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Cinema Solidarity: The Documentary Practice of Kim Longinotto

From: Cinema Journal
46, Number 1, Fall 2006
pp. 120-128 | 10.1353/cj.2007.0008

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U.K. filmmaker Kim Longinotto has long been a practitioner of transnational feminism, though the term would probably sound too academic to her. Working primarily in cinema verité format, with funding from Britain's Channel 4, she has documented the stories of women ordinary and extraordinary—often both—in Egypt (Hidden Faces [1990]), Iran (Runaway [1991], Divorce Iranian Style [1998]), Japan (Dream Girls [1993], Shinjuku Boys [1995], among others), and sub-Saharan Africa (The Day I Will Never Forget [2002], Sisters in Law [2005]) for exhibition largely (but not exclusively) in the West. She has also made numerous films back home in England, including her first, Pride of Place (1976), an indictment of her boarding school that helped close the place down.

The reception of Longinotto's latest film, Sisters in Law (a prizewinner at Cannes that was showcased in North America at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and released in April 2006 at New York's Film Forum to strong reviews), helps frame questions about feminism's claims to the public sphere in a reputedly "postfeminist" era and about how documentary film can facilitate this "publicity." While Longinotto's work has been available in the United States for many years through the nonprofit distributor Women Make Movies, Sisters in Law demonstrates the risks and promises of theatrical exhibition for her work and for the feminist media culture Women Make Movies' collection represents.

The visibility of Longinotto's work is enhanced by its frequent engagement with Third World subjects. One of the clichés of postfeminism holds that while Western (white) women "have it all" (except guarantees of reproductive freedom, sexual choice, equal wages, etc.), women elsewhere still have "issues." The very title of Divorce Iranian Style implies national and cultural differences in women's access to basic rights. And Sisters in Law frames questions about feminism's claims to the public sphere in a reputedly "postfeminist" era.

In her influential essay "Under Western Eyes" Chandra Mohanty critiques Western feminist social science practice and development work in which "third world women" are portrayed as victims, not agents of change—a strategy evident in a wide swath of well-meaning global social-issue documentaries. Does the fact that Longinotto works in so many different cultural contexts similarly convey the sense that "what binds women together is a sociological notion of the 'sameness' of their oppression"?

Longinotto's work scrupulously avoids this structure; her subjects, methods, and emphases are transnational rather than global(izing). That is to say, the films compare and connect gendered spaces and practices across cultures and borders without disavowing the power of the gaze (and of language, capital, state, religion, history, etc.), shaping these relations and rendering them intelligible. As Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan write in "Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices," "transnational feminism . . . is not to be celebrated as free of asymmetrical power relations. Rather, transnational feminist practices, as we call them, involve forms of alliance, subversion, and complicity within which asymmetries and inequalities can be critiqued."

Longinotto's reliance on cinema verité practices in most of her work seeks to avoid imposing an interpretive perspective on the films, yet the forms of alliance and complicity that may be invisible in observational cinema are often foregrounded. Divorce Iranian Style, for example, avoids silencing the chador-wearing plaintiffs it follows, emphasizing their efforts to understand and use language that might help them navigate the legal system. The contradictions of Japanese gender and social codes are conveyed in the at-once nonconformist and rigidly regulated and hierarchal practices of the cross-dressing performers in Dream Girls and the female wrestlers in Gaea's Girls. It is the filmmaker's access to gender-segregated spaces and institutions in both cultures that allows her to tell these stories. Moreover, Longinotto works with collaborators grounded in each place and culture where she films. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an expert on Islamic family law, is credited as codirector of Divorce and Runaway, and she was present throughout the shoot to translate and even to direct the attention of Longinotto, who serves as cinematographer, by a touch on the arm. For Sisters in Law Florence Ayisi helped Longinotto make contacts in Kumba, Cameroon...

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