Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto has returned to the director's chair with her terrific new documentary Salma.

The movie follows Salma as she battles against the traditions of her village to become a famous poet. For her work, Longinotto has been nominated for a One World Media Award.

We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the movie, meeting Salma, and what lies ahead.

- Your film Salma has been nominated for a One World Media Award, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?

I was in India at another festival and this woman told me about this girl. What happens in her village is, when you reach puberty you are not allowed out anymore until you get married. Then, when you are married, you don't really go out without the permission of your husband. Therefore, you are very much kept in your husband's house.

I was very struck by this because Salma, of all the people in her village, went on writing poetry and smuggled them out; her mother helped her smuggle them out. She went on to become a famous poet and politician: which resulted in her being allowed out of the house.

I just thought it was a wonderful metaphor as well as an amazing story. Here was a woman who had been brought up in a culture where all that was just routine - it has happened to all the girls for generations. She kept standing up to the adults saying 'no, I am not going to go along with this' and never gave up.

It seems like she was a modern Nelson Mandela: he was a political prisoner in a prison; she was just an ordinary girl who was kept inside by her family and was rebelling against tradition. I think that tradition is just as strong a jail as political systems.

I just thought 'how wonderful that she got out and she is brave enough to go out and tell the story. I want to make a film with her.' And that is how it happened really.

- That has slightly touched on my next question. I wondered how you first got in contact with her? And how open was she about having you come and make a documentary about her work and her life?

I emailed her: I got her email address from her publisher. She emailed back almost straight away, and said 'when are you coming'. That was really amazing (laughs). She has since told me that she Googled me to see if she if she could trust me or not. She was very anxious about it.

We have written a little book together about the experience of making the film, and she says in the book, 'I was really worried about these foreigners coming. Would they be prepared to share a bed? What would they make of our food?'

She had all of these fears about foreigners coming to her village. I can see that it was a really big and brave step for her. However, she is a woman who takes risks: that is what she has always done.

- The village in which Salma lives does play a big part in the film. I was wondering how you were received in the village - particularly by the other women who knew you were here to tell this story?

It is interesting, as the village in the film is like a metaphor really. They all use it as a metaphor and they say 'the village wouldn't allow it'.

There is a woman whose daughter burnt herself to death because she hates the religious school she was in. The only school she could go to was a school outside the village, and because she had reached puberty the mother said 'the village wouldn't allow it'.

The village is like a government in people's minds. The village is what people accept. When Salma says 'why can't I go to school? Why can't I go out?' The mother says 'it is your fate, it is written on your forehead'. It is something that everyone takes for granted and just accepts. Therefore, I knew that the village was going to be really central to the film.

At first, Salma didn't want to go back with us, but then she took the risk. At first, no one wanted to be in the film: her mother in law said 'you can't film me'. If ever we were in the room and I had the camera on my lap or shoulder, she would go in the other room.

However, right at the end she did come forward and say 'I want to tell you about Salma.' It was a slow journey of people starting to trust us and want to be in the film. There is a school friend that sneaks out in the middle of the night, in a burka, and comes to talk to us: she would only talk in the kitchen and with her burka on. She said that she admired Salma, and that she had told her sons about her.

I suppose, she decides to be in the film because she loved Salma so much and Salma meant so much to her. Salma's mum wanted to be in the film, because she is so proud of her daughter.

I think she is also quite proud in the role that she had in Salma reaching freedom: it was the mother who had made her stay in who had smuggled the poems out.

I think her mother feels quite proud that she was part of Salma becoming the only woman in the village to become famous.

- What kind of movie were you hoping to make when you first set out? And how did the movie change when you met her and started to hear her story?

The movie I imagined making when I applied for the money from Channel 4, was that it would be... I knew that we were going to have to tell the backstory, but I was scared of telling the backstory.

Hamish Mykura was my commissioning editor and I said, 'Hamish I am really scared of this, how am I going to tell the backstory?' There aren't any commissioning editors like him, and he just said 'come on Kim, you are just going to have to do the best you can'. He trusted me: I don't think that are many like him.

I thought that Salma would be doing things, like going out, and rescuing girls: when I applied for the funding, she was still a politician However, it took a while for the money to go through all of the hoops it has to go through, and by the time, we were ready to go she had lost her job.

Therefore, I knew that it was going to have to be a very different film compared to the films that I normally make. In a way, that was exciting and terrifying. I had to work really closely with the editor to make her story immediate.

When he did the first scene like that, Salma was talking about her dad, saying 'all of my childhood all I remember is shouting and anger'. We have her saying that while she is cooking in the kitchen with her mum and it all looking completely normal. So we are showing secrets, lies, and layers. We were lucky that we were so honest.

We also feature one of her poems in the film, and she says things that I don't think any English woman would have in a poem: if they did, they wouldn't read it to camera and be prepared to publish it in a society where it is so dangerous to publish anything.

She says, 'I had to have sex with my husband, in return for contraception and a little love. Knowing all of that, my vagina opened.' She repeats it, looking right at me, and I just think it is such an amazing and strong piece of poetry.

I have never read poetry like that and saying that to an audience. That is why the poem so scandalised her whole community: when they found it was her, her whole life was at risk.

- Salma is perhaps unlike any of the other movies that you have made - it is certainly more melancholy and is full of reminiscing. You have had to make the past present. So how did you find that challenge?

Yes. It was really really scary (laughs). I was absolutely terrified. I have never had a film with three poems in before. I just thought 'I really want to tell this story.

If she has been brave enough to smuggle her poems out with a bottle of acid over the bed, I have got to brave a complete mess and a failure.' That was such a small risk to run, compared to what she has braved.

She is like a Nelson Mandela, who got out of prison: she has got out to tell the tale. There are millions of girls who are kept in the house; the least we can do is tell the story of them.

I related to her a lot as I went to a very strict boarding school. I know that none of us ever fought back. There were seventy of us, and only about fifteen staff, and we could have said 'we are not going to put up with this. We are not going to have these horrible punishments. We want better food' but we didn't. We just tried to have the most pleasant life as we could by being as meek as we could and staying out of trouble.

People like Salma are so rare, that they are really worth celebrating. She is one of those people who keep standing up to the society that they are in, and say 'no, this is crazy, I am not going to put up with this'.

There are traditions and weird things in all cultures. In Ireland, there was an Indian woman who they let die because they didn't dare give her an abortion - even though they knew she would die - because they were frightened of religion.

Many people I know say 'I am a Catholic and I have to keep on having children': many people are trapped in religious traditions and all sorts of traditions. It's not just in India.

- At the top of the interview, you have been nominated for a One World Media Award, you must be thrilled?

I know. I see it really as Salma being nominated, it really is her award. I would love it if she would win it: I know that she would also be thrilled. I think that it is hard for her to go on struggling.

I think that she does get very very down - you do see that in the film. We all have our days when we can hardly get up, but because she is a pioneer and has stood up against everyone, she does feel very alone.

Every time that the film is shown or someone writes to her and says 'you are an inspiration’, it gives her a little bit of extra strength.

- Overall, how have you been finding the response to the film so far? And what are you hoping people will take away from it?

The response has been amazing: particularly the response to her. I get a nice applause at the end, but when Salma is there people cheer and come running up to hug her. She really does get a wonderful response.

We have just been in Glasgow together, and lot of women came up to her and started telling her their stories. I just hope that people relate to the film in their own lives and it means something in their own lives.

- Throughout your career you have very much been drawn to stories of women who rise up again oppression, so what draws you to these stories?

I think it is because I have always been someone... I never fought back against my family or at boarding school. I was always in trouble, but I was always trying to stay out of it.

When I hear about people who do challenge things, I really want to celebrate them. I never had the courage to do it myself, and the only way that I know how to do it, is through making films.

I would do it if I could write really good books. It is the way I have learnt how to celebrate these people. I feel really lucky that I can meet them.

- Finally, what's next for you?

I am just finishing off a film that we made in Chicago, about this amazing woman called Brenda Myers-Powell. She was a prostitute for twenty-five years, and now tries to help other prostitutes.

Even though she now lives a respectable life, she never stops telling everyone about her past. She is fearless and she is proud of the journey that she has been on.

I know many former prostitutes wouldn't tell anyone, build a new life, and just keep it secret.

Kim Longinotto has been nominated at the One World Media Awards, which takes place on 6 May 2014. Visit for tickets and info

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