Some elegant eyebrows were raised when celebrated documentary film maker Kim Longinotto was invited to launch the Whicker’s World Foundation on June 7th. Michael Parkinson or Michael Palin were surely more obvious hosts, but Kim is the perfect choice, as researcher Curtis Gallant explains.
At first, one may regard Kim Longinotto and Alan Whicker as two very contrasting documentary makers. Their styles could hardly be more different – Whicker was always at the heart of his work, guiding his viewers and listeners in his own inimitable style. Wherever he was and whoever he met, his charismatic presence is unmistakable in all of his documentaries. Kim Longinotto, by contrast, prefers the technique of observational cinema and chooses not to appear in her films. She records situations as they unfold, whilst being as unobtrusive as possible. Longinotto explains that, although she has great respect for other documentary styles, “I don’t want you to be thinking about me, or the camera or the filming when you watch my films. I want you to feel that you’re there, standing where I am and going through the emotional experience.”
Nonetheless, these two British documentary film makers have both dedicated their lives to telling intriguing stories about people from around the world. Whicker and Longinotto’s documentaries are compelling human portraits which often focus on remarkable people and taboo topics. For both documentarians, it is the lives of the people whom they encounter which are the focus of their films. Although they may be making documentaries about broader social and political issues, Whicker and Longinotto approach these topics from the perspective of the people who are experiencing them. They both refrain from articulating partisan viewpoints – they simply allow the subjects of their documentaries to express their views and it is left for the audience draw their own conclusions.
There is significant crossover in terms of the topics which these filmmakers explore – for example, LGBT issues are of great interest to both Longinotto and Whicker. Longinotto’s 1995 film Shinjuku Boys explores the lives of three transgender men working in a club in Tokyo, where their status challenges the conservatism of Japanese society. It won the Outstanding Documentary Award at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Many of Longinotto’s tweets draw attention to the struggle for gay and transgender rights around the world. In comparison, Whicker was hugely ahead of his time when it came to drawing attention to gay issues. In 1973 the first gay kiss was aired on British television in his Whicker’s World documentary on the emerging world of Gay Lib. When Whicker revisited the gay pastor who he’d previously interviewed, the pastor spoke of the huge impact of the documentary – for the first time homosexuality had been reported in a matter-of-fact manner. Whicker, in his nonpartisan, level-headed style, did not pass judgement on the morality of homosexuality as previous journalists had. In 1980, Alan returned to the subject when he documented the first recruitment of openly gay police officers in San Francisco.
In almost all of her films, Longinotto draws attention to the oppressed, saying “I’m interested in underdogs”. Her films focus on groups of people who have been subjugated by society such as victims of female genital mutilation in Kenya (The Day I Will Never Forget, 2002), abandoned children in South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and, most recently, former sex-workers in Chicago (Dreamcatcher, 2015). It is appropriate then, that alongside Dreamcatcher, Alan Whicker’s Conflict in Kentucky is being aired at Sheffield Doc/Fest – for it in this documentary that Whicker most unambiguously addresses injustice by interviewing the oppressed. Like Dreamcatcher (which is being screened at Doc/Fest on the 8th and 10th of June), Conflict in Kentucky examines the downtrodden in American society, and how African-Americans are often disproportionately disadvantaged. However, in both of these films, the oppressed people do not simply accept their lot, but rather stand up to the systems which have overlooked them and left them in such dire situations. Whicker’s other works dealing with oppression (such as his interviews with the dictators Papa Doc and Don Alfredo Stroessner) do challenge injustice, but approach the subject from the perspective of the oppressor rather than the oppressed.
Throughout her career, Longinotto’s films have often focussed on women – both those who have suffered and those who have stood up to repression and discrimination. Her 2013 film Salma centres on an extraordinary woman who has both experienced and challenged oppression. The eponymous Salma was locked up her by her South Indian family for 25 years, but found salvation in writing poetry. She managed to get her writings to a publisher and became one of the most famous poets of the Tamil language and an activist for women’s rights. Longinotto has given such women a chance to be heard throughout the world and, although he did not focus on the subject to the same extent, Whicker has also highlighted the struggle for gender equality in some of his documentaries. As is the case with Longinotto’s films, he lets his interviewees express their views on the subject, whilst allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions. When Baroness Thyssen pointed out to him that Swiss women in the 1960s still did not have the vote, Whicker’s subsequent silence speaks volumes about Switzerland’s inequality, before the subject promptly turns to speed boats and verbal metaphors about power and ownership. In his two 1980 documentaries on the San Francisco police force, one programme is devoted to gay officers, whilst the other highlights the female officers who are determined to challenge the status quo. They express their view that being feminine and arresting criminals at gunpoint are not mutually exclusive. Whether it was famous actresses or groups of nuns, Whicker regularly used his documentaries to give women a platform to communicate their views on issues of gender equality.
Divorce is another subject which has captivated both of these documentary makers. One of Longinotto’s most celebrated documentaries is the 1998 Silver Hugo award-winning film Divorce Iranian Style. In chronicling the legal battle of three Iranian couples, Longinotto highlights the stark contrast between the treatment of men and women in court. From the very start of proceedings this dichotomy is made clear – when the men enter court they are searched for weapons, whereas the women are examined to ensure that they are dressed according to Islamic standards. The film explores the huge discrepancies in Iranian divorce law – it is much more difficult for women to obtain a divorce and, if they do, they will be ostracised by society and likely lose their money and custody of their children. Whicker often discussed divorce with his interviewees and also made a Whicker’s World documentary in 1967 which exposed the extremely archaic divorce laws which Britain had at the time. In describing the difficulty of obtaining a divorce, Whicker, like Longinotto, makes the viewer question the laws of the society.
Both filmmakers are humble about their work: Longinotto shot her latest film Dreamcatcher, but didn’t list herself as cinematographer because she was “trying to keep the credits really short.” Similarly, Whicker does not appear in the end credits of Conflict in Kentucky. Therefore, despite their stark differences in style, Whicker and Longinotto often address similar issues in their work and lead their audiences to similar conclusions. But above all, it is the lifelong passion for their work which connects these two documentarians. On documentary making, Longinotto says: “I knew it was the most important thing in my life. It became what I was doing, who I was; everything. What’s brilliant about making films is that you don’t have to be an interesting person. It’s the people you film who are interesting, and you can celebrate them.”
Alan Whicker wanted to establish Whicker’s World Foundation in order to fund and recognise people who are as passionate about making documentaries as Kim Longinotto. There could hardly be a more appropriate person to present Conflict in Kentucky and the launch of our foundation on June 7th at Sheffield Doc/Fest.