Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

By Mark Cousins

kim-longinotto.jpgKim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto’s documentary vision energises and empowers

From the start it’s clear why Divorce Iranian Style (1998) won the Flaherty Documentary BAFTA, the Chicago International Film Festival Best Documentary prize, the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Spire and the FIPRESCI Prize at the legendary Yamagata Documentary Festival. With deceptive simplicity, it takes us to or, if you like, brings to us, a world which few of us will have experienced but which is rich in human texture and social significance.

We are in Tehran in the 1990s. A voice over introduces Judge Deldar, who has been presiding in one of the city’s family dispute courtrooms for two years. To his left, working at a desk piled with documents, is Mrs Maher, who’s been there for 27 years. In a nearby office is Mr Jamshidi, who is a registrar. Their rooms are simple. There are few pictures on the walls and no computers.

Here is the first plaintiff, standing in front of Deldar’s raised desk, as everyone else does. A husband has accused his wife of having “a telephone relationship” with a man. She says he’s mad. The man is her uncle. She has lived with her husband for 30 years, and has never left the house without his permission. The Judge says she must make herself pretty so that her man will take her back, then she should live with him for three months and ten days. After that she can make a formal approach for divorce. She protests and then, just under five minutes into the film, in the middle of what seems like an anguished reply to the judgement, the woman says, “what if he does something to me [during that period]?” On saying this she turns to the film crew to her left, the Judge’s right, and smiles. A shared moment with co-directors Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini.

runaway-kim-longinotto.jpgRunaway, 2001

Why this amused aside? Because she’d gotten to know the women behind the camera, perhaps, or did one of the filmmakers laugh in recognition of her perky estimation of men? Whichever, the film has, in its opening minutes and with its first main character, set out its stall: It will reveal the patriarchal intricacies of Sharia law, and will be a gallery of portraits of feisty women appealing to the reasonableness of the judge but, also, to the filmmakers. The smile shows that comedy will be part of Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini’s story, as does their title Divorce Iranian Style, punning on Pietro Germi’s comedy Divorce Italian Style. In the next scene, women arriving at the court are scolded for wearing too much make-up. They smirk as they wipe it off, quip that it’s from the previous night, and don chadors. The chador is worn wryly. It’s like the women are visiting a stern uncle.

The second plaintiff, Massi, wants a divorce because her husband is impotent. That’s her substantive plea, but she tells anyone who listens that there’s a culture and class gap too. Their ideas are different. It’s the first time in this film – about the clash of ideas – that the word itself is used. Massi has an arrest warrant from the police that she could use against her husband, but she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to use force, or the state. She wants him, too, to recognise the gap between them. Massi goes to registrar Jamshidi to get her file. He can’t find it; a feed line for the filmmakers to tell us a story of Kafka, of faceless, absurd laws. But they are too clever, or too humanist to do so because the truth of the matter is that this court is not faceless. Though the law it enacts is wildly illiberal, the staff is reasonable. A week later, Massi is back. Her plea becomes more spirited, more like a joust. She’s been attacked by her husband’s mother, but she won’t give up. She’s like the girl in the Dardenne brothers’ film Rosetta. She’s Yosser Hughes out of Boys from the Blackstuff.

The third plaintiff, Ziba, another Yosser Hughes, is just 16. She wants a divorce so that she can go back to school. She is clutching at straws to get out of this marriage, so claims her man was insane when they wed. Then, at 23 minutes into the film, she pleads her case both to Judge Daldar and the filmmakers, within the same sentence, without a cut. It is a sign of how much Deldar trusts the filmmakers, or how much he believes that pleading one’s case is something you do to whoever is there, that he accepts her double address. Minutes later, an Iranian speaker behind the camera, whom I assume to be Mir-Hosseini, pleads Ziba’s case. In Divorce Iranian Style, Sharia law is pulled and pushed, stretched and searched for loopholes.

The style of Kim Longinotto’s films makes her amongst the purest of Britain’s documentary classicists. She uses no lights, few interviews, few voice-overs, little or no music, no stylised grading, minimal establishing shots and seldom is the camera on a tripod. Her most frequent frame is the head and shoulders shot. Most of her scenes are centred on people (usually women). There is no Antonionian emptiness in Longinotto films, no ‘style’ outside the human story. Nor are they quest movies or road movies. We don’t see Longinotto’s camera dashing down corridors. There’s no panic. As she was born in 1952, she is too young to have witnessed the emergence of the stripped down ’60s doc aesthetic at first hand, but it is alive and well in her work.

Such patient, almost non-interventionist recording techniques serve well the honest witness bearer, and so Longinotto is. But to claim that her films are envoys from events, situations, problems that need to be witnessed, by proxy, through the power of film, would be to catch just part of the flavour of their flavour.

The scenes described above from Divorce Iranian Style show this as does Runaway, the 2001 film she again co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini. It’s set in an Iranian centre for teenage girls and women who have run away from abusive or neglectful families or husbands. Such girls are often kidnapped for their hearts or kidneys. The tales of the lives they’ve fled are appalling.

divorce-iranian-style-kim-longinotto-2.jpgDivorce Iranian Style, 1998

The title alone suggests travelling shots following girls, the style used by the Dardenne brothers in Rosetta, made two years earlier. But there are none. Instead Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini present perhaps forty scenes of conversations: some between the girls, many in the office of one of the workers of the centre. Parisa, for example, tells one of the workers that she has no family. Soon she’s talking again, confessing that she lied because she felt out of place at home. Her step-father bad-mouthed her fiancé; she was terrified of what the former would say after she discovered that she got poor grades at school. Then we see a meeting in the centre, between Parisa, dad and fiancé, brokered by the worker, who asks each to discuss and apologise. As a result, Parisa goes home.

Soon afterwards an 18 year old is telling us that she’s been married twice and has run away from home. The girl’s step-father tried to rape her. Hearing this, her mother tried to burn her. Then her mother comes in and a reconciliation is again brokered. The mother admits that she beat her daughter but complains that the latter has no modesty. Soon the girl is on her knees, crying, asking if they can give things another go.

Such scenes are vintage Longinotto. The reason why they are more than witness bearing is that again and again, through patient talk, degrees of compromised emancipation are found. We watch the emergence of such exit routes as the people talk. Far from running away, her films are about what happens when people stop talking and start negotiating, confronting, contesting. Her movies are not about fight or flight – though there’s plenty of the former in them – but about the power of discourse. I will never forget the girl in A Day I Will Never Forget (2002) who agrees to forgive her Kenyan mother for having her genitally mutilated if she – the mother – agrees that she will not insist that the younger sister undergoes the same assault. This is what seems to power the films of Longinotto and her collaborators (Mir-Hosseini, Jano Williams and Florence Ayisi) – the fact that talk and negotiation can change the world.

It is already implicit in this that Longinotto’s is a cinema of cautious hope. Divorce Iranian Style appeared in the pre-9/11 era when many in the West had but the vaguest notions of what Islam is or what the prospects for women in a country like Iran might be. Hence the surprise of many reviewers and audiences at – what? – the reasonableness, perhaps, of family arbitration and the divorce courts in Iran. Certainly there are great inequalities on view in the film, but the degree of negotiation, of talk, of jaw-jaw rather than war-war was unexpected. In Runaway, Divorce Iranian Style and A Day I Will Never Forget there is an assumption on behalf of the female plaintiffs that there is a higher power, some invisible standard of human decency, to which they can appeal.

Taken together, it’s hard not to see the films of Longinotto and her co-directors as vivid, compelling, fine-grained demonstrations of Jurgen Habermas’ idea of the public sphere. By this he meant the agora in modern democratic societies in which competing beliefs about human rights, personal disputes, matters of principle, morality and politics are ventilated, given a fair hearing and compared, and solutions are found. Though Longinotto’s settings are far from home: Japan (five films), Iran (two films) or Africa (The Day I Will Never Forget, Sisters in Law, 2005), in most cases her subjects are bright young women who can see beyond their own predicaments and who have a certain ability to articulate this in a semi-public realm. Her young women are frequently considering escape options – from gender strictures (Eat the Kimono, 1989; Runaway), confining marriages (Divorce Iranian Style), or religious tradition (The Day I Will Never Forget) – and their bodies are sometimes central to the stories Longinotto tells about them – they are either wrestlers (Gaea Girls, 2000), performers (Dream Girls, 1994) or protesting against circumcision (The Day I Will Never Forget) – yet it is what they say, in simple rooms, in various forms of community arbitration, that has the potential to save them.

runaway-kim-longinotto-2.jpgRunaway, 2001

To say this is to acknowledge that not only is Longinotto the greatest documentary classicist working in Britain today, she is the most consistently devoted to the idea of reconciliation.

Another scene from Divorce Iranian Style, about forty minutes in, points to something else. The 4th plaintiff at the court of Judge Deldar is Jamileh. Jamileh’s husband seldom comes home. He says he’s sleeping in the park but if so, she counters, how come he arrives home showered and in clean underwear? He’s unemployed so not paying his way. He says he’ll start work again on Saturday. Behind the feuding couple sits their elder son, who’s sporting a black eye from when his dad hit him. There are tears in dad’s eyes as he explains to the Judge that he’s close to his son, that they play football together.

Having marshalled her case, Jamileh insists that her husband signs a statement agreeing to come home after work, to behave himself, to bring five elders to their house to discuss the problems and witness the tentative reconciliation, to be nicer to her and the kids. As he does so, she turns to the filmmakers and smiles: exactly the kind of scene we’ve seen in the opening reels of the film. But then she goes further. She says to the crew, proudly, in a stage whisper, “I feel sorry for him. I love him very much”. As she says this we see the son with the black eye kiss his father. The effect is very moving but also tells us something more about this courtroom. Whilst it is far too human to be Kafkaesque, there is something of the theatre about it. There has been an element of performance in Jamileh’s presentation. She knows that forcing her husband into this Habermasian public realm, and so humiliating him somewhat, might bring this essentially good man to his senses.

As if to emphasise this theatricality, the very next scene shows court assistant Mrs Maher’s small daughter, who’s four or five, sitting in the Judge’s empty chair, playing at being him, declaring the court open and delivering sentences. If this event happened immediately after Jamileh left, Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini were lucky indeed. If it took place at some other time during the filming, and the filmmakers positioned it here, it shows that, on top of everything else, they have an eye for metaphor.

Second Run DVD are releasing, for the first time ever on DVD, Kim Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway on 26th January 2009 in a Special Edition double package . Many thanks to Mark Cousins and Mehelli Modi for permission to reprint this essay.

Mark Cousins is an author and filmmaker, whose latest book Widescreen: Watching Real People Elsewhere is published by Wallflower Press. He is currently adapting his book The Story of Film into three feature documentaries.