Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves

By Jason Wood

sisters-in-maw-kim-longinotto_copy.jpgSisters in Law, 2005

Kim Longinotto And The Committed Documentary

Sisters in Law, the latest film from internationally acclaimed filmmaker Kim Longinotto (Divorce Iranian Style, Dream Girls) is an uplifting and enlightening slice of life, focusing on justice in the Muslim town of Kumba, Cameroon. The town is overseen by the progressive female legal partnership of tough-minded prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba, who together help women to speak out and fight back against assumptions of patriarchal privilege in modern-day Africa. The film is co-directed by Florence Ayisi.

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

Jason Wood: How did yourself and Florence Ayisi first come to Kumba Town in Cameroon and to the partnership of Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba?

Kim Longinotto: Sisters in Law followed on from The Day I Will Never Forget. That film was about female genital mutilation and was set in Kenya. Even though it is such a harsh subject it was an inspiring film to make as I was able to film young girls and women fighting against the tradition and changing their lives. The film ends with 16 girls taking their parents to court and putting a stop to their circumcisions. When we were filming outside the court we met a local Kenyan TV crew and, when the case was adjourned, we asked them if they would come back to film the verdict. They said they wouldn’t bother as the story wasn’t important enough. But, of course, the court case was a part of a real social revolution and we were so happy that we were there to document it and to be able to celebrate the courage of those girls. And the girls were making legal history.

runaway-kim-longinotto.jpgRunaway, 2001

I wanted to make another film in Africa and, as a filmmaker, what you’re looking for is an engrossing story with lots of action and drama and characters that you really like. The style of my films is to try and take the audience on an emotional journey where they identify with the people and get involved in their stories. I thought it would be great to film in a predominantly English speaking country as Mary Milton (the sound recordist) and I had had such language difficulties in Kenya. Sometimes we had to move very quickly to catch things happening and we’d end up somewhere where none of us could understand the language. For example, most of the 16 girls only spoke Kalenjin but luckily three of them had learnt a little English at school so we could talk to them ourselves.

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

 Some time after that, I met Florence Ayisi at a screening of one of my films and I got to know her. Together, we went on a research trip to Cameroon. Kumba is Florence’s hometown so we went there at the end of the trip. We were interested in women in the judiciary and so we went to see Judge Beatrice, whom Florence had been to university with. I still hadn’t found a story I felt would make a film. When we were in her office she started to talk to her assistant about Juliana Djenga, a retired court clerk whom she and Vera had encouraged to become the first woman customary court judge in a nearby village.

Beatrice told us that it had been a long, hard struggle but Juliana was finally going to be appointed that summer. Beatrice said that the women in the village were very excited but the men were creating all sorts of problems. It was really going to stir up village life! This seemed to me to be a great subject for a film. What I had in mind was an absorbing and gently humorous film showing the different forces of change taking place in a village.

sisters-in-law-kim-longinotto.jpgSisters in Law, 2005

We filmed the beginning of Juliana’s story that August and got to know Vera while we were filming, as she was supporting Juliana all the way along. Then, five weeks into filming, we heard that all our rushes had been destroyed by the x-ray machine in Douala. We had paid someone to get the film on to the plane without it being x-rayed but he had put it through anyway. So we had to abandon Juliana’s story.

This was when I decided to make a completely new film about Vera’s work, using her office as a starting point. When I asked her if she would agree to be at the centre of the new film, she just looked at me very calmly and said, “You’d better be here first thing tomorrow morning.” Both Vera and Beatrice see their work as a fight against ‘customary thinking’ so, even though they are working thousands of miles away from the 16 brave Kenyan girls, they are a part of the same struggle. Vera and Beatrice are true pioneers. They are heroes to me and the very thought of them cheers me up when I feel low.

gaea-girls-kim-longinotto.jpgGaea Girls, 2000

JW: In terms of filming the scenes inside the court and the various dressing downs that Ngassa and Ntuba dispense – a mixture of the hilarious and the profoundly moving as evidenced by the residual uncovering of the brutality that six-year-old Manka has endured – did you and Ayisi encounter any resistance or was your presence wholly welcomed?

KL: There were three of us in Kumba: myself, Florence and Mary Milton. Sometimes it would be only Mary and I in the room when we were filming and the main characters were happy to be filmed. In fact, Amina would ask Mary and I if we would be going to film her the following day. For example, when she was going for the divorce she was very scared and she wanted to be sure that we would be there as she knew we were on her side. When she was being pressured by her family to withdraw the case, she was happy that we were in the room with her. So it was more the fact of us being there than the fact that we were filming. It’s strange though as, after the divorce court hearing, she goes back to the compound and the women there ask her if she was the only woman in the court and she says, “yes” so she’d forgotten our presence.

dream-girls-kim-longinotto.jpgDream Girls, 1993

JW: It’s refreshing that you allow the events and the characters to speak for themselves without the need for voiceover narration.

KL: Most of the films I have made have been without commentary and with very few, or no interviews. I want the audience to feel as if they are there in the middle of the action seeing what we saw and experiencing the stories as if they were there with us. I want it to be as immediate and compelling as possible, just as when we watch fiction; you’re going on an emotional journey and nothing is coming between you and what you are seeing. Some people don’t like this as they want facts and information, but I suppose that in the end we all make the kind of films that we enjoy watching.

JW: Many documentary filmmakers, yourself included, often take great pains to ensure that your subjects actually get to see the film they have been a part of.

KL: Vera and Beatrice both came to Cannes for the premiere. They were cheered after the film and got a standing ovation. It was thrilling to see the whole audience stand up for them. Vera cried, which I’d never seen her do all the time we were filming They took a whole lot of DVDs back with them to Kumba after Cannes and they made sure that everyone saw the film. Vera invited Ladi and Amina to her house to watch it and said they were all laughing and making a lot of noise together. Amina and Ladi immediately wanted to watch it all over again.

This interview is taken from the new book Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview, forthcoming from Wallflower Press.

Jason Wood is a prolific writer and programmer. His latest book, on Mexican cinema, is reviewed on page 68.