After picking up the top prize at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest, the Pink Saris director tells LWLies why documenting women's struggles in cinema is so important.
Kim Longinotto is an award-winning British documentary filmmaker, famous for her work looking at the oppression suffered by girls and young women in the developing world. Previously lauded for films such as Divorce Iranian Style, Runaway, The Day I Will Never Forget and Rough Aunties, her new film, Pink Saris – which follows Sampat Pal Devi, the leader of a movement which champions the rights of abused women from the so-called ‘untouchable’ caste in the Uttar Pradesh province, India – has just won the Special Jury Prize at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where she was also awarded the Inspiration Award for her work championing documentary filmmaking. LWLies caught up with Longinotto to discuss the importance of documenting women's struggles in cinema.
LWLies: How did you end up making Pink Saris? What was the catalyst for the project?
Longinotto: Well Sampat Pal Devi is very well known now. She’s in the media and is becoming really famous. But the reason I was interested in the story is that she’s a catalyst, she’s somebody who's going to make things happen. I'm not saying they shouldn’t be made, but the sorts of films I don’t like watching are the ones where people are telling you what has happened, accompanied by facts and figures. I like films where you’re actually watching something unfolding, and I knew that if I was with Sampat Pal then I would be. The only issue was being there for long enough to catch the beginning and the end of a story.
You certainly had that with Renu, the girl whose story is at the centre of the film.
We were really lucky with Renu, and we were really lucky that she went through the journey she did in the film. When she arrives she is very held in, very quiet, very timid. She’s wearing an oversized sari and she looks so small and frail. But by the end it was almost like she had become the calm, powerful one and Sampat is actually the one falling to bits. When Sampat is consoling Renu at the end because her mother hasn't come for her, she says that nobody cares and starts talking about herself. I find that really interesting.
So the film didn’t turn out as you expected?
Things often don’t turn out how you expect. In my film Dream Girls, which is about a theatre group in Japan where women dressed as men, I had wanted it to be a celebration of Japanese girls. But as the film goes on it gets darker and darker, and you realise that they’re not at all free as most of them have been sent there by their fathers. It’s the same with Pink Saris. I thought Sampat was going to be a very clear-cut hero, but she’s a much more mixed-up character. That’s why I love documentary, because it leads you where you don’t expect, but often it's more interesting that way.
You certainly get the impression of someone who has let her position at the forefront of a movement go to her head. In the first shot you have of Sampat she is sitting cross-legged, almost like a deity, revelling in her own position...
Yes she does, and it gets darker and darker throughout the film. So often people say that she’s a complete heroine, but we thought that people would pick up on that attitude in the film, and we didn’t try to push it. At one point she says 'I don’t want Gods', before going on the claim to be the ‘Messiah for women’!
Sampat is certainly far from a selfless figure isn’t she?
She wants to be famous because she thinks its some sort of protection. It's one of those situations where someone starts being something for the right reasons, and then it becomes a sort of drug. Now she needs to be famous. But it's not about her egotism; it’s about her own damage. She rescues her niece, only to take her back in the middle of the night and say, 'you have to make the most of it, like I did'. And we know that is a complete lie, because Sampat was thrown out of home.
So is she a force for good then, even if she is driven by her own problems?
What she's actually doing is what films can do in a small way, and what writing can do even more because of wider distribution, which is the gradual changing of outlooks. She is constantly opening people’s minds, like when she talks to the villagers at the side of the road about the killing of a baby girl. You start to feel a shift, and there’s someone doing that. If you think back to the Suffragettes, they were laughed at. People thought they were being ridiculous, they didn't know what these women were going on about. And so they threw themselves in front of carriages. What I mean is that you need pioneers, and pioneers are often very flawed, very vulnerable and very damaged. And the people in Pink Saris are quite unusual, as Sampat is, being married as she was at 12.
Some of the damage that this situation has caused is often very obvious, and is very tough to watch. Were there ever moments where you are tempted not to film, things that you thought it would be unfair to show?
Well normally I always film with a woman, and one who is not from the culture. But the person I took with me left, and I had to bring in an Indian man that nobody knew. I was worried about this because we were going to be filming scenes to do with rape, but he was actually the best person I’ve ever worked with because he wanted to shoot everything. He felt like I do, that this is what has to happen in India. He was totally secular and wanted everything out in the open, I remember I asked him what caste he was, and he was horrified. He said, "Kim, I am no caste". I think I may have given him a hug!
The film makes clear how widespread superstitions surrounding caste are in India doesn’t it?
You see it so startlingly in the film when the brother of one of the girls talks about how deeply held this belief is, these codes of traditional behaviour. It's culture linked with religion, and that’s the killer because it can become abusive. The Catholic Church has been similar, with the recent scandals. Those weddings in Pink Saris are actually child abuse as well, but because they’re weddings we don’t think of them like that. So I hope people don’t think that it's an Indian problem; it’s broader than that. It’s a very complicated mindset; I don’t think it’s just the caste system.
Because it’s prejudice specifically directed at women?
It’s a lack of education for women, and it’s thinking of girls as being worthless. People sometimes ask me if I am a feminist as if that’s a weird thing, but if you go to places like this its hard not to be one. Pink Saris is the most extreme thing I’ve ever experienced, because these girls don't exist. They've got no birth certificates, they’re not registered, and they’re not part of any statistic. And when they get married they get sent to their new parents. Renu says that her mother got her married and after that she never heard from her again. It’s like these girls are disposable, it’s really shocking. And in a way that’s why this has been the most satisfying film I’ve done, because by filming them they feel that they matter.
Did the girls quickly recognise that the camera gives them a voice?
I just think they’re terribly clever. There’s no way they would feel intimidated, and they used to ask to come and stay in my room from the very beginning. I think they felt they could just open up, that these people are the same as us, but we had a camera. They thought 'this is for us', and I don’t think anybody’s ever done that. When one of the girls stands outside and talks about her abusive marriage, she has a dignity she doesn’t have when she has to go to court over it. It’s the one moment in their whole lives where people have told them that what they have to say is worth listening to.
You’ve been to amazing places with your work: Iran, Kenya, South Africa… has that been a conscious process?
It’sabsolutely organic. Each one has a different story, and I don’t make plans. I did want to go to Iran for Divorce Iranian Style because of the Fatwa, and now I’m planning on going to Pakistan for the next one. But it’s not just going to a particular place; it’s about finding a good story. I want to make it like a fiction film, in that I want to find a story that I can get into. If there was a story somewhere like Siberia, which is a place I wouldn’t particularly want to go, I would go there.
Despite making films in so many different countries, there are common themes in your work. When one of the women you speak to says that she wants to move back in with her violent husband as long as she no longer has to live with her in-laws, you’re going back to something you have explored before: a pathology of wanting to return to abusive home situations. Why does this keep happening?
Well that's the only shift she can make, because she can’t go anywhere else. What was so heart-stopping about these girls, and why I'm so admiring of them and their dignity, is that there is no option. She says that she can’t stay with her parents because when her brother gets married the other wife won't want her there. So she feels like she’s got no option, and the film bears that out. That was the thing that shocked me most. And that’s why I love Renu, because you see that with a little bit of hope she blossoms.
That hope is also evident when another girl asks if she can leave with you.
That broke my heart! I asked her why she would want to leave, as she was about to get married, and then you see the look on her face in the ceremony. It’s very sad. I took for granted going to school, but these girls are so hungry to learn because no one's been there to teach them anything. I suppose that’s why Sampat has become so famous so quickly: because there is this incredible groundswell amongst women in India for change.
So does Sampat equip these girls to force that change from within?
That’s a really interesting question and I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. Change is a very subtle thing. I think that you can be a part of it, but I don’t think you can ever be the prime factor. Divorce Iranian Style was made right at the beginning of a movement amongst women, and now you’ve got the Green Revolution, and we were a little part of that. It’s the same with Sampat. The tragedy is that while she’s sending them back with a different perspective, its only one girl, and they are so isolated. But by being so media savvy and using the pink saris as part of her campaign, Sampat is changing things. It's shifting already, it’s just taking a long time. Until I was nine or 10 years old I didn’t question the Catholic Church, but when you start to question everything falls to bits, and you start breaking out. So hopefully people will see these girls as pioneers after Sampat. What is holding them back are these incredible superstitions and incredible wounds as well.
How will your film help?
This is something that is the case in most of my films: it's about change. I want to show the girl in the film, so that other young girls can be inspired by her, for them to say 'I know a girl like her'.