The Film I Will Never Forget

By Catherine Fowler

day-i-will-never-forget-kim-longinotto-1.jpgThe Day I Will Never Forget, 2002

Documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto in conversation

Though her filming style may be described as ‘unobtrusive’, the aim of Kim Longinotto’s documentaries is heavily to interfere with assumptions we may have about women in a variety of contexts. In Japan with Jano Williams, she has examined the world of both Takarazuka performers (Dream Girls, 1993) and female wrestlers (Gaea Girls, 2001). In both films she captures the rigid discipline we might expect in Japanese society but undercuts this with an examination of the nature of sexual identity and the contradictory tensions between men and women (in the former) and extraordinary mental strength and physical cruelty of the trainees (in the latter). In Divorce Iranian Style (1998), she exposes the real mothers behind the headline image of ‘mothers of martyrs’ traded in the papers, mothers who forfeit all rights to their children on petitioning for divorce. Now, with her latest film, The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), about female genital mutilation (FGM), she travelled to Kenya once again to complicate our understanding of this subject through an exploration of its familial, sexual, social, cultural, religious and political dimensions.

Catherine Fowler: Apart from your first film Pride of Place (1979), about your boarding school, much of your work has centred on your entering female contexts unfamiliar to you, yet in the end discovering that they all illustrate the overwhelming strength, determination and remarkable struggles of your subjects. With The Day I Will Never Forget, it must have seemed like, for once, you were entering a context where the women were well and truly the victims.

Kim Longinotto: No, not really. The only reason I did this film was because, in the proposal, there was a little bit about how two girls in Kenya had taken their parents to court eight months before. So I thought that would be a really good end to the film, to go and meet those two girls and find out what had happened to them. Therefore it was never going to be a film about victims because I really didn’t want to do that. It had in any case been something I’d thought about an awful lot ever since I’d made Hidden Faces (1991) with Safar, a friend of mine. There was a discussion right at the end with all Safar’s aunts about circumcision – well, female genital mutilation. Safar had to read a passage from a book about what had happened when the author was circumcised and she fainted while reading it. After this we talked about what a huge thing it had been in her life and the fact that her own mother was the person to do it. It’s not just a physical trauma, it’s an incredible psychological shock, because the woman who’s meant to be caring for you is the person who does this thing to you. Then, when we were in Kenya looking for the two girls who’d been successful, we were actually in the right place to film 16 other girls who had gone to a school and taken refuge, and then of course we were able to film their court scenes. So we did end up filming a struggle but it was much better because we filmed it actually happening.

day-i-will-never-forget-kim-longinotto.jpgThe Day I Will Never Forget, 2002

CF: The practice of female circumcision in Kenya seems like a subject that would be easy to pre-judge, but you find and then follow nurse ‘Fardohsa’ who is instrumental in making us understand the complexities of the issue. How did you find her?

KL: She was a friend of a friend. Before we met her we’d hardly filmed anything. Nobody wanted to talk to us and I remember meeting her and saying, “look Fardohsa, this film is just a nightmare,” and she said, “alright, I’m going to give up work for three weeks,” and that was just brilliant. We met her at exactly the right time. She had been working as a doctor for five years and gradually realized that a lot of the problems she’d been dealing with were all to do with female circumcision. She’d studied and realized that this practice wasn’t in the Koran and that it was an anti-Muslim practice. Consequently, she really wanted to talk. Then, when I sent her the film, she said, “oh, I had no idea it was going to be a proper film”, so there was a trust and energy she willingly put in that was brilliant.

CF: You usually work with an all-woman team of three in which you are the camera person and, because you avoid talking heads or interviews, your films involve us in events almost in a fictional sense – as dramatic situations. How does the shooting process come about?

KL: What I try and do is strip everything down to its absolute minimum, so that if we’re in a situation where people are speaking in another language (Swahili in my last film, Iranian and Japanese in others), we won’t talk at all in English because it is their situation, their world and we’re there trying to fit in. If people are going through a turning point in their lives and I’m with them all day while this thing happens, then they’re not going to be worrying about me and I think that’s what I’m trying to facilitate. More importantly though, for those of my subjects who aren’t used to being able to talk or haven’t had a voice, the lower key it is, the easier it is for them.

People often say to me, “oh, how do your subjects do this in front of the camera?” But they’re not thinking they’re doing it in front of the camera; they’re thinking they’re in front of us three. My camera is relatively big, it’s not exactly unobtrusive but I’ve always got it with me, so there’s never a point where I go, “now I’m going to get the camera out”. It’s there from the beginning.

People say you can get much more intimate studies with these little cameras but it’s not true. It doesn’t matter how big the camera is; it’s who you are. I think people make the equipment much more important than it is.

day-i-will-never-forget-kim-longinotto-2.jpgThe Day I Will Never Forget, 2002

CF: Right from the beginning of your work there seem to have been consistent aims and themes.

KL: Yes. I’ve always known what I like and never really strayed from it. The documentaries I have always enjoyed watching have at their heart a notion of transformation, of people being transformed. There’s a story and you can get involved; you’re moved and you feel you have had some sort of insight at the end of it. I don’t like being told things, I can’t concentrate on voice-over and image at the same time or a documentary where I feel I know what’s going to happen, where it’s been pre-planned. I like to feel that there have been a few surprises, that it’s a kind of journey.

Also, all of my films are about authority in one way or another. That’s why it’s easier to make them about women, because they usually have trouble with authority and it’s usually men who are in that position. In the last film however, it’s the women who are carrying out this role for the men. All the way through, the men are saying, “we want it this way” but it’s the women who do it.

At the end a father says of his daughter, “she’s disobedient. She doesn’t do anything her mother tells her to do and her mother obeys me”. So it’s obviously a chain of command and it’s a complete myth that it’s the women who want it.

CF: Although your film has been doing the rounds at international festivals, I gather your real intention is to take it back to Kenya as a sort of campaign film.

KL: Yes. It will be screened on Channel Four but what I’ve realized since making it is that the film charts a revolution that’s starting to happen; and it’s not the revolutions we read about in the papers. It’s not just Steve Biko and Mandela who are heroes; it’s these women in little villages or towns saying, “no, I want a different future”. I don’t really see it as a film about FGM but more about girls changing their lives, a film about change and rebellion really.

One of the girls at the end says, “I want a bright future, I want an education” and you can see them wanting some sense of themselves and who they are. If you say no to this first stage, then who knows where things will end? But if they do as they say and stay at school, then getting educated will mean a totally different future for them.

Catherine Fowler lectures on film at the Southampton Institute.