Documentary film has only recently hit the mainstream, with material once reserved for the lecture theatre increasingly finding its way into multiplex cinemas. The style of delivery, however, has become concentrated around flashy titles and tendentious commentaries.
Kim Longinotto's films offer a much-needed contrast. After making documentaries for over 30 years, she is internationally renowned for her distinctively humanistic perspective on complex situations. Preferring to let her films and their protagonists speak for themselves, Longinotto documents people's struggle for justice and equality, notably in Divorce Iranian Style (1998), The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) and Sisters In Law (2005).
Longinotto is just back from accompanying her latest film, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, at festivals around the world. At the 2007 International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go sold out an 850-capacity cinema. Longinotto regards this, in part, as a reflection of social trends.
'It's a really interesting time at the moment, people are starting to go and see documentary in cinema. There's been years and years of thinking of documentary as being hard work and boring and now people realise that, actually, you can see a documentary and be moved, and not feel that you've been in a seminar,' she says.
This rising popularity is international. The past seven years have witnessed rapid audience growth and an increasing number of documentary-specific festivals worldwide..
With the rise of 24-hour news coverage, the general public is now more informed than ever of world events, and less appeased by light entertainment. 'It's coinciding with people being sick of only [Hollywood blockbuster] The Bourne Ultimatum and wanting something that's closer to their own lives, about ordinary people's lives, that's going to talk to them more,' says Longinotto.
The shape of documentary
Longinotto rejects the increasing uniformity of mainstream documentary, which seemingly strives to tap into this popular appeal. After the box-office successes of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth, for example, the public expectation is that documentaries are designed to impart information in support of a particular argument. She is wary of audiences' demand for guiding information.
'I think we're very crude in how we see the role of documentary or what documentary should be doing,' she says. 'People want you to be doing something very limited and very exact. I loved Bowling for Columbine, that was my favourite, it felt kind of transgressive to be watching it. But that's not the film I want to make; it's not what I'd be comfortable doing.'
Although she recognises the contribution of polemical filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Longinotto aims to make a different type of documentary, provoking personal contemplation. She rejects the use of commentary, or filmmakers' on-screen guidance as popularised by Nick Broomfield, preferring to let people speak for themselves and trusting viewers to personally interpret their words: 'I hate being told what to think and being told what to do. That's why I want to make the films in the way that I do. I want people to go through that film, and actually go through that experience ... it makes you question things. It can be anything; it'll be different for each person.'
Longinotto concedes that she's been lucky not to be forced into a market-conscious slot. Her work has, thus far, been protected by her backers and released at her desired length. Not all filmmakers are afforded such control over their work. 'I've seen some films that have got really good footage, and then they're packaged in this way where you're shown what you're going to see, and then you see something, and then you're told what you've just seen. I can't watch those,' she says.
Such films are designed to spoon-feed their audience. Yet with the internet offering vast amounts of historical and socio-political information, instantly accessible, Longinotto sees no need for documentaries to lecture. The expectation that they will poses an obstacle particular to non-fiction film: 'With fiction films there's none of this idea that somehow you have to be taught something.'
The challenges of television
Longinotto also stresses that there is a clear distinction between the aims of her work and those of current affairs television programmes. She illustrated this by referring to Divorce Iranian Style:
'Current affairs films are important to make but as they're following an argument it means that, when you're not getting anything else coming out of that country and you just see the extremes, it really plays into that whole notion of it [Iran] being a fanatical country. You see the mullahs, ayatollahs, and the men with guns doing terrible things. The women were always in the background. Like there is now, there had been lots of anti-Iranian publicity, saying it's a country of fanatics, so I really wanted to do something about ordinary people.'
Along with stylistic expectation, the ubiquity of reality television has created further obstacles to filmmakers working in the UK, skewing people's reaction to the camera and restricting the freedom of documentary makers. Television producers' desire for headline-grabbing content has given rise to investigative, exposé-style programming that makes the public wary of filmmakers. Longinotto became starkly aware of this effect when filming Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go last year at the Mulberry School in Oxford.
'I was really taken aback by how vulnerable the staff were. I said, "This is our film, we're doing it with you", but they saw it as a sort of trial. They thought they were going to be shown up, or that we were going to contrive things to show them in a bad light. A lot of the staff didn't really trust us the whole time and couldn't believe that it wasn't going to be a kind of Wife Swap or something. It's gone very deep, that whole feeling, I think.'
A pioneering approach
Unusually for documentaries, Longinotto's films do not aim to stress a political point, or to argue a single perspective. A personal drive towards equality, however, underpins all of her work: 'There are deep emotions that I've had since I was about four, which are that you're on the side of the underdog and you want justice for people. Those don't waver.'
Longinotto's films stand out in a male-dominated field, and a resolutely feminist perspective punctuates her work. Although she is generally hesitant to make issue-led films, her dissatisfaction with the way that female genital mutilation (FGM) is usually reported compelled her to tackle the problem, in The Day I Will Never Forget.
'There'd been quite a few films, all interviews with people in white coats, or experts, or activists. You never got to know the people who had had it done, or find out what they are feeling. There's a whole culture of experts and victims, and I didn't want to make a film about victims,' says Longinotto. She emphasises the need for a more humanistic focus to complex issues. In fact, the very process of filming can be an act of advocacy, and can wield an influence beyond the finished film, empowering those recorded.
Documentary can assert the agency of its protagonists, and imparts a personalised understanding of the issue: 'As soon as somebody's fighting back, you feel like they're somebody you could know. If they're a silent victim, they're just somebody you feel sorry for. You're not going to feel any sort of natural empathy with them, you're not going to feel close to them.'
Rather than imposing a western perspective, derived from highly specific values and ideologies, documentary projects like Longinotto's offer an unprejudiced platform to those people whose voices go unheard, or are even silenced, in the mainstream, people who 'want to have a witness ... that feel nobody's going to listen to them. [when someone] comes along and they look like they're going to listen, it's a really thrilling, exciting thing.'
Real potential for cross-cultural understanding lies in Longinotto's approach, which stems from her belief that 'there are universal emotions, and universal experiences'. A socially conscious filmmaker, she aims to bridge social divides by documenting highly contextualised experiences of universally recognisable environments, such as a law court or a school.
'The hope is that all those cultural boundaries will dissolve. [Viewers] will think, "That could've been my sister, she's so brave", "My mum didn't have the courage to do that". Thinking those things and feeling uplifted.'
Longinotto's next project will take her to South Africa. She cannot predict what stories will emerge there, but it is assured that the finished film will challenge opinion and offer viewers highly personalised insight into complex social issues.
Siobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.