Art isn’t so much a window on the world as the condensation that forms on said window whenever we stand too close. As creative beings we inhale ideology and exhale art… metabolising the myths, assumptions and taboos comprising our cultures and turning them into a mist that hangs somewhere between us and the world. Neither entirely of the world, nor entirely of us… Art is made up of elements from both domains meaning that any attempt to construct the history of an art-form will necessarily tell us a little about our history and a little about the history of the world.
“Kim Longinotto” is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of historical analysis as most of her films appear to have been assembled with nothing more abstract than a hand-held camera and the truth. Whether exploring the social pressures perpetuating the practice of female circumcision in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) or following social workers as they try to help women leave the sex trade in Dreamcatcher (2015), Longinotto is a filmmaker who has earned an international reputation for absolute documentary realism… which is precisely what makes Love is All such an exciting project.
Commissioned by the British Film Institute and originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand, Love is All is an experimental documentary that takes a load of cinematic archive materials, combines them with a specially-written soundtrack, and tells a story about the evolution of love and courtship over the course of the 20th Century.
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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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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 title of Kim Longinotto’s documentary Divorce Iranian Style appears to be a tip of the hat to Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, an award-winning comedy from a time when being in a language other than English was no barrier to success at the Oscars. Germi’s film concerns an Italian nobleman who, despite having fallen out of love with his wife, is unable to get a divorce under the Italian legal system. Desperate for a way out, he concocts a plan to manipulate his wife into having an affair so that he can burst in on the lovers, kill his wife and then escape with a slap on the wrist after claiming that it was a crime of passion. While the outcome of the nobleman’s scheming is neither here nor there, the film suggests that people will always find a way to liberate themselves from an un-loved spouse… even when the legal system makes divorce a practical impossibility.
Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style is shot almost entirely inside one of Teheran’s family courts where Islamic judges known as Qadi preside over divorce proceedings that heavily favour the husband and the institution of marriage. However, despite the presence of horrendous structural inequalities, Longinotto’s subjects fight for their emancipation using any and all tactics at their disposal.
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Back in the early 1980s, Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka formed a professional wrestling tag-team known as The Crush Girls. Part of the second generation of Japanese professional wrestlers, the Crush Girls proved so impossibly popular that they changed the face of professional women’s wrestling and raised the bar for female wrestlers all over the world. Despite their immense popularity, the Crush Girls split up in 1989 when they reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 27. Six years later, Chigusa Nagayo came out of retirement to found Gaea Japan, an entirely new wrestling promotion in which she would also play out a long-standing grudge with her one-time partner Lioness Asuka. Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ Gaea Girls is a documentary filmed in and around the training facilities of Gaea Japan that looks at how aspiring female wrestlers cope not only with the traditionally male-dominated world of professional wrestling but also with Chigusa Nagayo’s ideas about parenting.
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The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. What Wittgenstein actually meant remains a subject of philosophical debate but we can read his comment as a reflection upon the two-way relationship between our perception of the world and the ways in which we talk about it.
Intuitively, facts should always take precedence over language and whenever we encounter a fact that does not fit with our use of language, we should simply update our vocabulary to better reflect the facts on the ground. While there are certainly institutions and groups who try to educate people about ‘correct’ language use, the meaning of a word is always determined by the way it is most commonly used by a given population. What this means in practice is that while experts may be forever inventing language that is a better fit with current thinking about a particular phenomenon, having those new terms filter down into general usage is subject to the same structural biases as any other attempt at changing the way that people think.
The problem with the rigidity of our spoken language is that the vernacular often contains concepts and assumptions that are not only out of date but actively harmful. For example, if we define masculinity in terms of having a penis then someone who identifies as male despite not having a penis must simply be wrong about their gender. While there was a time when our culture was quite happy to make this type of judgement, our understanding of gender has now evolved to the point where terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are becoming increasingly hard to pin down.
The language of gender and sexuality has evolved with almost unprecedented speed over the last few decades and new conceptual iterations seems to generate more and more political heat as words are fought over by people with different needs and ideas. If the limits of our shared language mean the limits of our world then the battle to control the conceptual underpinnings of our language is also the battle to control our world.
Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys is a documentary about a group of people who were assigned female at birth but identify more closely with the male gender than the female. Made all the way back in 1995, I am sure that many of the terms used in this documentary are horrendously outdated but while Shinjuku Boys may struggle with its pronouns, it does show how people will continue to perform and negotiate their genders even when words fails them.
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