Aunt hill: Kim Longinotto, director of "Rough Aunties," above, receives a mini-retrospective via the Women Make Movies festival at the Roxie.

Kim Longinotto and Women Make Movies Film Festival

Adam Hartzell August 27, 2009

At a panel during this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, film critics were asked to offer a note of hope on a film landscape often characterized as lacking—and B. Ruby Rich responded with enthusiastic praise for a filmmaker she called "unheralded" and "incredibly sensitive," Kim Longinotto. "When more and more documentaries seem to follow either individual pathologies or people who are already famous," Rich said, "it’s really important to see [Longinotto] model looking very deeply into a culture—and extraordinary women in that culture—in a way that’s actually riveting."

Though not a household name, Longinotto has certainly been getting attention: Her films played at the Pacific Film Archive in 2006; she won the Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize for Rough Aunties this past year; and, beginning this Friday, is under the spotlight at the Women Make Movies Film Festival taking place at the Roxie Theater, which runs through September 3.

(Editor’s note: For more on the panel, courtesy Michael Guillen, please see The Evening Class and The Auteurs.)

The mini-retrospective includes her most recent film, Rough Aunties, which looks at the work of a diverse group of women who seek to care and provide justice for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa. Two other Longinotto works are screening as well: Sisters in Law, about Cameroonian state prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president (similar to a judge) Beatrice Ntuba, and the equally judicially oriented Divorce Iranian Style. Ngassa and Ntuba maintain dignity and serve justice in a system that often obstructs both. Longinotto’s signature is optimism in context: While hopeful, the filmmaker won’t allow the audience to forget the long road Cameroonian jurisprudence still needs to travel as we witness Ngassa and Ntuba advocate for their charges. With Divorce Iranian Style, Longinotto documents women trying to make their cases for divorce within a society perhaps less open to the option. One powerful moment in Divorce Iranian Style is provided by a confident young girl who decides to hold her own court hearings, featuring her declarations about her country’s future. Another scene shows the judge praying, and underscores the judge’s struggles to reconcile the literal law with the unique predicaments of the people before the court.

Longinotto doesn’t work in the parachute-journalist mode; she often sticks around and devotes another documentary or more to a region. Another Iranian documentary is Runaway and she’s done a number of Japanese docs: Dream Girls, Eat the Kimono, Gaea Girls, A Good Wife of Tokyo, and Shinjuku Boys. (Sadly, these films are not showing at the festival.) She may also be unique in crediting her translator friends as co-directors; she believes they are as involved in the filmmaking process as she is. (Sisters in Law is co-directed by Florence Ayisi, and Divorce Iranian Style by Ziba Mir-Hosseini.)

The Women Make Movies festival also gives Bay Area audiences a chance to revisit Grace Lee’s wonderful documentary The Grace Lee Project, which premiered at the SF International Asian American Film Festival in 2005, played at the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, and had a brief release in theaters. The Grace Lee Project explores the many faces behind the ubiquitous Asian American name—from a straight-A student to an activist for social justice to a preacher’s wife to an arsonist—who, interestingly enough, provides one of the local angles of the film. Also returning (having played at Stanford University as part of the 11th United Nations Association Film Festival last year) is a Min Sook Lee project, Tiger Spirit, which personalizes the politics that still divide North and South Korea.

As an organization established "to address the under and misrepresentation of women in the media industry," it makes sense that Women Make Movies would include a documentary on the women who shoot movies in its catalogue. Alexis Krasilovsky’s documentary Shooting Women is truly a world tour (Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.) of women DPs, including local cinematographer Emiko Omori and Jo Carson. (Carson will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening on Tuesday, September 1, at 7 p.m.) Some women downplay anything "special" about their efforts, whereas others detail how they negotiated the discriminatory obstacles they had to face (and still face) in order to gain respect in the industry.

Moving from female DPs to female MCs: Nirit Peled’s documentary Say My Name brings many of the best female rappers in the U.S. and Britain to our attention, from elders Monie Love and MC Lyte to the young women of British Grime. And the presence of all these talented female MCs in one documentary definitely does its job of reframing the possible while touching on quite a few sides of the many gendered debates in hip-hop in a tight 73 minutes.

Pilar Prassas’ documentary In Sickness and Health also reframes the possible. Through the relationship of Marilyn Maneely and Diane Marini, we are reminded of the necessity of change to contemporary marriage law. With the telling and retelling of the human effects these dehumanizing laws have, we will hopefully get closer to putting this civil rights issue into the pages of our history books, where future generations can shake their heads at us while nodding those same heads at the institutions (like Women Make Movies) who are helping to make our world more just.

Appearing in person at the festival: Fri., Aug. 28, 7 p.m., director Gemma Cubero, She is the Matador; Sat., Aug. 29, 7 p.m., director Ann Hershey, Tillie Olson—A Heart in Action; Sun., Aug. 30, 4 p.m., documentary subject Heather Tehrani, Arusi Persian Wedding; Mon. Aug. 31, 8:30 p.m., guest speaker Prof. Joon Oluchi Lee ; Tues., September 1, 7 p.m., documentary subject Jo Carsen, Shooting Women. More at Women Make Movies and the Roxie.

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