On Dream Girls, The Day I Will Never Forget, Divorce Iranian Style, Shinjuku Boys, Gaea Girls, and Runaway
The combination of reality TV and George W. Bush’s ascendancy (one wants to add “to the throne”) appears to have had an unexpected side effect – priming larger audiences for documentary films. Or perhaps the pesky zeitgeist, the mass hunger for what at least looks like truth in an increasingly duplicitous culture, is responsible for both. In either case, viewers have recently responded to documentaries in ever-larger numbers, with Michael Moore-style exposés of the government-corporate-military axis of evil leading the pack. The expected revivals of classic nonfiction works by the Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Koppel, et al. – not to mention pre- and post-war pioneers like Joris Ivens, Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North – haven’t materialized, but there may be other beneficiaries.
One such, British documentarian Kim Longinotto, seems ideally positioned for closer scrutiny and wider recognition. Longinotto is unique among contemporary toilers in the genre of “true cinema,” having built up a substantial body of work comprised of definitive readings of their subjects. No filmmaker has gotten closer to those “subjects” in both senses, whether the Iranian teenage girls who flee abusive families in Runaway (2001), the cross-dressing Japanese women who train for stylized theatricals in Dream Girls (1994), or the players on all sides of the dreaded genital mutilation drama in Kenyan villages, as seen in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002).
Longinotto has managed to penetrate some of the most secretive subcultures in the world, helped in some cases by collaborators like Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist with whom she collaborated on Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001). Divorce Iranian Style details the interplay of warring husbands and wives inside an Islamic family court, a space previously unseen, and surely unimaginable, in the West. Shinjuku Boys (1995) explores a hidden world of female-to-male transsexuals and transvestites who cater to lovelorn straight women at the “New Marilyn Club” in Tokyo. The Day I Will Never Forget goes deep inside the problem of clitoridectomies in African villages, including an operation on a screaming nine-year-old girl barely off-screen.
Longinotto’s “stars” are seemingly ordinary women or girls seen in extraordinary circumstances – or vice versa. The teens in Runaway (right) and the pre-teens in The Day I Will Never Forget are in crisis with families and the cultural norms they rigidly try to enforce. In the former case it’s an array of problems, from a girl whose brother beats her to another whose stepfather tried to rape her, at which point her mother tried to set her on fire. In the latter case it’s a more focused struggle – young girls who rebel against the patriarchal tradition of female circumcision, a harrowing event that’s often followed by the girl (as young as eight or nine) being given in marriage to a much older man. But these are complex relationships; in Runaway, the girls are conflicted between the need for freedom from a stifling culture and their desire to be with their family. For some the latter is so strong they plead to be returned to abusive parents. Others are gently exposed for exaggerating their claims. Still others forge ahead, letting the social workers at the refuge find them jobs and residences apart from family.
These films – Runaway, Divorce Iranian Style, and The Day I Will Never Forget – which I’ll simplistically call the “village films” to distinguish them from the three Japanese “urban films” – share with the more exotic entries – Shinjuku Boys, Gaea Girls (2000), and Dream Girls, all set in Japan – the theme of women breaking out of circumscribed roles. The “girls” in the three Japan-based films are living not in the shadow of theocratic village culture like the ones in Runaway, Divorce Iranian Style, or The Day I Will Never Forget, but in sophisticated urban centers. The “Shinjuku boys” of the title are professional nightclub hosts, butch women disguised as men who represent a variety of gender inclinations. Of the three profiled, one lives with a male-to-female transsexual, one lives with a straight girl, and one dates middle-aged straight women. The “Gaea girls” are also outlaws in a sense, pursuing careers as professional wrestlers in the brutal Japanese version of that sport. Dream Girls explores another unusual niche of Japanese culture, the Takarazuka school, which trains young women to perform, for exclusively female audiences, in cross-dressing theatrical spectacles.
Longinotto’s camera is as close to objective as such material permits. The humdrum details of lives in crisis – the often relentless back-and-forth between those trying to maintain control and those who resist it – accumulate to give a palpable sense of what these subjects lives are like. Longinotto and her collaborators use minimal voiceovers, letting events speak for themselves. Rarely do they comment on, or challenge, what’s happening, even in the most extreme emotional circumstances. The story tells itself through those who are living it. (A brief exception is in Divorce Iranian Style, in which a voice questions the female court secretary, whose views reinforce the casually oppressive style of the male judge, about whether women “deserve happiness.”) This neutral stance – the camera appears to be pretty much forgotten early in these films – gives viewers an unusually intimate glimpse of these worlds.
This sense of openness and intimacy is one of Longinotto’s major strengths. Her subjects, even the youngest, speak with startling candor. The Day I Will Never Forget features an extraordinary encounter between nine-year-old Fouiza and the mother who permitted her circumcision. The film’s title is from a poem the girl wrote documenting the trauma. She starkly confronts her mother: “My loving parent, is this what I really deserved?” This small, slight, articulate girl is implacable: “If you want me to forgive you,” she says, “don’t circumcise my little sister!” Despite her size and seeming lack of power, Fouiza responds with measured argument to every emotional excuse (“tradition,” “respect”) the mother offers. In another of the film’s harrowing scenes, a group of young girls is hectored by older women who pretend there “no force” involved in agreeing to the operation, while they are in fact making it impossible to say no, hovering menacingly over the girls and singing songs with such lyrics as “You’ll be left with your filthy clitoris! . . . It looks so clean when it’s not there … ” The off-screen operation is a particularly grueling sequence, punctuated by the girl’s horrific screams: “She’s cutting me! She’s cutting me!”
Longinotto’s village films aren’t simply a record of the failures of a culture to protect and nurture individual girls and women. They also highlight the successes that have occurred through the work of activists and the women themselves. For all the contested spaces here, there are balancing safety zones. The village mentality that attempts, in The Day I Will Never Forget, to force girls to have clitoridectomies is challenged by schools set up for runaway girls who refuse to submit, buttressed by courts that have intervened to enforce juvenile rights. The Islamic rule that permits, or encourages, men to oppress their female relations in a variety of ways is countered by the social service agency in Runaway, staffed by female social workers who take in the girls and negotiate their return or withdrawal from their families. Here too the power of law goes some length in enforcing better treatment. Even in Divorce Iranian Style, the autocratic domestic court judge shows flashes of humanity in dealing with the complexities of divorce in a religion-based culture that discourages it. This film shows women with surprising power that seems to come almost entirely from themselves, as they loudly excoriate a husband who refuses to divorce them or takes their children or rejects their attempts to claim a dowry legally theirs. “This man has made my life hell!” one woman declares in what could be the mantra of a film that contests conventional wisdom portraying Middle Eastern women as entirely powerless.
The urban films appear different at first glance, in that the women’s rebellion takes them directly into the kind of deviant spaces the village girls try to avoid. There’s no need for a “safe space” in the same sense, a refuge from an oppressive culture, as these urban women appear to be educated and middle-class and in control of what they’re doing. Yet they’re also recognizable as part of the same continuum; the oppressions here are simply more subtle. In Dream Girls, young women seek out the regimented existence the school teaches them (“strength and endurance!” is the motto), presumably in order to appear in the theatrical drag performances that can make them stars. (Only 40 girls are chosen out of thousands of entrants each year.) In the backdrop of the school’s curious mix of strict discipline (they meticulously scrub down the school every day) and fetishized cross-dressing theater is a Japan bereft of romance. The main reason the straight female audiences in the film say they love the theatricals and the women (dressed as men) who perform them is the emotional remoteness of the real men in their lives. These fans are visceral in their adoration: “I felt a surge of excitement,” says one; “From head to toe I felt an electric shock,” says another. Two of these fans meet in secret to discuss their obsession far from husbands and family, but other scenes in the film show mobs of women running through the streets in pursuit of a star like Anju; they’re almost hysterical at the prospect of encountering this woman who embodies the ideal Japanese “man.” But in the film’s complex schema, the graduates of the school get more than an artistic career that plays with and challenges gender roles; they also get training in self-repression. One graduate remarks, “So when your husband or mother-in-law is horrid, you know how to nod quietly and hide your feelings.”
If the village films show women trying to have the same rights as men, the urban films go further in showing women actually appropriating traditionally male spaces. In Gaea Girls, it’s the wrestling ring, with young women undergoing grueling training for a chance at stardom in the sport. In Shinjuku Boys, it’s the nightclub, with the female hostesses taking on male guises – all wear suits, with slicked-back hair – to offer the same “gift” as the cross-dressers in Dream Girls – a chance to be close to a more romantic, engaged version of a man. But, as in Dream Girls, the “boys” of Shinjuku are not simply the admired “gender outlaws” well known in Western culture. As they appropriate male privilege, they can take on some of its more dubious aspects. Gaish, for example, mistreats the women who obsess over him, laughing as they beg for attention, using them for their money and getting off on their fixation with him. In a dead-ringer for conventional male excuse-making, Gaish says, “Because I’m so mean to you, it makes you pull yourself together.”
One of the major appeal of the films is in Longinotto’s ability to get intense real-life “performances” from her subjects. The gallery is as memorable as in any fiction film: the spirited girls of Runaway; Fardhosa (right, with Fouiza and Longinotto), the self-possessed nurse inThe Day I Will Never Forget; the little girl in Divorce Iranian Style who mockingly appropriates the judge’s bench and declares, “I won’t marry ever, now that I know what husbands are like”; Shinjuku Boys‘ trio of butches; the otherworldly faux-men of Dream Girls; the desperate wrestlers of Gaea Girls. In an interview in ArtMatters (February 2003), Longinotto said, “I like making films about strong women, and particularly women who are brave outsiders. We see them too rarely on our screens and yet, wherever I go, I meet them. I want the audience to feel close to the people in my films, to identify with them in some way, to think, ‘That could be my sister, my daughter.'”