TrInterview with Kim Longinotto (2/2)


ST: Your films are very entertaining—people laugh and are moved. They’re very approachable, but at the same time, it seems clear that there’s a message that you’re trying to bring across. How do you see balancing entertainment with message?

KL: I think that you go with a set of things because of who you are. When we did Shinjuku Boys, obviously I was going with the idea that we would show these people in a positive way, I mean that was the sort of bottom line, really. But each film is a kind of a journey: it changes you as you film it, and you change it. So you never quite know, but you try to make it as easy to watch as possible. But there are some scenes in the new film (Gaea Girls, 2000), for example, where we came back and we were crying, because they’re so painful. So obviously we’re going to try and... We don’t want the audience to sit through it and be absolutely bombarded. It has to be a pleasurable process, and making it possible to enjoy something is part of editing.

ST: Divorce has awful scenes, then there were things like the judge laughing and the clerk’s daughter getting up and playing judge, so there’s a lot of humor going on as well. Do you think about humor when you’re filming?

KL: Definitely. With Divorce, it happened even when we were choosing the court. We didn’t want to have a kind of judge like [the former Ayatollah] Khomeini, because that’s what was everybody was expecting to see, and they’re not all like that, there are as many judges like Deldar [whom we filmed] as there are like Khomeini. Also, if you’re going to spend every day in a court with a judge, you might have some kind of relationship with them. A judge who struggled with implementing the law, and obviously had doubts and problems himself, seemed more interesting than a judge who just saw things in one way. Because the film is also about how a society is struggling to impose an old system on a new developing society where women are changing. So choosing Judge Deldar was going to have a kind of lightness in it because he was quite a quirky guy. And there was Mrs. Maher.

ST: It seems very much to be about negotiation: about negotiation between the husband and the wife, and the judge negotiation with the law. The episode when he’s going to jail Miriam and put her in detention for five days, then put her in detention for one day, after which she can can go home, is an example of this.

KL: That was a perfect example, because he really didn’t want to send her to jail, so when he asked us if she’d ripped up her divorce summons, we lied and said no, and that’s wrong. That another thing that’s happened at a lot of festivals: people have attacked us for lying, saying, “Look, you’re filmmakers, you had no right to change the process, you should have told him that you’d seen her tear it.” But there was no way we were going to do that, because we obviously didn’t want her to go to jail, I would have lied more, I was really proud of Ziba that she lied. [The judge] wanted to use us as kind of an excuse. He’s not a nasty man, he’s a kind man, but he was angry with her and she was a nuisance. He wanted to frighten her but he didn’t want to send her to jail, so we were kind of convenient.

ST: Your choice of how to film has you very much in the room: you have a fixed camera, and you’re just going back and forth between husband, wife and judge; we never see you, but we hear your voice, and the judge and sometimes the women turn and talk to you; then in the end you do influence one of the cases. How do you see your position as filmmakers in this small space and as taking part in the proceedings?

KL: You’re filmmakers and you’re recording, but you’re Ziba, who sometimes says things that when she’d tell me I’d say, “Ziba, you didn’t say that.” For example, when she says to Barman, the other Ziba’s husband, “Serves you right for marrying a fourteen-year old girl,” she suddenly gets a rush of anger. Ziba’s volatility is something I really love, and something that’s difficult as well. It’s what makes her what she’s like, and it’s what made the film the way the film is. So I said, “Ziba, you didn’t say that,” but it was what she felt, and I felt it too. I mean, of course you shouldn’t marry a girl who’s still at school. You’re the people that you are, and the way you relate to people is obviously going to affect the film.

ST: You’re clearly interested in portraying some kind of truth; at the same time, you clearly have a strong connection to the women you’re filming. As such, your films strike me as highly personal and subjective. Will Gaea Girls, about the Gaea Japan women’s professional wrestling association, be in a similar vein?

KL: Yes. I do react very strongly to film and how I feel about things. I mean, with the Gaea Japan one, I feel like I’ve made friends and that we’re really close to them now, and hopefully that will across in the film. It can’t be objective at all.

We just finished it late last night. It’s been like a kind of roller coaster, and as emotional as Divorce in the fact that was life and death, you know, people losing their children and all. But I think that for both me and Jano, it brought out a lot of feelings about being children, about authority, about discipline and all those things, because it has very heavy scenes of young girls being trained. We’ve been struggling with what we really feel about things, and kept changing our minds about how we thought about things as we went through. We’d say “Look, we’ll film things as best as we can, and then we’ll deal with this later,” because it was too much... I mean, one moment you think, “Of course they have to have this very hard training, because the ring is going to be really dangerous and they’re going to have to be really really brave and be able to put up with pain, it’s all about putting up with pain.” And then we’d think, “Oh no, that’s too much pain, I can’t cope with it.” And because you feel so close to these young women...

You know, three nights ago, we came back to the hotel, and Jano and I just sobbed, because we’d seen our favorite, this girl that we absolutely loved, Takeuchi Hatakyu, being really beaten, and sobbing, and being turned to all the TV crews at the end and told, “Tell the room how long you can submit to this pain.” Jano and I were crying, and then the other TV people started filming us, because they thought it was hilarious that we were crying. We went home and said, “Why didn’t they think that was painful? Why weren’t they shocked by what happened?” Then we’d think, “Well, do I feel critical of it?” Then we saw her debut match, which was two days ago, and she was absolutely brilliant. That was moving in another way. She comes on, and she there is, and a few days ago she was just a little girl, and she’s turned into something else, she suddenly looks like a wrestler. And you think, “Well, they have made her into this, and this is what the whole thing was for,” but you still sad for her that she had to go through so much.

ST: Speaking of dramatic moments, I’d like to get back to Divorce. Any court proceedings have an element of drama, and some of the scenes in Divorce—some of the women, Miriam for example—were incredibly dramatic. So you’ve got a documentary which is also dramatic.

KL: It is a kind of acting, but they’re acting for the judge: they’re acting out their rage or their despair or their need, really, so that he will then be in their favor. Their passion is all they’ve got. It’s what struck me first, that the passion was all coming from the women, and the men had the right on their side. So the women had to go with that to get the judge’s sympathy. But then you realize right at the end that even he was sympathetic to Miriam. He said, “Look, the children do better at school with Miriam, they’re not doing the work.” There is a great belief in education there in Iran, which is really good, everybody thinks that girls should be educated. So he’s obviously on her side, but law is against her. There’s nothing he can do, so he’s caught there. But I suppose she felt like “I want my child so much he’s going to have to let me give the child.” But even she can’t get him to do it.

ST: You don’t use a narrated introduction, then say, “Here’s the past history, now let me show you something,” you just jump right in. I’m assuming that this choice of seeming non-structure was actually quite conscious.

KL: Ziba and I really agonized about this, because we didn’t want a lot of narration. Films filmed by westerners about Iran, in particular, always have a voice telling you what to think and putting everything into a kind of normal framework, like, “This is wrong,” and, “we do it better in the West,” that sort of thing. We wanted people not to worry about what was happening so that they could feel comfortable enough just to enjoy the stories. In the three weeks before we finished it, we spent ages writing the narration, trying to cut it down as much as we could; but some things were very difficult, like the whole idea of the bride price—you could write a whole book about it. Ziba tried to make things understandable in a very succinct way.


ST: I noticed that Divorce was a Channel Four production. What do you think about the relationship between television and documentary film-making today?

KL: It’s always really hard to get money to make these films, because there’s a real slant away from subtitled films in England, and people think that no one will want to watch them, and that they’re not going to be shown. The Iran one took about three years to get the money because there was the added thing of the women having their heads covered. People said, “You won’t be able to recognize them, they’ll all look the same, it’ll be very un-sexy.” Do you know what I mean, it’s not commercial. I went to the BBC to try to get the money and couldn’t get it; [Channel Four] was the only place I could get it from.

It’s very much about finding the right person in these companies. I went back to “True Stories,” [a series I’d worked with before,] to try and do this one about Gaea Japan, and the guy didn’t even write back to me. So then I had to go the BBC, and that’s where I got this money. It’s almost like you have to find the right person, because the guy who gave the money for Divorce had left. It might seem like it’s the TV, but I think it’s very much the actual relationship that the filmmaker can have with the person giving the money. Gaea Girls is funded by a guy called David Pearson—he’d made a long film about a man changing sex into a woman, and so he was interested in Shinjuku Boys, and now this one. But he was the last resort—I think I got twenty rejections. It’s this “Japan’s expensive, you know, subtitles, women wrestlers, you know... who cares” sort of thing.

ST: Your films have all been aired on and funded by television, but do they screen in theaters as well?

KL: Yes. Particularly in the US, more than Britain—it’s quite hard to get theatrical screenings in Britain, but the US seems really good, actually. Divorce was shown at Film Forum and in lots of cinemas all around the US. There were also a lot of Iranians at the screenings in the US, so that’s been good. I’m really keen for my films to be shown in cinemas, where the idea is that a group of you are watching it together. That’s why they’re all on film and they’re all made for cinema.

ST: Has Divorce been shown in Iran?

KL: What’s really fascinating about theaters in Iran—actually, I remember being really surprised by this—is that you go through doorways into the court, you sit in different places, everything’s very very separate in the court, but when you go the cinema, everybody sits together, and it’s dark. That said, we’ve got lots of copies of the video there which circulate among women’s groups and it’s gotten loads of reviews, really nice reviews, in film magazines there, but we can’t get it shown in a theater. Our dreams is to get it shown in a cinema in Teheran and have those big anarchic groups own women see it. I think that would just be fantastic, but I don’t know if we will get it shown there or not.

I had a showing of Divorce in Vienna, at the Viennale, with many Iranians in the audience. It was just lovely, women coming up and hugging me, lots of very strong, warm responses. And sometimes [there are] angry men, saying, “Why haven’t you put in the men’s point of view?” And I’ve just said, “The whole society is there to implement the men’s point of view, so that’s why the film is there,” and also that we’re women, so we’re obviously... It’s just quite strange, that: you see so many films made by men about men, and nobody every says, “Why haven’t you shown the women?” But it’s something you always get, you know, “Why have you only shown the women?” But then sometimes it’s very kind of angry, like the women who didn’t like them sitting down, the women who say, “Why have you shown working-class women, why can’t show the middle classes?” even thought Massi is kind of middle-class. But [we’ve also gotten] that kind of a thing, people thinking it shows a bad image of Iran.

I suppose any film is going to be celebratory and also critical. Dream Girls is quite heavy at some points, like the whole cleaning thing and the army drills, and for me it was about showing how that’s kind of part of the whole culture. It’s a bit like England; I went to boarding school and we and to do similar cleaning, so the way people try and break women’s sprits really struck a chord with me. So it’s a double thing.

ST: I saw Dream Girls in Canada at a lesbian and gay film festival, and Shinjuku Boys in Tokyo with friends familiar with onabe, biological women who live and work as men, and observed very different audience reactions. With Dream Girls, the audience was obviously looking for indications of gender and sexuality and desire, whereas people I’ve talked to in Japan often say “Oh, it’s those crazy fans again. “ With Shinjuku Boys, it was “Oh, I know this person, I know that place,” a very different reception again. So it’s back to the insider/outsider question again, but how much do you think about audience when you make a film?

KL: I suppose in a way I think of women watching Dream Girls, but the wish is that it be for as big an audience as possible, really, to also show men that Japanese women aren’t submissive. But the main idea is that somehow this one about these wonderful actresses could be an inspiration as well. But also, there’s just a sense of pleasure in making the film just for itself. You do think of the audience but only at the very beginning and then once you start making it you’re just not thinking of the audience at all; the film starts taking on its own momentum.

Really, all you can do is be as honest and truthful as you can. We did think very carefully about [Shinjuku Boys main characters] Gaish, Kazuki and Tatsu, and we sent them a video before we finished it just to make sure they were happy with it, and that we’d somehow been truthful to what they were like and treated them well. Ziba had a huge row at a festival in Sheffield because someone attacked Divorce by saying “Look, people are sitting on the floor, you’re going to give people a bad view of Iran.” That’s something that didn’t even occur to us, you know, but she was really upset. We said, “But people do sit on the floor...” You could actually drive yourself mad if you were always worrying.


ST: A very basic question: Why Japan?

KL: It all started, really, because I’d seen a lot of Kurosawa films. I loved Kurosawa, but you never really get close to the women. They’re always there, and they’re very beautiful, but they’re very silent, and they’re always in the background. And then I read this article about this women called Hanayagi Genshu, and the article said that she’d stabbed the head of [her school of dancing] and she’d gone to prison, and she was against the emperor. I thought, “It’s hard enough being a rebel in the US or England, how amazing that for a country like Japan—what must this woman be like?” So there was this kind of complete curiosity and then this determination to come make that film, and then one sort of led to another. Once you come here... I kind of fell in love with the place. The more you come here and meet people and make friends here, it’s not Japan anymore, it’s Gaish, it’s Kazuki, it’s all the people. Jano and I are already talking about coming back and doing a little follow-up or something to see how they’re doing in five years time or something. Jano got a few of her friends who live in Tokyo to go and see Shinjuku Boys, and came and met Gaish just after, and he was very happy and said everything was fine.

ST: Why the women’s pro-wrestling theme? Why Takarazuka, and why onabe?

KL: Why the women’s pro-wrestling? For that same reason: it’s a very strong image. In England, even people you wouldn’t expect it from say, “Oh, women are very meek in Japan, aren’t they?” and stick in that word “inscrutable.” And there’s this idea that Japanese people don’t show their emotions. But that could also be a kind of nasty thing, which infers that people are hiding something, that there’s something sinister behind it. I don’t know if it’s a hangover from the war or what, but there’s definitely this sense that Japanese people don’t show their emotions. So I’ve always wanted to have very emotional films in Japan, and people being very open, which is why I loved Gaish and Kazuki—they were so open and they trusted us so much. They took us into their world, and talked about things that I don’t think many English people would have done. Gaish showed us some films that had been made by Japanese film crews, and one of them was like a wildlife film, with this woman in a hat out in the corridor outside his room stalking along, and saying “Oh [gasp], men’s shoes!” “Oh [gasp], men’s underwear.” It was like he was a scary beast, and they were going in to film him. Once we talked to him about the kind of film we wanted to make, he was really excited about it, and I think he did enjoy doing it, we all enjoyed doing it together. It sounds very kind of do-goody, but it’s all about breaking down barriers and showing that of course we’re all different but of course we’re all similar.

But with this wrestling one, it was almost like, “God, I’m so admiring of them”—I mean they are different, they’re just really strong women. I couldn’t have dealt with the half of what they’ve all had to go through to become wrestlers. I hope it’s not going to be too strong for people, I hope they’re not going to find it too upsetting, because there’s a kind of a happy ending. Like Divorce, there’s a definite beginning, middle, and end, and you don’t know how it will end until you get there.

ST: From what you’ve said, I’m looking forward to seeing the film when it’s done. The best of luck for it, and thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.