The emotional battles in female wrestling. The truth behind female genital mutilation in Kenya. A group of women protecting abused South African children. These are all the subjects of Kim Longinotto's documentaries, spanning her 36-year career.
Her films will be screened at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto from April 29 to May 9. She is being garnered with Hot Docs' Outsanding Achievement Award, an accolade Longinotto should be accustomed to receiving: her most recent film, Rough Aunties, won a 2009 Grand Jury prize at Sundance; and her film Sisters in Law is the winner of a 2008 Peabody Award and two awards in Cannes.
What sets Longinotto apart from the thousands of doc filmmakers trying to present their subjects with candid honesty? She allows the interviewees to speak for themselves, rarely interviewing people one-on-one. In Gaea Girls, following aggressive female wrestlers in Japan, the camera tracks every movement in silence, and the viewer feels so close to the action it's almost immersive.
She follows the same method in The Day I Will Never Forget, despite the harsh issue she tracked: female genital mutilation. And her unflinching camera caught heart-breaking scenes in a film depicting the realities of a British boarding school in Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go.
Longinotto spoke to Digitaljournal.com from her London home about the value she sees in not only her own films but in the art form itself.
"I just make the films I want to watch myself," she says about her motivation. "The films I like are those where there is nothing me and the action." She pauses. "The kind of film I don’t want to see is where I settle down and someone tells me something, lectures at me."
To phrase it differently, action speaks louder than narrated words.
Looking at her films' subjects, you can say she tends to favour women in painful situations. But Longinotto says she's actually interested in another particular characteristic: the outsider. "These people don't fit in because I never fit in," she admits.
When she was 12, Longinotto spent time at an oppressive all-girls boarding school, where she found she was an outcast. She left home at 16 and became ill for a few years, even developing boils on her skin. She was also caught shoplifting and earned herself two years' probation.
But when she attended the National Film and Television School in London, she had what alcoholics call a moment of clarity. She realized what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. "At first, I thought documentaries were a stepping stone to filming fiction," she says. "But now we're seeing docs that truly thrill and excite us, and I love that!"
A still from Rough Aunties, a film by Kim Longinotto about women protecting troubled children in Durban, South Africa
Longinotto appreciates the UK's tendency to promote documentaries, primarily through Channel 4. Every Tuesday night, a new doc airs. She says Channel 4 funds the production of these docs, further enabling young filmmakers to find a home for their hard work.
She reveals to DigitalJournal.com her next big project: a film shot in India about a famous woman activist rescuing children young girls from arranged marriages. But the film doesn't follow a straightforward narrative, instead training the lens on how this activist has been "seduced by fame," as the director puts it.
Talking to Longinotto gives you an impression she is fearless, intelligent, hungry to challenge herself. She isn't content sliding into routine and tracking familiar subjects; instead she pushes herself into uncomfortable territory, and quietly imparts a message every artist holds dear: Pay attention.
For information on Kim Longinotto's retrospective at Hot Docs, visit this page.