I sat down with documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto to talk about her remarkable new film, Salma.
Kim explains to me that she first became aware of Salma at the Delhi Film Festival, where she was attending a panel discussion about the state of the Indian nation, hosted by male and female activists. Amongst the prevailing gloom, with many of those present of the belief that little was changing on the subcontinent, the story of Salma was first mentioned as a shining beacon of light amongst the darkness of social conservatism.
Kim’s attention was briskly grabbed. Here was a lady who, due to her failure to conform with the ways of her village, had been locked in a small room for 25 years at the will of her husband and family. Despite this cruelty, she had now managed to establish herself as a famous poet as well as a political figure, and at this point was holding a position on the board of her village.
For Kim – an inquisitive documentary filmmaker with a passion for stories that focus on women – the wick had been set alight. She inquired about contacting Salma, and was given her personal email address by the original speaker. At this moment in our discussion, I raise the first of what is to be many points about the truly remarkable nature of Salma’s journey. Having been confined to a single room for such a long period of time, she was now instantly contactable via the immediate nature of the internet, a substantial contrast. Later on in our talk Kim tells me about Salma’s Facebook page, where she regularly posts pictures of herself at various film festivals around the world.
After Salma replied to Kim’s email, they began to establish a dialogue that culminated in the filmmaker travelling to India to immortalise the story celluloid. The film itself is inquisitive but not demanding, it explores the current state of specific factions of Indian culture where women are marginalised, but never attempts to point fingers at individuals. Many who watch the film will take note of the husband character, the perpetrator of Salma’s imprisonment, and if there is a villain of the piece it is he. However, even he is allowed some form of redemption by the conclusion – this is not a film about playing the blame game, it’s about more important, wider problems. The fact that by the end of the film we begin to warm to the husband’s shifting mind-set says it all; people can change, even when their beliefs are ingrained into them by a wider culture.
Kim’s film is not just an advert for social change, it is also an advert for the power of cinema to be a part of that change. Here is a film born of a film festival that has subsequently travelled to a multitude of film festivals, along its way educating a plethora of cinemagoers both avid and casual. Even if Salma touches the beliefs of a handful of individuals, it will have had a positive impact.
It seems a shame then, that Kim feels her position as a documentary filmmaker is threatened. She has struggled to secure funding for her next project due to a host of changes in commissioning personnel at Channel 4, historically a supporter of important documentaries. The current thought process is to shy away from international films and to exclusively support British filmmakers making inwardly-facing British films.
While there’s plenty to be said for getting behind British films, turning our backs on international subjects is going to stifle development. It’s a counter-productive ethos that will only serve to decrease the global presence of the British film industry. If we are going to achieve David Cameron’s desired increase in the size and scope of British film production, then we need to support our filmmakers going abroad to locate interesting stories, not stifle them.
While documentary filmmakers may increasingly find themselves searching away from institutions to secure funding, it’s essential that people like Kim receive the backing they need to produce films such as Salma.
You can catch Salma at the Rich Mix Cinema on Thursday 26th September, more info here.