There is a persistent belief that documentaries are less interesting than narrative films. Documentaries seldom get wide release, and they are primarily shown on public broadcasting or other channels known for their educational focus or narrow scope. And that’s a shame, because the documentary is one of the best tools for really understanding others’ lives. A well-made documentary can be funny, moving, heartwarming, or anything else a narrative film can be. What’s more, they can be a relatively easy entry into filmmaking, because they’re the easiest kind of film to make if you can’t afford a cast and crew.
Kim Longinotto is not one of the best known documentarians, but she uses her camera to focus on the lives of those who are dealing with some form of oppression. Be it young trans men in Tokyo, women in Iran seeking divorces, or women working in the judicial system of Cameroon, the subjects of her films are people in unusual situations dealing with issues that may not be familiar to her films’ viewers. Often, as with victims of female genital mutilation, people whose voices need to be heard to change things are brought to the fore in Longinotto’s films.
In part, Longinotto is driven by her own oppressive upbringing. It’s a particularly Privileged British kind of oppression, inasmuch as it involves a boarding school, but still. She spent an entire term with all her schoolmates forbidden to talk to her because she’d gotten lost on a school trip. This is genuinely shocking. Arguably, this is criminal by UN standards. Longinotto also spent time homeless as a young adult. That her life is considerably better than the lives of many of the people she films are is indisputable. That her life has also had hardship is also indisputable, and she seems to have come out of that hardship determined to show other hardships.
Longinotto’s films are not flashy. They are not planned in advance. There’s not a lot of lighting set up and there’s not a lot of makeup. (Unless the subjects of the documentary like wearing makeup, of course.) The camera simply watches, allowing us to watch. In Sisters in Law, we watch Cameroonian divorce proceedings, women caring for children, families working through problems. The judges and lawyers do not know what the result will be; they can only hope to bring about the best outcome in the cases. Many of the women involved have been abused by their husbands and are being pressured by their families to pretend it didn’t happen; it’s clear this something the courts see a lot of.
The films do not necessarily make easy watching. Watching a young child declare the details of her rape while her rapist sits near her is extremely painful. Knowing, though, that there is a system that will punish her rapist is at least something. It’s harder when you can see the legal system stacked against people, and that, too, is in Longinotto’s films. It is a view into a sometimes brutal world, and it’s only right that it should by sympathetic to those made to suffer by it.