Kim Longinotto At Whicker Launch © Sheffield Doc Fest

Docs Dose: Kim Longinotto on the genius of Breaking Bad and her hopes for an egalitarian future for docs

Multi-award-winning documentary maker Kim Longinotto is the final filmmaker to answer our Docs Dose questionnaire. With the application deadline for our awards fast approaching, we hope that this series of articles featuring leading documentary makers will serve as both inspiration and light relief as you perfect your submissions.

Kim Longinotto is special to our hearts because she helped us launch The Whicker’s World Foundation on a sunny afternoon at Sheffield Doc/Fest last June.

We invited Kim because her remarkable career, for which she was honoured with the BBC Trustee’s Lifetime Achievement Award last November, has strange parallels with Alan Whicker’s in her determination to allow others to speak without fear of judgment thus unveiling apparently ordinary people for the extraordinary beings they are.

Kim has often used her documentaries to draw attention to woman breaking free from repression and discrimination. By not appearing in her films, Longinotto allows her subjects to tell their own stories. Although she has great respect for other documentary styles, she doesn’t want her audience “to be thinking about the camera when you watch my films. I want you to feel that you’re there…going through the emotional experience.” 

Her 2013 film Salma (which she discusses in question 7) for example tells the story a woman locked up by her South Indian family for 25 years, who found salvation through her poetry. Salma managed to get her writings to a publisher and has become one of the most famous poets of the Tamil language and an activist for women’s rights.

Shinjuku Boys (1995) explores the lives of  another underclass: three transgender men working in a club in Tokyo, whose existence challenges the conservatism of Japanese society. It won the Outstanding Documentary Award at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Like Mr Whicker, Longinotto has travelled around the world to tell the stories of groups of people who have been subjugated by society. These include victims of female genital mutilation in Kenya (The Day I Will Never Forget, 2002), abandoned children in South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and, most recently, former sex-workers in Chicago (Dreamcatcher, 2015).

Longinotto, who trained at the National Film And Television School alongside Nick Broomfield (see her ‘best tip’) regards documentary making as the most important thing in her life. Self effecting as ever she says she loves it because “you don’t have to be an interesting person. It’s the people you film who are interesting, and you can celebrate them.”

Allow us to a moment to return the compliment, Kim.

1) In three words I became a documentary maker…

To tell stories.

2) What changes have you seen in the last few years?

In the last years, fewer documentaries have felt the need to “inform and educate”. They’re more imaginative and open-ended, more playful and exploratory. Like Boyhood they reveal through subtlety, allusion and stealth.

The rise of TV series, especially from Scandinavia: The genius of Borgen, Arne Dahl, the Bridge, Breaking Bad (hooray!) and Legacy.

Films, documentaries and TV constantly challenge the “War against Drugs”. The last 5 years has seen a belated celebration of difference rather than the “toleration” of it. 2014 saw same-sex marriage legalised – this had a profound ripple effect. The increased visibility of Trans people in all media.

3) Where would you like to see the documentary genre going and why?

I’d like it to be bolder, more transgressive, more inspiring. To take more risks. I’d like more people from ethnic and sexual ‘minorities’ take centre-stage on the stories we see. And the experience of watching documentaries to be closer to the experience of works of fiction – not by setting things up, but by taking the audience on a journey, an emotional experience.

4) What was the last thing you saw on screen or through the lens that made your skin creep or tingle?

An amazing episode of Arne Dahl had me cheering. My favourite character, the Polish detective Ida, breaks down and reveals that she was sexually abused as a kid. Brilliant. Her character just grows each week, like Jesse in Breaking Bad.

5) Who in the industry do you think is underrated? Why?

Definitely editors. They are the artists. They craft and perfect the footage we bring back. They have vision, imagination and skill.

6) Who in the industry do you think is overrated? Why?

Probably Directors. Not sure.

7) What’s the most surprising encounter of location that triggered a story for you?

I met a Publisher at a festival who told me Salma’s story. I’d been wanting to make a film about secluded women for many years. I didn’t want the film to show passive victims so I had to find a woman who had been kept in a house and then got away. Salma’s village in Tamil Nadu was a revelation; its women’s lives are still frozen by tradition and ancient strictures.

8) What’s the best tip you have inherited?

Apply to the National Film and Television School: it was the best for me but might not suit everyone.

9) What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

I tend to see the opposites of things. It drives some people furious with me.

We are very grateful to Kim for answering our questionnaire and sharing her thoughts on documentary filmmaking. We hope that you have enjoyed Docs Dose and been inspired by the five documentarians whom we questioned. Their varying approaches show that there is no single way to make documentaries and that one should leap at opportunities when they arise.

On that note, the deadline for our awards is imminent: therefore, for a chance to win £80,000, please submit your documentary proposal now at https://whickersworldfoundation.com/apply/

Words by our researcher Curtis Gallant. Photo credit: UNIONDOCS.