the second volume in the series, volume three teases out a political conflict at the heart of the Shogun’s court. A conflict in which the forces of conservatism battle the forces of social progress for control of both Japan and the mind of the Shogun. Beautifully drawn, exquisitely written and awesome in the power of its insights into contemporary attitudes towards gender and sexuality, Ooku continues to be a fantastic piece of sequential art.