Kim Longinotto is one of the most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. Her documentaries chart the lives of women who find themselves in extraordinary and often painful circumstances. Her protagonists are warriors in a world gone wild and here she talks about the making of one of her most successful films, Sisters in Law, which explored the judicial system in a small town in Cameroon and the women who called the shots.
I had just made a film in Kenya called The Day I Will Never Forget. It’s an issue film about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and the woman who’s the guiding force in it is called Fardhosa Mohamed. She’s a Somali woman living in Kenya and she rescued me because the film was almost impossible to make. The reason why I needed her so much was that there were so many different languages in Kenya. Meeting Fardhosa was amazing and I thought there must be women like her all over Africa and I had to find them. We don’t see these stories.
There was a scene that really affected me. When we were filming The Day I Will Never Forget, we were filming outside the court where these girls had won their case (the girls had taken out an injunction against their families which prevented them from being subjected to FGM). The case was adjourned on that day but the magistrate treated the girls with such disdain. He didn’t bother to turn up and these girls had walked for hours with bare feet to attend court. They were still living with the family members that they were taking to court so it was an incredibly brave thing to do. Our lawyer told us that the magistrate couldn’t be bothered to turn up that day. And so the girls had to come back to court two weeks later and there was a Kenyan film crew that had come to film the case. But when I asked them whether they were returning to film the result of the case they simply said, ‘Oh no, it’s not an important enough case. We’re not going to bother coming back.’ I was pleased we were there.
After that experience I wanted to do another film in Africa but I knew that it had to be in an English-speaking country. So I met Florence Ayisi, the co-director of Sisters in Law, at a film festival and she said, ‘I’m from English-speaking Cameroon. Let’s go there together and see if we can find a film.’ That’s how Sisters in Law started.
Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba (pictured above) were wonderful from the very beginning. They were these incredibly courageous, honest, warm, welcoming women. They’re everything they are in the film. They trusted us and took us into their lives. What Vera and Beatrice do so well, which we can learn from here in the UK, is that they enable people to feel like survivors and not victims. They trust them and they listen to them. So all day long you see people listening to Manka, a six-year-old child who had been physically abused, and treating her with great respect. What she says as a child is treated equally with what her aunt, who had abused her, says. Everybody listened to Manka. The police officers listened to her, Vera and Beatrice listened to her. Everybody listened to her. They deal with it so much better than we do here in the UK. The same with the rape case in the film. Vera and Beatrice made it possible for the young girl to stand up and speak out against her rapist. That child was standing in front of her rapist but because of Vera and Beatrice she was fearless. I think they did it brilliantly.
There’s something that I learned from Vera. We were at the police station and Lum Rose (Manka’s abusive aunt) was putting on an act for the family. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Manka!’ But it was a total act because she was scared the family would kill her for what she did to Manka. Lum Rose still didn’t really believe she was going to jail because it was unheard of in that community. Which is why Beatrice and Vera were completely going against tradition. I remember thinking right until the end, ‘I hope Lum Rose is having a horrible time in prison and learning what it’s like to be as powerless as Manka.’ And when we went with Vera to see Lum Rose in prison, her head was shaved and Vera said to her, ‘We don’t hate you. We just hate what you’ve done. I want to help you and I’ll get your prescription.’ Lum Rose sobbed from the heart and that’s when I realized that she was a victim just as much as Manka. Lum Rose was probably being brutalized in prison and I suddenly saw things the way Vera saw them. I was grateful to Vera for that because I had somehow lost my humanity along the way and she gave it back to me. It was a lesson I could never forget.
KIM LONGINOTTO is illustrated by JOHN R. GORDON.