When ‘Salma‘, a young Muslim girl in a south Indian village, was 13 years old, her family locked her up for 25 years, forbidding her to study and forcing her into marriage. During that time, words were Salma’s salvation. She began covertly composing poems on scraps of paper and, through an intricate system, was able to sneak them out of the house, eventually getting them into the hands of a publisher. Against the odds, Salma became the most famous Tamil poet: the first step to discovering her own freedom and challenging the traditions and code of conduct in her village.
As with her other work (‘Pink Saris‘, ‘Rough Aunties‘), master documentarian Kim Longinotto trains her camera on an iconoclastic woman. Salma’s extraordinary story is one of courage and resilience, and Longinotto follows her on an eye-opening trip back to her village. Salma has hopes for a different life for the next generation of girls, but as she witnesses, familial ties run deep, and change happens very slowly.
In anticipation of ‘Salma‘ screening as part of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Friday, June 14, 2013 @ IFC Center & Saturday, June 15, 2013 @ The Film Society of Lincoln Center, we had an in depth talk with Kim Loninotto about the films depictions of Indian tradition, the troubles facing young women around the world, as well as the power of poetry and much more.
For more information & tickets to ‘Salma’ as part of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival Click – HERE
A common theme you consistently revisit in your films deal with iconoclastic woman who revolt against oppressive authorities and strict traditions. We see this in Pink Saris, Runaway, Rough Aunties and again in Salma. What is it that draws you to these types of stories and how do you discover them?
If you look at the work of the UN or people around the world it’s really clear that in most situations men have the power, and some situations are so extreme, as with Female Genital Mutilation for instance. You think, how has anyone thought this out! This is crazy! So the people that start fighting against it are usually women. The ones that have the courage to go against tradition, to go against things that people take for granted are always women. Men think that they have everything made for them, that they’ve got everything on their side but what I’m realizing more and more is that it’s all completely false because these situations don’t make anybody happy. I think you get that sense in Salma. I remember Salma saying, “My father was always angry. He was always fighting with my mother. My mother was always scared.” You hear this and think well that’s not good for anybody. Why are the men angry? You would think they have everything on their side. It’s the same with Salma’s husband at the end of the film when asked, “Why are you angry?” and he says “When I was a child I was jealous and when I was older it was arrogance.” He looks really puzzled. When his wife was dying of cancer he suddenly realizes he loved her and he tried to be nicer to her and you think if only he’d been gentler and nicer to her when they were young, what a much nicer life they could have had. It makes absolute sense to me that it’s these traditions that we have to fight against.
I remember going to a UN meeting in New York and I went with a woman who’s a lawyer in ‘Sisters in Law’. There was a panel; A Swedish woman, a Dutch woman, a German woman and Vera, a woman from Cameroon. The Swedish woman said, “We’re very careful when we enter situations, and we’re very careful with traditions. When we go into villages we always speak to the head man. We don’t want to do anything against any culture.” The Dutch and German women said more or less the same thing and then when it was Vera’s turn she said, “Well when I go to the village the last person I go to is the head man because the head man is going to be there on behalf of the people’s interests. He got there because people think he will do what they want.” So really it’s not as simple as men versus women, its usually women versus tradition. Tradition is usually founded by men and fought by women.
Many of your films, Salma included, revolve around tight knit and closely guarded societies and cultures. Could you talk a bit about your process in gaining access to these often-impenetrable groups? At times do you find it difficult to gain the trust of your subjects?
I think it’s different for each situation, but it’s amazing to meet somebody new and to set the time to get to know them and talk to them about their life, particularly women who haven’t ever been listened to, who haven’t properly been to school and who haven’t been respected. They absolutely grab the opportunity. There’s a scene in a film I made called ‘The Day I will Never Forget’, it’s a film about Female Genital Mutilation. I remember filming this meeting and this little girl of 8 came up to me and said she wanted to tell me her poem. I thought it was going to be some poem about her school holiday or something. She said, “Please, I’ve been waiting for you and I want you to come to my home and I want to tell you my poem.” It wasn’t me gaining her trust. She just grabbed the opportunity. And the poem was about the night when they came to get her and when she was forced to have the operation and how she felt. It’s an appeal to all of us saying why did I deserve this. It was an amazing poem and it was written in English. The doctor asked her why she wrote it in English and she said, “I wrote it for all of you.” I mean she’s this child genius really, this little Somali girl living in Kenya. That’s what I always find in every film, that people want to be in the film. I would never try to gain someone’s trust or try to convince them to be in the film. I want people to want to be in the film to feel that it belongs to them and that it’s our film, otherwise there’s no point in doing it.
Salma’s talent for writing poetry is what led to her fame. If her poems never got into the right hands and were never published do you believe Salma would be in the position she is today?
I don’t think so, no. Well, think about it, this has been going on for thousands of years. In the documentary Salma’s mother says, “Our faith is written on our heads.” Salma says, “Mom, I want to go to school. Please let me go out and go to school.” Her mother answers, “Be quiet and stay in your room, our fate is written on our heads.” It was the same with her aunt. When she was about to get married there was nothing else for her. Her aunt was washing the blood off her little dress and that was it, and her mother before her it was the same thing. It went on for generations. And then here is Salma, the first one to get out. The reason why I was so desperate to make this film is that there are millions of girls like that all over the world, millions! You know in Yemen, in Pakistan, in England, in Saudi Arabia, in Kenya, all over the world. These women are in very particular situations and they have given up hope, you know? Maybe after ten or twenty years they give up hope because they can’t get some kind of happiness within the world they’ve been confined to, and here is this first woman who found the way to tell her story, found a way of getting out and didn’t give up. She kept writing and found a way to get her poems out. For me it is an incredible story and the reason why Salma made the film with me is because she sees herself as the spokesperson for millions of girls all over the world that will never get out. Someone posted a comment on my Facebook that said, “Western women make such a fuss, you know what’s the big deal? In Salma we see what the big deal is. One minute we see this little girl outside watching the sunset on the roof, the next minute she’s in her room and she’s meant to stay there until she’s married and that’s the end of her life. At one point Salma said, “I couldn’t believe my life was over. I just couldn’t believe it.” And you’re right she would probably still be there.
So her poems where a way for her to speak up.
It’s like what you’re doing. You’re writing an article and it’s the most amazing thing, the power of words for freedom. To me the written word is powerful. Did you read Nelson Mandela’s book? He wrote the book when he was in prison so it is very similar to Salma. And the guards were so scared of his words getting out that every time they found anything he had written, they would destroy it. They never gave him paper, so what he did was to write on toilet paper in very small words and then he would put it in plastic and bury it in the vegetable garden the had in the compound. And anytime a prisoner was released they would smuggle out these tiny pieces of toilet paper. One by one the prisoners took out his book and that’s how the book was written. I think they’re very similar, Salma and Mandella, because they’re totally without hate and full of humanity. They were pioneers and the outside world was really scared of their words. They did everything they could do and they both came through.
When I watched the documentary, there’s a part that really impacted me. It was when she was with her two sons talking about how different things could be. How was that experience for you behind the camera?
I felt a mixture of things. Part of me felt that they were like typical teenagers, on Facebook and not listening. You hear that all the time, you know friends of mine when their boys come back from school they ask them “how was school?” and they’re just “Fine. Anything in the fridge mom?” So part of me was thinking that, other part of me was thinking Salma is really trying to tell them something, Salma believes her boys have this hardness against her. She feels the village has changed them and that they’re critical of her and they’ve moved away from her. Salma was sad about that and a part of me felt sad also because she was really trying to tell them her experience of what it was like to be a young girl and trying to change them in a way. So there were two feelings at once. But there was something quite funny about it as well. There was something quite amusing about a boy pretending to listen and being on his computer. Salma did seem quite desperate but what is interesting is that we could see how Salma’s husband has changed, because one minute he says, “Anyone else would have divorced her by now. I’ve been really good to her.” Then the next minute he says, “I don’t know if she realizes how much I’ve done for her.” It’s like he wants her approval. So he’s changing.
You’re known for your observational filmmaking style, which is considered unobtrusive. Many of your films deal with strong religious and political ideologies throughout various cultures. Do you ever find it challenging to keep your own personal views/opinions outside the realm of the film?
I don’t do it. I don’t put my personal opinion aside. You see it in ‘Runaway’, when the little girls would tell us things we would hug them and we would always cry. We felt heart broken for these girls, particularly when they got sent back. It broke your heart. So I don’t put my opinions aside, I feel very strongly. I’d often say to them look you’re really brave and you’ve done well to runaway. We don’t try to pretend we’re objective at all. I said the same with Salma. I always told her, “I love what you’ve done. I’m inspired by you. We’ll make this film together. We’ll do something together.” I find it really hard to hide my emotions. They were times when we were in the village and I would get very upset and I would cry. There were other times when we would just get the giggles and laugh.
Do you ever follow up with the subjects of your documentaries to see where they are say 5 or 10 years down the road? Where is Salma now?
Salma is actually coming to stay with me in three days. I’m so excited. I made my study into a little bedroom for her. When she arrives we’re going to a Film Festival together.
What’s on the radar for your next project?
Well, I’m going to be with Salma for the next two weeks and after that I’ll be doing something in America. It’s about men in America, but we are still trying to raise the money for it.
– Interview conducted by Heidy Martinez.
– Transcribed & Edited by Stephen Reilly.
About Kim Longinotto
Longinotto studied camera and directing at England’s National Film School, where she made PRIDE OF PLACE, a critical look at her boarding school, and THEATRE GIRLS, documenting a hostel for homeless women.
Her first film in Japan was EAT THE KIMONO, about the controversial feminist performer Hanayagi Genshu; HIDDEN FACES, the internationally acclaimed, documentary about Egyptian women followed, then THE GOOD WIFE OF TOKYO which explores women, love and marriage in Japanese society. Next Longinotto directed DREAM GIRLS, a BBC-produced documentary of the spectacular Japanese musical theatre company, the Tararazuka revue; and SHINJUKU BOYS, about three Tokyo women who live as men. Next, she made ROCK WIVES for Channel 4 about the wives and girlfriends of rock stars, followed by DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE, set in a Family law court in Tehran about women and divorce in Iran. She then made two short films for the BEST FRIENDS series on Channel 4: STEVE & DAVE – about two friends who work as a drag act and ROB & CHRIS about two homeless young men. Then GAEA GIRLS about a young girl’s struggle to become a professional wrestler. RUNAWAY is set in a refuge for girls in Tehran. Her film THE DAY I WILL NEVER FORGET, about young girls in Kenya challenging the tradition of female circumcision premiered domestically at Sundance in 2003. Her next film SISTERS IN LAW, set in Kumba, Cameroon, premiered and won two prizes at Cannes. After that, HOLD ME TIGHT, LET ME GO was set in an Oxford school for disturbed children. The next film, ROUGH AUNTIES is about a group of brave women based in Durban, South Africa. PINK SARIS set in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India followed. Her latest film, SALMA, is set in Tamil Nadu, India.