Interviewer: Sarah Teasley
When Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseinis much-talked-about documentary Divorce Iranian Style won the FIPRESCI Award in the International Competition section at YIDFF 99, Longinotto was 300 km south in Yokohama, Japan, shooting the footage for her new documentary on womens pro-wrestling in Japan. Gaea Girls, the latest in UK-based Longinottos series of documentaries about women in Japan, premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival this September, and will show in film festivals around the world over the coming months. Longinotto graciously agreed to meet Documentary Box co-editor Sarah Teasley in Yokohama the day after she and co-director Jano Williams finished filming.
1. ON INSIDER/OUTSIDER FILMMAKING
Sarah Teasley (ST): Id like to jump right in and ask about Divorce Iranian Style, which showed in the International Competition of the 1999 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. How did you come to make the film ?
Kim Longinotto (KL): Id wanted to make a film in Iran for quite a long time, mainly because there was such a demonized view of Iranian people in England, you know after the Salman Rushdie affair and everyone thinking it was a nation of fanatics. Id been looking first for someone to work with, and then I met [co-director] Ziba Mir-Hosseini at a party, and we hit it off immediately. She was telling me about her work, and that shed written a book about the law courts, Marriage on Trial. So I took the book, read it at home and loved it, and thats how we started to do the film together.
I really enjoyed working with Ziba. Sometimes you meet someone from another country, and when youre in your own country theyre very laid-back and relaxed with everybody. Then you go back to their country, and theyre kind of middle-class education and hierarchical, saying Oh, we cant talk to them, and that sort of thing. Ziba and I went on a three-week research visit, and I was struck by how she was just so lovely with everybody, really warm and really open. There was none of that barrier between people at all. Thered be somebody selling something in the market, and Ziba would squat down beside her and start chatting. It was really really nice. Thats when we decided to do the film together.
ST: You worked with Ziba, a native of Iran, on Divorce, but youve also worked with non-natives of Japan on many of your Japanese films, including Shinjuku Boys and Dream Girls. Does it make a difference to work with someone from the country in which youre filming?
KL: Its really hard to generalize because each film has its own sort of story, but sometimes being an outsider is an advantage. I made a film, The Good Wife of Tokyo, in Japan with a very close Japanese friend, Kazuko Hohki. Shes in the Frank Chickens, which is a rather zany group. I made a film about her family, so there was all the stress of it being her own family, which made it hard for her. Wed go places and shed get caught up in things.
The very first film I made in Japan, Eat the Kimono, was about Hanayagi Genshu, a kind of activist, and I came over with a Japanese woman from film schoolI hadnt made a film in Japan beforeand Hanayagi couldnt bear this woman, who was from a very rich family. She said that even the kind of language this woman used was belittling to her. So thats when I really thought, Oh my god, Ive been so stupid, I thought just bringing a Japanese person back was going to make it all right, and shes a student so shes young and it would, you know, I assumed it would be fine. And then it was a complete disaster, and then she said, Look, either she goes or Im not in the film. Thats when [co-director] Jano Williams got involved in that one, because she was there with us, and shes living in Japan. Genshu just loved Jano.
So you can generalize and say that maybe [working with someone Japanese] would have meant a different film, but it depends on the woman. If it had been somebody who was prepared to be funny and relaxed and didnt look down on them in any way, someone who would treat them with respect, it would have been fine. But I cant really think of it, it would have been a different film, because it would have been a different chemistry. Youre only three people: theres me, another person, and the sound recorder. So the film comes very much out the three of you as a team, as well as having its own momentum.
ST: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider, as you put it? For example, did not being Iranian have much of an effect on filming Divorce? The interviews in the law courts seemed somewhat unusual, and I was particularly surprised that youd gotten permission to shoot in a mosque. Youre shooting the male side of the mosque, so I was half-expecting to see a male photographers name roll up in the credits, but there wasnt one, was there.
KL: Sometimes you can get away with things that you might not be able to get away with, for example you can break a few rules. Maybe youre not being polite, or as formal as you might be. Janos language is strange sometimes, because she learnt it from her first husband, who was Japanese, and she sometimes uses the male form of address and things like that. I think it relaxes people. Its like they realize that she doesnt mind if they laugh at her. It makes for easy, relaxed filming. Shes also very warm, so she can do things like hug people when theyre upset, which could be hard for somebody if its not that usual. A lot of terrible things happened while we were filming, and they really got into hugging. Theyd say, Oh, we like this. If Id been Japanese I wouldnt have done that.
With Divorce, it was kind of the same thing: lightly breaking the rules, just standing there and assuming its all right and seeing if you can get away with it. Its also about being able to show that its just a flimsy little curtain. A man could definitely not have filmed the womans side, but if a woman does it she can get away with it. Also, theyd seen us around, wed been there for five weeks by then. I think that something very strange that happens if youre a group of women. Somewhere like the mosque, we werent a threat, we were just three women and we were filming them and they were part of their mosque and it was fine. Whereas if wed been men... I think it works both ways.
But it can be to your disadvantage because people dont treat you seriouslywith Dream Girls, sometimes, wed ask for things and no one would bother. Wed say, Can we have a quiet place so we can just talk to Anju Mira, but it never happened. Other film crews would be allowed to do things and we wouldnt, and it got progressively worse throughout the film. I think they just sort of thought there was no way wed get it together because we looked scruffy. We came on the tube, you know, we had stuff in rucksacks, and we werent in vans with logos, and there were three of us rather than the proper crew.
ST: So being an all-women crew makes a difference.
KL: Oh, absolutely. A society like Iran is two worlds to the extent that you go through different entrances, and when youre going in the courtroom men ought to give up their mobile phones while the women have to take off their makeup. When this division into two worlds is so extreme, the fact that youre women means that youre on the right side. When youre with women youre sort of all together and theres an immediate sense of togetherness; its a lovely feeling and makes up in part for the sense of being annoyed at having to cover yourself up and worrying all the time. Ziba used to get really panicky about my hair showing because she thought wed get into trouble, and so she was always telling me to hide my hair. So what makes up for all that kind of hassle is the fact that youre welcomed. Also, about language, I think because I cant speak, I tend to do lots of things with gestures. In Muslim countries, where its a men-women thing, women are very very tactile, so they would touch all the time, theyll hold your hand, theyll sort of put their arm through yours. You feel very loved in a way, I know it sounds corny, but you really feel welcomed.
2. ON RELATING TO SUBJECTS
ST: You seemed very close to the women in the documentary. There were times in the divorce proceedings when the husband and wife would be arguing, and the wife would turn to you and say something, then turn back again. Also, what about your relationship with the men in the cases? You said that Ziba would go and talk to women in the corridor. Im assuming that you then went and talked to their husbands as well.
KL: I think that closeness has to do with Ziba. Shes been divorced three times, twice in Iran. When shed go and talk to the women in the corridor, shed say, Were making a film about divorce, can we film you? and then shed talk about her own divorces. So immediately she got rid of this thing that somehow we were observing them as these bad women, which is what most of these women have become used to feeling, and they thought she was an ally. She knows an awful lot about the law system, so sometimes shed give them advice. She really helped them, she gave them courage, particularly the young ones. Shed say, I was your age, and I got through it. So when theyre looking at us, the crew, theyre actually looking at Ziba, looking at a friend, and thats why you get that very warm feeling.
When we approached women, if they were with their husband wed always ask the husband as well. Actually I think the only times that we didnt film the women was when the husband said no, although Miriam was the exception here. That happened a couple of times. But most of the husbands thought they were in the right. They felt very confident and thought that the court was there to reinforce their rights, so they were quite happy to be filmed.
ST: Do you really just go up to people and say Can we film you? How do you decide who will be in your films?
KL: With [Dream Girls], we spent a few days working out who we wanted to film, and it was us choosing them, but also them choosing us. In Takarazuka there are four groups, then there are about four teenage groups, so its massive, and we just didnt know who to choose. We spent about a week wandering around and not knowing who to choose. Then we were walking past a rehearsal room, and Maya Miki waved at us and said Come in. She was confident enough but friendly enough to want us to [film her] and I think thats how it worked really with the rest of them. And then there was the woman who came and picked us up from the station, Uematsu. We liked her immediately, and she was kind of our special friend there , so she became a main character in the film.
With Divorce, we didnt know how long wed have there, so there was this real panic to make sure that wed actually have time to get more and less the whole story. Wed go to the court in the morning and [court secretary] Mrs. Maheryou know, the tough one with the little daughterwould tell us what cases were coming up. And wed discuss them and wed say, This looks like a good one, that looks like a good one. We also know we wanted a custody case. One thing people always filmed in Iran during the Salman Rushdie thingthe Iranian government wanted it filmed as wellwas this whole idea of mothers as martyrs, which they promote as the mothers who were glad that their sons would die, because theyd go to paradise. The government obviously thought it promoted a good image, because it was what they believed in, but to Europeans it seemed incredibly unfeeling, as if these women didnt have any love for their children. You dont think, The reason were seeing these [women] is because the ones that dont want to say Im glad my son died werent filmed, but they were hand-picked. So Ziba and I were really keen to have a woman who was fighting for her children. When we first saw Miriam, we just knew from that presence shes got and that power. When we asked her she said no, shed never let us film her, shes so used to everybody thinking of her as bad because shes breaking all the rules. It was only after wed been there a week and shed seen Ziba talking to other women about her divorces and saying, Do this, do this, that she realized we were on her side, and the next time she came and she nodded to me and said, Film me.
We knew we needed to have cases that were self-contained, that had a beginning, middle, and a kind ofyou could tell what the end of it was. We cut this down by choosing characters: Miriam we loved; and then Ziba, we wanted a young girl; we also wanted a sort of middle-class, rather glamorous woman like Massi. I think she looks a little bit like Lady Di. We chose our characters, and then we stopped filming other characters, and edited more as we went along. But there were some wonderful scenes with other women that we couldnt use because they were either at the end of a case or they never came back, or... There was a scene with a woman who puts her baby on the counter, and says to her husband, Look, if youre not going to pay maintenance, you keep the baby, and shes sobbing, and its a whole big drama that shes doing to get maintenance from him, but shes upset as well. Actually that was quite funny, that was right at the beginning, and I was really upset, I they were taking her baby away from her, I didnt know what the hell was going on. And at the end I said, Oh, Ziba, shes lost her baby, and Ziba said, Oh no, she got her maintenance.
Born in London in 1952. Studied filmmaking at the National Film and Television School in London, where she made Pride of Place, a fiercely critical look at her old boarding school. Beginning with early works Theatre Girls, Cross and Passion, Underage, Tragic But Brave and Fireraiser (with Claire Hunt), Longinottos many film and television documentaries have screened at film festivals and theatres around the world, where they never fail to provoke intense media and audience interest. Longinottos commitment to collaborative filmmaking with an all-women crew and her drive to portray strong women on-screen are particularly visible in her series of films about women in Japan (The Good Wife of Tokyo with Claire Hunt, and Eat the Kimono, Dream Girls, Shinjuku Boys and the newly released Gaea Girls, all with Jano Williams), 1991s Hidden Face (with Claire Hunt), about women in Egypt, and YIDFF 99 International Competition entry Divorce Iranian Style, which she co-directed with Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini.Selected Filmography
Eat the Kimono
The Good Wife of Tokyo
Divorce Iranian Style