Theater of Cruelty

The struggle for survival

British filmmaker Kim Longinotto makes documentary films about rebellious outsiders, where women fighting for their own survival are the celebrated protagonist.


When I stumbled upon Kim Longinotto's masterclass at the One World Film Festival in Prague, I was surprised. Elegantly dressed in black, she presented herself to the audience in a simple and uninhibited way, something I had not expected from anyone with a collection of prestigious film awards from festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

Kim Longinotto has been the director and camera woman for about 20 full-length documentaries. Her friendly, curious nature obviously reinforces her sense of the human: She would much rather talk about the heroines of the films she made, than about herself. In all of Longinotto's films, it is easy to notice the basic trust between the characters and the filmmaker at work. “Occasionally, apparently weak people, like exploited women and children, become strong when you step into the situation and film them – usually they have a strong desire to be heard because no one has been willing to listen to them for many years . Filming can be reminiscent of creating a safe space. ”

Longinotto is technically an observational filmmaker, but her techniques are unconventional: She uses traditional methods such as narrative commentary and interviews. Kim says that her films – although factual – tend to follow the structure of fiction films, in allegiance to the "show, don't tell" ethos typical of the art form. "It's nice to get the audience to discover the story yourself. The audience should be in the story, not just be observant. The experience should be as close to fiction as possible. ”

Her style can sometimes be reminiscent of gangster films, with rebellious women (rather than violent men) as the celebrated protagonist, and she explores various themes and characters – from women in Tehran trying to get out of marriage in Divorce Iranian Style (1998), to Kenyan girls who have dragged their parents to court to avoid genital mutilation (FGM) in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002)


In Longinotto's latest movie Dreamcatcher (2015), the female main character Brenda is a former child sex slave who was forced into prostitution after her grandmother sold her as a four year old.

"I want to film rebels, outsiders." 

Brenda uses different wigs to make different personalities. With her favorite wig, she exudes the energy and straight-up style of Oprah Winfrey as she wears it in Chicago's streets, trying to save other girls from prostitution and abuse. “The people I want to film are rebels, outsiders. I loved being with Brenda in Dreamcatcher. I thought: I want to do you justice because you are so strong and so wonderful. People like her make us feel better because she is not ashamed of her past and is so strong. ”

Despite the difficult themes Longinotto's films address, they are still positive and uplifting, and the audience usually leaves the cinema full of hope. “I'm always looking for a happy ending. I know they don't happen that often. But we like to watch movies where people are survivors because we identify with them. The movie heroes make us feel better and stronger. ”

Her style can sometimes be reminiscent of gangster movies.

Longinotto does not interfere when filming her Xs. "The reason I film myself is that it removes the need to communicate with another member of the crew. I do not want to disturb the situation. I try to be as gentle and friendly as possible when I'm on camera. " This proximity and near-invisibility on her part may be part of the reason why she has succeeded in her projects.

Boarding school darkness

Longinotto studied camera use and directing at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, where she now teaches. While her work focuses largely on oppressed social groups, her personal experiences seem to be of a completely different kind. “I made a movie about the boarding school I attended while studying. It really helped me, I was able to see the place with new eyes, and it made me feel better. The only positive thing about going to that school was that it convinced me that if I could survive it, then I could survive almost anything. ”

She recalls the punishment she got after getting lost during a school outing to London. All excursions were canceled for her class – the rest of the year. “When you are inside a boarding school, excursions are very important. The principal pointed to me and said Xhun has ruined for you, no one is allowed to speak to herX. I was ostracized and not allowed to sleep or eat with the others. " Her punishment was supposed to last for a semester, but the principal extended it. "I wrote long letters apologizing and pleading to come back to the other children, but I was never allowed to sleep in the dormitory again."

She says that she became "sick and sad" as a result of the punishment, and even today it is difficult for her to be alone. When she says this, she puts a hand on her stomach, as if she is experiencing severe pain. “This happened in my formative years. I still experience this kind of sadness from time to time. ”

Longinotto is technically an observational filmmaker.

The experience triggered her to create Pride of Place (1976). She met her old principal, who was still at school. Kim lied and said that she had been very happy there and would like to make a film about the school. 'I could see she didn't recognize me. I felt a great relief, but I was also very angry. "

Pride of Place is a clear rebellion against the oppressive system she experienced. "I did not use any comments, I simply filmed things as they were… We did not see what was really bad, but still the audience was deeply shocked." The student perspective reveals a miniature state in a secluded castle, ruled by absurd rules and punitive measures. The film was screened at the London Film Festival. "The children smiled when they came out of the cinema, and all the parents' faces were like thunderstorms, including my own parents. Within a year, the school was closed. I was shocked. The school had done well before. "

The shocking reality

Like many other documentaries, Longinotto has been criticized for not interfering with the situations she is filming. The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) shows a scene in Kenya where a group of women hold a young girl lying on her back. A woman takes out a razor blade and cuts off her clit. The girl screams in pain. Another girl looks on before she is forced down on her back. “Among these women there was a doctor. If you try to stop it, they just do it in the traditional way as soon as you've gone your way, and then they cut off a lot more. ” She adds that in these cases they use the same razor blade again, with the risk of infection – and at worst, HIV infection. "Intellectually, I knew we had to film it, emotionally I felt like a monster."

But documenting this can help spread the whole shocking truth about reality. "Many African filmmakers have asked me if they can use the stage in their films about human rights, because they do not want to film the circumcision themselves." Longinotto also follows the families with camera after the procedure. “The next day, the little girls sit in their beds and tell how happy they are to have been circumcised. They meet the proud parents, who are very nice and sweet people. This scene makes things more complicated. ”

The films focus on oppressed social groups.

When asked how to raise money for her projects, Longinotto answered honestly: "It's all about knowing the right people." She has sometimes struggled because of these informal networks. "The people I knew in Channel 4 have quit. Funding for documentaries is becoming increasingly difficult. ” 

But it doesn't seem to stop her. Her next project is about the Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia – known for her mafia pictures.

Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech / Norwegian filmmaker and regular critic of Ny Tid.

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