Interview with

Kim Longinotto

Interviewer: Sarah Teasley

When Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s much-talked-about documentary Divorce Iranian Style won the FIPRESCI Award in the International Competition section at YIDFF ’99, Longinotto was 300 km south in Yokohama, Japan, shooting the footage for her new documentary on women’s pro-wrestling in Japan. Gaea Girls, the latest in UK-based Longinotto’s series of documentaries about women in Japan, premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival this September, and will show in film festivals around the world over the coming months. Longinotto graciously agreed to meet Documentary Box co-editor Sarah Teasley in Yokohama the day after she and co-director Jano Williams finished filming.

— The Editors


Sarah Teasley (ST): I’d like to jump right in and ask about Divorce Iranian Style, which showed in the International Competition of the 1999 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. How did you come to make the film ?

Kim Longinotto (KL): I’d wanted to make a film in Iran for quite a long time, mainly because there was such a demonized view of Iranian people in England, you know after the Salman Rushdie affair and everyone thinking it was a nation of fanatics. I’d been looking first for someone to work with, and then I met [co-director] Ziba Mir-Hosseini at a party, and we hit it off immediately. She was telling me about her work, and that she’d written a book about the law courts, Marriage on Trial. So I took the book, read it at home and loved it, and that’s how we started to do the film together.

I really enjoyed working with Ziba. Sometimes you meet someone from another country, and when you’re in your own country they’re very laid-back and relaxed with everybody. Then you go back to their country, and they’re kind of middle-class education and hierarchical, saying “Oh, we can’t talk to them,” and that sort of thing. Ziba and I went on a three-week research visit, and I was struck by how she was just so lovely with everybody, really warm and really open. There was none of that barrier between people at all. There’d be somebody selling something in the market, and Ziba would squat down beside her and start chatting. It was really really nice. That’s when we decided to do the film together.

ST: You worked with Ziba, a native of Iran, on Divorce, but you’ve also worked with non-natives of Japan on many of your Japanese films, including Shinjuku Boys and Dream Girls. Does it make a difference to work with someone from the country in which you’re filming?

KL: It’s really hard to generalize because each film has its own sort of story, but sometimes being an outsider is an advantage. I made a film, The Good Wife of Tokyo, in Japan with a very close Japanese friend, Kazuko Hohki. She’s in the Frank Chickens, which is a rather zany group. I made a film about her family, so there was all the stress of it being her own family, which made it hard for her. We’d go places and she’d get caught up in things.

The very first film I made in Japan, Eat the Kimono, was about Hanayagi Genshu, a kind of activist, and I came over with a Japanese woman from film school—I hadn’t made a film in Japan before—and Hanayagi couldn’t bear this woman, who was from a very rich family. She said that even the kind of language this woman used was belittling to her. So that’s when I really thought, “Oh my god, I’ve been so stupid,” I thought just bringing a Japanese person back was going to make it all right, and she’s a student so she’s young and it would, you know, I assumed it would be fine. And then it was a complete disaster, and then she said, “Look, either she goes or I’m not in the film.” That’s when [co-director] Jano Williams got involved in that one, because she was there with us, and she’s living in Japan. Genshu just loved Jano.

So you can generalize and say that maybe [working with someone Japanese] would have meant a different film, but it depends on the woman. If it had been somebody who was prepared to be funny and relaxed and didn’t look down on them in any way, someone who would treat them with respect, it would have been fine. But I can’t really think of it, it would have been a different film, because it would have been a different chemistry. You’re only three people: there’s me, another person, and the sound recorder. So the film comes very much out the three of you as a team, as well as having its own momentum.

ST: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider, as you put it? For example, did not being Iranian have much of an effect on filming Divorce? The interviews in the law courts seemed somewhat unusual, and I was particularly surprised that you’d gotten permission to shoot in a mosque. You’re shooting the male side of the mosque, so I was half-expecting to see a male photographer’s name roll up in the credits, but there wasn’t one, was there.

KL: Sometimes you can get away with things that you might not be able to get away with, for example you can break a few rules. Maybe you’re not being polite, or as formal as you might be. Jano’s language is strange sometimes, because she learnt it from her first husband, who was Japanese, and she sometimes uses the male form of address and things like that. I think it relaxes people. It’s like they realize that she doesn’t mind if they laugh at her. It makes for easy, relaxed filming. She’s also very warm, so she can do things like hug people when they’re upset, which could be hard for somebody if it’s not that usual. A lot of terrible things happened while we were filming, and they really got into hugging. They’d say, “Oh, we like this.” If I’d been Japanese I wouldn’t have done that.

With Divorce, it was kind of the same thing: lightly breaking the rules, just standing there and assuming it’s all right and seeing if you can get away with it. It’s also about being able to show that it’s just a flimsy little curtain. A man could definitely not have filmed the woman’s side, but if a woman does it she can get away with it. Also, they’d seen us around, we’d been there for five weeks by then. I think that something very strange that happens if you’re a group of women. Somewhere like the mosque, we weren’t a threat, we were just three women and we were filming them and they were part of their mosque and it was fine. Whereas if we’d been men... I think it works both ways.

But it can be to your disadvantage because people don’t treat you seriously—with Dream Girls, sometimes, we’d ask for things and no one would bother. We’d say, “Can we have a quiet place so we can just talk to Anju Mira,” but it never happened. Other film crews would be allowed to do things and we wouldn’t, and it got progressively worse throughout the film. I think they just sort of thought there was no way we’d get it together because we looked scruffy. We came on the tube, you know, we had stuff in rucksacks, and we weren’t in vans with logos, and there were three of us rather than the proper crew.

ST: So being an all-women crew makes a difference.

KL: Oh, absolutely. A society like Iran is two worlds to the extent that you go through different entrances, and when you’re going in the courtroom men ought to give up their mobile phones while the women have to take off their makeup. When this division into two worlds is so extreme, the fact that you’re women means that you’re on the right side. When you’re with women you’re sort of all together and there’s an immediate sense of togetherness; it’s a lovely feeling and makes up in part for the sense of being annoyed at having to cover yourself up and worrying all the time. Ziba used to get really panicky about my hair showing because she thought we’d get into trouble, and so she was always telling me to hide my hair. So what makes up for all that kind of hassle is the fact that you’re welcomed. Also, about language, I think because I can’t speak, I tend to do lots of things with gestures. In Muslim countries, where it’s a men-women thing, women are very very tactile, so they would touch all the time, they’ll hold your hand, they’ll sort of put their arm through yours. You feel very loved in a way, I know it sounds corny, but you really feel welcomed.


ST: You seemed very close to the women in the documentary. There were times in the divorce proceedings when the husband and wife would be arguing, and the wife would turn to you and say something, then turn back again. Also, what about your relationship with the men in the cases? You said that Ziba would go and talk to women in the corridor. I’m assuming that you then went and talked to their husbands as well.

KL: I think that closeness has to do with Ziba. She’s been divorced three times, twice in Iran. When she’d go and talk to the women in the corridor, she’d say, “We’re making a film about divorce, can we film you?” and then she’d talk about her own divorces. So immediately she got rid of this thing that somehow we were observing them as these bad women, which is what most of these women have become used to feeling, and they thought she was an ally. She knows an awful lot about the law system, so sometimes she’d give them advice. She really helped them, she gave them courage, particularly the young ones. She’d say, “I was your age, and I got through it.” So when they’re looking at us, the crew, they’re actually looking at Ziba, looking at a friend, and that’s why you get that very warm feeling.

When we approached women, if they were with their husband we’d always ask the husband as well. Actually I think the only times that we didn’t film the women was when the husband said no, although Miriam was the exception here. That happened a couple of times. But most of the husbands thought they were in the right. They felt very confident and thought that the court was there to reinforce their rights, so they were quite happy to be filmed.

ST: Do you really just go up to people and say “Can we film you?” How do you decide who will be in your films?

KL: With [Dream Girls], we spent a few days working out who we wanted to film, and it was us choosing them, but also them choosing us. In Takarazuka there are four groups, then there are about four teenage groups, so it’s massive, and we just didn’t know who to choose. We spent about a week wandering around and not knowing who to choose. Then we were walking past a rehearsal room, and Maya Miki waved at us and said “Come in.” She was confident enough but friendly enough to want us to [film her] and I think that’s how it worked really with the rest of them. And then there was the woman who came and picked us up from the station, Uematsu. We liked her immediately, and she was kind of our special friend there , so she became a main character in the film.

With Divorce, we didn’t know how long we’d have there, so there was this real panic to make sure that we’d actually have time to get more and less the whole story. We’d go to the court in the morning and [court secretary] Mrs. Maher—you know, the tough one with the little daughter—would tell us what cases were coming up. And we’d discuss them and we’d say, “This looks like a good one, that looks like a good one.” We also know we wanted a custody case. One thing people always filmed in Iran during the Salman Rushdie thing—the Iranian government wanted it filmed as well—was this whole idea of mothers as martyrs, which they promote as the mothers who were glad that their sons would die, because they’d go to paradise. The government obviously thought it promoted a good image, because it was what they believed in, but to Europeans it seemed incredibly unfeeling, as if these women didn’t have any love for their children. You don’t think, “The reason we’re seeing these [women] is because the ones that don’t want to say ‘I’m glad my son died’ weren’t filmed,” but they were hand-picked. So Ziba and I were really keen to have a woman who was fighting for her children. When we first saw Miriam, we just knew from that presence she’s got and that power. When we asked her she said no, she’d never let us film her, she’s so used to everybody thinking of her as bad because she’s breaking all the rules. It was only after we’d been there a week and she’d seen Ziba talking to other women about her divorces and saying, “Do this, do this,” that she realized we were on her side, and the next time she came and she nodded to me and said, “Film me.”

We knew we needed to have cases that were self-contained, that had a beginning, middle, and a kind of—you could tell what the end of it was. We cut this down by choosing characters: Miriam we loved; and then Ziba, we wanted a young girl; we also wanted a sort of middle-class, rather glamorous woman like Massi. I think she looks a little bit like Lady Di. We chose our characters, and then we stopped filming other characters, and edited more as we went along. But there were some wonderful scenes with other women that we couldn’t use because they were either at the end of a case or they never came back, or... There was a scene with a woman who puts her baby on the counter, and says to her husband, “Look, if you’re not going to pay maintenance, you keep the baby,” and she’s sobbing, and it’s a whole big drama that she’s doing to get maintenance from him, but she’s upset as well. Actually that was quite funny, that was right at the beginning, and I was really upset, I they were taking her baby away from her, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. And at the end I said, “Oh, Ziba, she’s lost her baby,” and Ziba said, “Oh no, she got her maintenance.”

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Kim Longinotto

Born in London in 1952. Studied filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in London, where she made Pride of Place, a fiercely critical look at her old boarding school. Beginning with early works Theatre Girls, Cross and Passion, Underage, Tragic But Brave and Fireraiser (with Claire Hunt), Longinotto’s many film and television documentaries have screened at film festivals and theatres around the world, where they never fail to provoke intense media and audience interest. Longinotto’s commitment to collaborative filmmaking with an all-women crew and her drive to portray strong women on-screen are particularly visible in her series of films about women in Japan (The Good Wife of Tokyo with Claire Hunt, and Eat the Kimono, Dream Girls, Shinjuku Boys and the newly released Gaea Girls, all with Jano Williams), 1991’s Hidden Face (with Claire Hunt), about women in Egypt, and YIDFF ’99 International Competition entry Divorce Iranian Style, which she co-directed with Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini.

Selected Filmography

Eat the Kimono
(1989, co-directed with Jano Williams, 61 min.)
Entertainer and lecturer Hanayagi Genshu travels around Japan, performing for audiences at hot spring resorts and spreading harsh criticism of the emperor system and the iemoto seido, or patriarchal structure of the traditional performing arts in Japan. The film’s title comes from Hanayagi’s exhortation for women not to lose their self-determination and let themselves be “eaten by a kimono,” or put into a kimono and the traditional roles it symbolizes.

Hidden Faces
(1990, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 52 min.)
Safaa, a young Egyptian woman living in Paris, goes to Egypt to meet Nawal El Saadawi, a prominent feminist writer and activist. The film unfolds through a reading of El Saadawi’s works, and addresses the frictions and disparities between feminism and a number of practices—women’s veiling, cliterodectomies, the prohibition of pre-marital sex—which continue to be strongly rooted in Egyptian Muslim society today.

The Good Wife of Tokyo
(1992, co-directed with Claire Hunt, 52 min.)
After fifteen years in London, performance artist Kazuko Hohki travels back to the family home in Tokyo for her wedding to an English man. There, her retired father hides himself away at home, while her mother, a lay minister in a popular religion, keeps herself busy preaching and proselytizing. The film follows Kazuko as she visits with family and friends, and paints an intimate, thoughtful portrait of the everyday happinesses and worries of Japanese women.

Dream Girls
(1993, co-directed with Jano Williams, 50 min.)
The complex world of the all-women Takarazuka Theater includes the people who run it, support it, perform in it and love it, from the top “male” stars to feverish fans, earnest students at the theater’s training academy and their families. This highly personal look into Takarazuka performances, retirements, practice sessions, school entrance ceremonies and classroom cleaning rituals also addresses Japanese women’s views towards desire, marriage, family and women’s social roles in early 1990s Japan.

Shinjuku Boys
(1995, co-directed with Jano Williams, 54 min.)
Gaish, Tatsu and Kazuki are onabe, biological women who live as men and work as hosts at a Tokyo nightclub. The second in Longinotto and Williams’ series of films about strong, iconoclastic Japanese women, Shinjuku Boys is a portrait of Gaish, Tatsu and Kazuki and their families, friends and lovers, and approaches questions of gender, sexuality and identity with warmth, openness and the desire to let onabe speak for themselves.

Divorce Iranian Style
(1998, co-directed with Ziba Mir-Husseini, 80 min.)
For women in Iran, where divorce law is designed to favor men, divorce is anything but easy. Nonetheless, women wanting a divorce take to the law courts to argue for themselves and their children. Longinotto’s camera records the men and women who come to Judge Deldar’s family court in Teheran as they open their hearts in the courtroom, in mosques and at home, and the filmmakers themselves find strength in the warm, strong bonds between women in Iranian society.

Gaea Girls
(2000, co-directed with Jano Williams, 106 min.)
The world of Japanese women’s professional wrestling is not for the faint of heart. Wrestlers willingly submit themselves to spartan living conditions, punishing training regimes and extreme discipline from their elders, all for the few moments of glory in the ring. A disturbing but riveting film, Gaea Girls documents the wrestlers’ world, and follows new wrestler Takeuchi Hatakyu as she prepares for the test she must pass to make her debut as a professional Gaea wrestler.