Kim Longinotto’s Master Class

A selection of some of Kim Longinotto’s insights:

People often ask me why I don’t explain more in my films. They want to know context. In Sisters in Law, people have asked why we didn’t explain the legal system of Cameroon, or how you get to be a judge, or how many of the judges are women.

We debated what to put at the beginning of Sisters in Law, because we wanted the audience to know what the film was about, we wanted to set up what the sisters are against. They see themselves as the modern future, about human rights and where people are equal. So we showed a situation where Vera [one of the judges] confronts a couple where the woman has been abused by her husband and insulted by her father.

You can’t explain everything. In fact, what I love about documentary is if you can tell a story that has a sense of danger to it, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes we ask more of documentary than we ask of other media. Think of The Sopranos, you don’t get a whole history of the Mafia.

(On narration) I don’t think it’s better not to have narration. We all make the films we want to watch. I like to go on a journey, and discover things for myself. Sometimes you do need narration. And also, it’s who does the narration. In England you can tell what class the person comes from by listening to them.

(On partnership) My first film I filmed in Japan. I went with a young Japanese woman I knew from film school. We were filming a woman activist brought up as a traveling player, putting on theater for people. She had gone to prison, she taught herself to read and write, and came out and became a huge star. She was using her stardom to do talks for the lowest class people in Japan. The star said that she couldn’t do the film, because of the way the student talked to her–she believed that the student was speaking down to her. So I used a friend of mine who had learned Japanese from her boyfriend, and had grammar genders confused. She spoke to the star as if she were a man, and the star just loved her. So you just don’t know. Sometimes class is the most important factor, sometimes it’s gender, cross-cultural work you have to learn as you go.

If I’m doing something in English I just work with the sound recordist. It’s a fantastic relationship. Let’s say we’re filming something and it’s noisy. Then I watch and respond to her, and put the sound first whenever possible. If we’re walking and filming she makes sure I don’t fall in a hole. If she sees something on my right she’ll touch my arm.

When you work with a translator, we talk a lot so I don’t think of them as translators, they end up as co-director. Then they can go around with the film too. And I can go on and make another film. You talk very much about what you’re trying to do. When we’re filming we’re not talking, just here. In that speech, when she was relating her struggle to them, we filmed the bits we wanted. You missed the beginning of it. You take more chances with the sound. Then you can have the cutaway. Janno is listening, and she knows what I want.

(On the camera eye) When I film, I try not really to move much, not zoom and not pan very much, so that it’s like you’re just looking. When I’m filming, I’m thinking of the audience, but I’m thinking as if it’s one friend, and I thinking, you’re seeing this what I’m seeing.

Sometimes you get more if you film less. I like just watching and being there, and waiting for what the moment is, and not being afraid of missing the beginning of something. Often people go back and say the beginning later anyway. For Sisters in Law we filmed 12 hours and made an hour and 45 minutes. It also feels nicer as well not filming all the time, just being with people.

If something that is happening is so much more interesting than you, then they forget about you. If something dramatic is happening, they’re locked into it and don’t notice you. But the trick is not to move. I try to find a comfortable place for everybody and not to move out of it.