Kim Longinotto tells me several times during our interview that she has “very low self-esteem”, adding that “not being a very confident person” may have helped her 30-year career in documentary filmmaking.
It’s not the usual chitchat you’d expect from someone set to join the likes of Sir David Attenborough, John Pilger and Norma Percy in becoming the recipient of a Grierson Trustee Award for documentary film tonight. But then Longinotto has spent much of her career stuggling to get her work funded, let alone noticed.
Even her most recent film, Dreamcatcher, about the world of prostitution and sexual abuse of underage girls in Chicago, proved a tough sell. Her documentaries cost a modest £200,000 for 10 weeks of filming with minimal crew and swift editing, but when she asked the BBC for money to make Dreamcatcher she was turned down.
“I was honest, said I will do my best. It was risky. Everything is so insecure, they [the BBC commissioners] need reassurance as much as I do.” She eventually raised $175,000 from a commercial source and “paid them back almost immediately” when, after its premiere at the Sundance Festival in Utah, it was picked up by US cable network Showtime. Now the BBC have bought it, for more than she originally asked for and it will have its UK debut in BBC4’s Storyville slot on 11 November.
Longinotto has made more than 20 films, usually featuring inspiring women and girls at their core. She’s delved into female genital mutilation in Kenya (The Day I Will Never Forget), women standing up to rapists in India (Pink Saris), and the story of Salma, an Indian Muslim woman who smuggled poetry out to the world while locked up by her family for decades. But unlike many modern documentary makers her presence is rarely felt on screen. She uses handheld cameras to get up close to ordinary people – disarming them. “I want you to forget me, so there is nothing between you and them, so it looks like a fiction film,” she says. “Everywhere I go, I have never had a film which people didn’t want to be in.”
The approach is evident in Dreamcatcher, which explores its subject through the story of an ex-prostitute, Brenda Myers-Powell, who has rebuilt her life and set up a foundation to help escapees. “It was the last thing I wanted to make, it’s going to be bleak, where is the hope, the rebelliousness in it?” Longinotto thought, when a producer proposed the idea. “Then she showed me a clip of Brenda, it was love at first sight.” It has a heartbreaking scene where, one by one, a class of vulnerable teenagers tutored by Brenda talk about being sexually assaulted and raped. One says she was nine and unable to protect her four-year-old sister. “I was crying for pride in them. They were absolutely thrilled to have their stories told. I think with a lot of the TV programmes what we get is the negative side … they are taking from people … somehow we are robbing people of their stories. Whereas I feel the opposite. Those girls had never been listened to. Never been heard. Or have been disbelieved, or told off for telling. Here at last was someone [saying] ‘I’m on your side. You can do it’.”
To get the young women and girls to open up, she had showed them another of her films, Sisters in Law, about two women in Cameroon who stand up to male abuse, and told them about her own experience of being gang-raped in her 20s while she studying at the National Film & TelevisionSchool in London.
“It is only in the last few years I’ve been able to say that in front of an audience,” Longinotto says. “I don’t care, it happens to us all. If people think it’s attention-seeking, weird, misplaced, I don’t care. Loads of people are abused as children, raped, why should we keep quiet? That’s what we want, people who speak out, not victims who are not embarrassed, not pathetic. That is what the media can do.
“I put my camera down, I said [to the women in Dreamcatcher], ‘it’s all right, you have got to let it go, learn to let things go’. We are survivors.”
The assault followed on from a sad start in life, a posh boarding school that sent her to Coventry, a cold family who pretended they were direct descendants of painter Edwin Landseer (her father was an Italian photographer), and a period of sleeping rough. She was in penury for seven years in the 1980s as she held out to make her sort of documentary, but her work has given her perspective on her own life. “You can’t watch Dreamcatcher and think you had it bad. I didn’t have a couple of kids at the age of 14.”
It was the arrival of Channel 4 that offered her a way into filmmaking via a workshop focused on making films in local communities. This led to a breakthrough commission, Divorce Iranian Style. She has never earned enough to buy a home, but says being able to buy “the best bike in the shop” means she is well-off, and “you don’t do this for the money” .
It does, though, take money to get her films made. She is used to making one film a year but that has dropped now it takes longer to get funding. She has used the BBC’s consultation on its next royal charter to argue the corporation should do more to help get documentaries made.
“There should be a fully-funded documentary strand on television,” she says. “I said fund Storyville properly. They get bloody good films, but they should be able to originate them. Have a budget. And the BBC should not be warring with ITV. They should be more public service. Strictly should not be against X Factor.”
However, she isn’t snooty about popular TV. “A lot of documentary makers tell me they don’t even have a TV, they look down on TV, only watch cinema films. Telly is my pleasure in life. I am addicted. I can’t imagine not living in England because of the telly. It is that bad.
“There are things that are wonderful, The Naked Choir, Gogglebox, The X Factor, these programmes really enrich our lives, the good ones feed into our culture and make our society more adventurous.” She credits Graham Norton, Grayson Perry and Eddie Izzard for making Britain “a more fun place to live”.
She now teaches at the National Film & Television School, “encouraging students to find how they want to do it, maybe film a little less. It is about very basic things, not art, things like how to create a scene.”
Longinotto says it is “wonderful” to be given the Grierson award, but her main priority is getting exposure for her work. “It feels like it’s not an award for me, but all the people in the films, these films are worth looking at. And it means more people will watch them.” Meanwhile she is waiting to hear whether the BBC will fund her next film, set in New York. Asked whether she is likely to succeed, her self-effacement resurfaces: “Who knows, they could easily say no. I probably messed it up.”
Maggie Brown – The Guardian – Monday 2 November 2015
Age 63 Education Hampden House school, Buckinghamshire, Essex University (English and European literature)
1974 National Film & Television School
1976 first film, Pride of Place,shown at London Film Festival
1995 Shinjuku Boys judged outstanding documentary at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
1998 Divorce Iranian Style
2002 The Day I Will Never Forget
2005 Sisters in Law
2007 Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go
2008 Rough Aunties
2010 Pink Saris