Kim Longinotto makes documentaries, and has been since 1976. I hate to use such a cliche as “hard-hitting”, but they hit hard. I’ll try to avoid turning this post into a review, as there are countless other reviews out there already. The point of this post is to show how just how useful documentary techniques can be to anyone who hopes for a future in video journalism.
While the heads that haven’t already rolled in the newspaper industry struggle to stay above water, Kim’s films are being shown in theatres and winning awards. Many journalism courses place a great deal of focus on video journalism, and one or two of Kim’s films would provide something of a masterclass.
One of the distinguishing stylistic traits of Kim’s work is the absence of narration. In most of her work there is no voiceover, and even captions are used only when absolutely necessary. You have to work out what’s going on because no one is telling you; this makes the viewer feel more engaged. As she says herself: “People who don’t like my films, don’t like them because they’re not told what to think”.
Watch these two clips from her 2009 film Rough Aunties. If you’ve never heard of the film, then be aware that they can be difficult to watch. But they are especially difficult to watch for the reasons given above- you are undistracted and engaged, you are there with the people you are about to see. Also be aware that this is what makes the film so very powerful, and for anyone who ever complains about lack of resources, this opening scene was done in with one camera in one room and with one short explanatory caption which doesn’t appear until four hard minutes have passed.
In this next clip, you will see how silence can be used so effectively. Very few words are said for the first 30 seconds. From the first moment you know something terrible has happened, but it is not until the one-minute mark that you find out what has happened, and the story unfolds from there. Again, no voiceover and no captions.
Yes, in a news report this would be impossible as you only have a couple of minutes to present all the facts, but emotion is as important as information: a good news report will both teach you something and make you feel something. Voiceover and interview provide the information, but the moment that no one is talking to the viewer, that’s when emotions start to flow. Michael Buerk’s famous 1984 report on the famine in Ethiopia is exemplary. The viewer is actually educated by newsreader Julia Somerville before Michael’s piece begins. She tells the viewer where the famine is taking place and the causes of it and the number of people suffering as a result. All of the facts and figures are delivered within 43 seconds. The next seven minutes of footage includes just one short interview, Michael only describes what he is seeing, and he is silent as much as he speaks. This is a key factor in creating reports like this- sometimes knowing what to say means knowing when to say nothing.
Another thing to notice is that Buerke’s face is not seen once, he is not seen or heard during the interview, it is all voiceover. Somehow, the sight of a news reporter adds a dose of unreality to a piece. It offers the viewer a break from their painful viewing. Most reporters want nothing more than to have their face on television, but the reason this report is so powerful is that it gives no respite; for the full seven minutes you are watching nothing but the suffering of people, many of them children.
How hard it must be to stand behind a camera and silently watch crowds of people starving and suffering looking for opportunities to get close-ups of the faces of children, covered in flies. Does this mean that you have to be cold and ruthless to be successful in this field of journalism?
When filming The Day I Will Never Forget, a documentary examining the practice of female genital mutilation in Kenya, Kim Longinotto had to watch as a young girl had a razor blade taken to her body. It may seem callous that she could do this, but the doctor who was trying to stop the practice told her that her presence would mean that the procedure would be less severe.
Kim told journalist Lou Bolch: “When we were actually filming and the little girl was holding my leg… I felt full of pain and full of sadness and I just wanted to save her.” (link below)
The fact is that there are things that should be brought to the attention of the world, and shocking pictures of famine, cruelty and natural disaster are often the only way to make large numbers of people pay attention or take action. Kim Longinotto, Michael Beurke and others show that sometimes you need to take a utilitarian view and understand that your role of simply reporting can be far more effective than trying to intervene.
Longinotto’s films have done a great deal to raise awareness of issues such as female circumcision, education of troubled children, Iranian divorce procedure, child abuse and more. Buerk’s report sparked international outrage and a massive relief effort that set the blueprint for aid and fundraising ever since.
So in this age of a troubled news industry, could the methods employed by Kim Longinotto and other documentary makers represent a way forward? We have seen that one of the most famous and effective television news reports in history used the techniques discussed, adjusted for the audience due to time constraints, of course.
I think it is quite possible that, as the internet continues to take bigger slices of the journalism pie, some reporters will shift away from making two-minute pieces for the news and start making feature-length pieces for cinema and television. Long-running issues such as natural disasters, wars and industrial action lend themselves to the creation of such films, and as television reporters are having to expand their skill-set to accommodate reducing staff numbers (a reporter will often be carrying out the roles of camera operator, sound technician and editor as well), they are better suited to this kind of film-making than ever before.
I urge everyone to watch this excellent interview with Lou Bolch for insight into Kim Longinotto’s work and clips from several of her films.