It's strange that a media obsessed with Brit winners managed to overlook a major success by a British filmmaker at this year's Cannes festival: Kim Longinotto's prize-winning documentary, Sisters in Law. Perhaps it's because Longinotto's deeply humane but quietly unsensational portrait of African women struggling for self-determination defies received notions about both women and the third world. It may also be because Longinotto is a self-effacing filmmaker, deeply uncomfortable with glitz and hype. Indeed, her capacity for self-effacement is one of the secrets of her art.
In the BAFTA-winning Divorce Iranian Style, she chronicled women's efforts to procure justice from a male-run family court in Tehran. In The Day I Will Never Forget, she followed Kenyan teenagers battling a long-established tradition of female genital mutilation. In both films, as in Sisters in Law, she offers audiences privileged access to hidden worlds, and she does so with a camera that is both perceptive and unobtrusive. These are intimate, domestic dramas that raise issues of globe-spanning significance.
Sisters in Law is set in the town of Kumba in Cameroon and follows the work of a female state prosecutor, her colleagues and their clients as they challenge husbands who rape and assault their wives and adults who kidnap and beat children. The suffering is palpable, but so are the comradeship, energy, wit and resourcefulness of the women protagonists.
'This film came out of my last one,' Longinotto explains. 'In Kenya, what really struck me was this sense that change was coming from the women, that it was women who were standing up against deeply ingrained prejudices. It was clear that there must be stories like this happening all over Africa but they're stories we don't get to hear about. They're not considered newsworthy. So I wanted to go back to Africa and tell another story. But where The Day I Will Never Forget was a film with several centres and multiple characters, this time I wanted to make a film focused on one place and one small group of characters. More like a fiction film.'
Sisters in Law boasts the kind of incident-packed but sustained narrative arc for which Hollywood screenwriters would sell their souls. The film includes prolonged scenes set in a single space in which a variety of distinctive characters interact and through which complex motivations are gradually revealed. In doing so, it offers a dramatic richness rarely found in contemporary commercial cinema, which assumes that audiences are crippled by a short attention span.
Initially, Longinotto and her collaborator, Florence Ayisi, set about documenting the work of a pioneering woman judge in a customary court in a rural area. But the 40 rolls of film they shot were destroyed when passed through an airport x-ray machine. It's not hard to imagine the filmmakers' anguish at the loss of this footage. But Longinotto is a determined character and she shrugged off this setback, as well as a bout of severe tropical disease, to relocate her story, with stunning results.
Longinotto's camerawork is deliberately unemphatic. She eschews both establishing long shots and intrusive zooms and close-ups, preferring a medium-distance that allows her dramatis personae to interact freely. One of the mysteries of her method is how such an apparently neutral, restrained gaze can radiate such warmth. Her presence is sympathetic, but unobtrusive. How does she do it? How is it that the action on screen seems so uncontrived, the people so unself-conscious?
'Part of it is that when something dramatic and urgent is happening, the people involved tend to become drawn into it and forget about the presence of the camera,' she says. 'The other part is that it's only me and Mary Milton, the sound recordist - two women, and we're not a threatening presence. We've made five films together, we work fluidly. We know without speaking what we're trying to do. There's a fetish in documentary these days for tiny cameras, a belief that the smaller the camera the more natural the scene will be. But I've got a really big camera. It's not the camera that people are intimidated by - it's the filmmakers.
'The women we're following know that we're there to tell their stories. We're part of their fight, we're on their side. And the amazing thing is how they make use of our presence. Suddenly there's a witness and that gives them confidence. For example, in Sisters in Law, Amina, who's trying to free herself from an abusive husband, was eager for us to film her. She wanted to make sure we'd be in court with her. She wanted the camera there - it made her feel stronger.'
Longinotto's documentaries offer almost nothing by way of social or political contextualisation, for which she's been criticised. But this refusal to provide an ideological road map is an essential part of her method. Viewers are invited to find their own way through and formulate their own responses to the drama unfolding before them. It's an approach that provides much food for thought.
Take, for example, the story of Manka, a six-year-old girl beaten and effectively enslaved by her aunt. We watch as Manka is given protection and support and as her aunt is prosecuted and jailed for her crimes. There is something majestic here: the power of the state activated and deployed by fearless, committed women, and wielded, for once, on behalf of an utterly defenceless human being. And in this spectacle is an unspoken rebuke to the lazy post-modernism that romanticises traditional communities and condemns the modern nation state as the source of all evils.
The women whose struggles Longinotto chronicles are unmistakably part of their local culture, yet also determined to transform that culture. Thus the stereotypes come crashing down, above all the stereotype of third world female passivity. And in the film's conclusion - as two Muslim women are lauded for being the first in their area to secure convictions for assault against their husbands - there is joy and hope, hard-earned and therefore credible.
But surely the fact that Longinotto is a white western woman documenting an alien culture remains problematic?
It's clearly a question she's often been asked, and she answers it without apologies. 'Race and nationality are hugely important but they aren't the only human divisions. There's also class and gender and sexual orientation and that's what I make my films about. I don't like authority. I don't like traditions that oppress people and I'm attracted to stories about people standing up for themselves against authority and tradition.'
That predisposition is apparent in all Longinotto's work, starting with her National Film School production, Pride of Place. This is a documentary about the boarding school she was sent to as a girl - a sub-culture as exotic, bizarre and cruel as anything she encountered in her later travels. Mingling curiosity and respect, her patient, compassionate art celebrates difference but also affirms universality, and is therefore a welcome antidote to the 'clash of civilisations' crudities currently filling newspaper columns and TV screens.Sisters in Law will be shown at the National Film Theatre as part of the London Film Festival on 26 and 28 October 2005.
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.