Tamil Poet and Activist Salma
Tamil Poet and Activist Salma

By Paul Risker.

We need to celebrate the documentary Salma (2013) as a story of survival. Imprisoned by her family, the famous Tamil poet and activist Salma was forced to marry and denied education. Told largely through the written word, the film depicts her use of poetry writing for survival while locked up from age 13 to 38. The film suggests the capacity to forgive and seek peace and justice in the face of harsh censorship and unjust imprisonment. Salma’s story also speaks of the attachment to tradition that often robs us of our dignity, morality, and basic humanity. As the sum of all these elements, the film celebrates the value of the written word that serves both the individual, but also acts as a means to challenge tradition and evolve national and international culture.

British documentarian Kim Longinotto and writer Oliver Huddleston – who first worked together on Runaway (2001) as director and editor, respectively – shed light onto a story that could just have easily been lost in the shadows. It is a testament to the purpose of the cinematic art form to not only create worlds, but capture stories ingrained into the past and present, which can offer a window onto foreign cultures and the human struggles individuals have endured. Fittingly, after appearing at Sundance 2013, the film was shortlisted for the Documentary Award is at the 26th Annual One World Media Awards.

Film International’s Paul Risker engaged in an immersive conversation with director-producer Kim Longinotto, which traces her love for storytelling back to childhood, the uneasy relationship between adults and children, shades of Nelson Mandela, discovering the power and fear of the written word, before discussing her tumultuous relationship with her craft and her thoughts on the One World Media Festival.

Paul Risker: Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Kim Longinotto: It was more of a default in the beginning. When I was kid I had this dream that I wanted to write novels. Growing up I had spent a lot of time on my own reading, and so naturally I had this thought that I wanted to be a writer.

When I finally went to university I realised I was not a writer, nor was I going to be able to write. But I still wanted to tell stories, and film seemed the way for me to do so. I was inspired to tell stories from a very young age, and so film ended up being the means rather than there being that one moment where I thought I wanted to make films. I was certainly not one of those kids who throughout their childhood wanted to make films, and certainly back then I never thought I would get the opportunity to do so.

PR: Can you recall your first memories of discovering stories?

KL: I can tell you what it was because it rescued me. It was The Famous Five [laughs]. I say it rescued me because what I loved about those books was that the adults do not really figure in them at all. It is probably the same with Harry Potter. I didn’t like adults, and I didn’t like my family. What I loved about The Famous Five, and the reason it was such a wonderful world to live in was that you could just be with the other kids without any adults being around – you would have these adventures without having to go home.

PR: I still remember the hardback copy of The Secret Seven my mother handed down to me, which was my introduction to Enid Blyton.

KL: Oh did she? I loved The Secret Seven, but they are not meant to be politically correct now, are they?

PR: They were great stories that fed into a young person’s imagination – adventures that were absent from the everyday childhood.

KL: It was exactly the same for me. I was living in a tower block flat, and I was either there or I was in a horrible school in the country. So I never really went out. But there they were having these proper adventures, where they were doing all these wonderful outdoor things such as sailing boats, climbing cliffs and all sorts.

PR: Your observation regarding adults is interesting because Salma is fundamentally a victim of her elders. The documentary opens itself up to a discourse on the emphasis of this relationship, and whilst children observe and learn 02from adults, they equally challenge their elders to evolve society and culture.

KL: That’s absolutely right, and I think Salma’s story follows on from this because you can see how the family puts things to the children as if they are completely normal. The family is saying that when you reach puberty you will then be taken away from the world for the rest of your life. This will be the end of your freedom. Whilst they are saying that this is normal, there is Salma, who even as a young girl was the only one of her generation to say it is completely mad, and I’m not going to go along with it. She tells them that she’s not going to do this, and she fights. She tries to starve and she even tries to kill herself. She does everything she can to escape, but in the end she is forced to go along with it.

But the reason she goes along with it is not because they break her through fear, but rather they break her through pity and worry for her mother. Often how adults get to kids is by making them feel sorry for them, or guilty and ashamed. Often and in a funny sort of way they appeal to our better selves. It was her mom who said, “You’re killing me”, to which Salma said, “I better get married.” But it was all a lie. The irrationality of adult traditions tends to be very destructive, but they appeal to our good instincts in order to compel us to go along with it, and this is something I find interesting.

PR: In contrast to adults, children are more honest towards themselves, and are naturally more inquisitive. If they don’t understand something they will search for an answer, whereas adults unlike children habitually attach themselves to an understanding regardless of whether it is rational. Children will continue to ask why, and religion is a good example of this distinction.

KL: I absolutely agree with you, and that’s when she asks her mum, “Why can’t I go out?” She explains to her, “It’s your destiny; it’s written on your forehead.” Her mum tells her, “Allah has written it on our forehead.” She uses religion as a way of excusing it when in fact it is not religion but the old tradition of the village, and they are using religion to turn it into something that you cannot question.

Kids of course do question, and in a way that’s what is so subversive about them. Adults have tended to give up; have taken it all in and believed it, whereas kids keep asking questions. But you can see how difficult it was for Salma to keep on asking. You are kept away from everyone else outside of the family. Your life is over and you have just got to put up with it. I am sure I like most people would have thought okay this is my life now, everyone else has put up with it, and I should put up with it too. What’s extraordinary about Salma is that she didn’t put up with it, but went on fighting right to the end. She never gave up.

PR: Salma’s story is intertwined with the importance of the written word which has been a significant part of human culture, and which Salma used to expand her mind and challenge the tradition of her culture.

KL: One of the strongest aspects of her story is that it shows the power of writing, and also how people are frightened of it. They did everything they could to stop her writing, and that is something that is exciting for writers. A lot of the writers I know will sometimes ask, “What’s the point? What’s happening to my writing? Is it getting anywhere?” Then when you realise how forcefully people will try to stop others from writing, is when you realise how dangerous it is.

For me personally Salma calls to mind the story of how Nelson Mandela wrote his book in prison, and how they did everything they could to stop him from writing. He wrote his book on little tiny pieces of toilet paper, which they would then bury in the prison vegetable garden. Whenever a prisoner was released they would take small fragments of it out with them, and over the time that he was in jail the book was gradually smuggled out. I think it is both human ingenuity and the power of writing – two wonderful things that come together in Salma’s and also Nelson Mandela’s story.

PR: Before starting work on this project you obviously had an appreciation for the written word. How has Salma effected your appreciation and outlook on the importance of the written word for human culture?

KL: As a threat to her Salma’s husband placed a bottle of acid over the bed in an attempt to stop her from writing. So she would sleep in fear 03every night with the kids over her in order to protect her, because she knew he wouldn’t do it to his sons. When you come across such extraordinarily strong censorship and consider the fact that she just kept on writing, it is both the courage of writers to keep on writing, but also the fear that society has for the writer that I found exhilarating. You never saw women reading in the village, and whilst they had to send them to school, they were still attempting to stop them from reading. That is an amazing image of the power of writing.

PR: Salma’s story is one about the pursuit of freedom, and a significant proportion of the world’s population continue to live without the basic freedoms. Living in the UK or US, we take basic freedoms for granted. Discovering Salma’s story you realise that this is one of human civilisations great confrontations and battle that is still raging.

KL: I think you are absolutely right, and I love the fact that you call it a battle that is still ongoing, because on the whole it is women that are just kept within the family. They are not in jail; they are neither political prisoners nor prisoners of conscience. They are just individual women who one by one get put into houses, and then often don’t ever go out again. So it’s not like an obvious incarceration. It’s a traditional way of life, and what is extraordinary about Salma is that she got out. She has been able to come out and tell everyone about it. Those women in the countless countries across the world that are kept inside do not have a spokesperson. So few of them get out, and that is why Salma’s school friend who comes to visit her in the middle of the night in the kitchen says, “I tell my sons about you. You are an inspiration to me, but my husband says I must not meet you.”

They know how dangerous Salma is as an example and her school friend whilst too frightened to take her burka off because she can’t be recognised is still brave enough to come and meet her. What’s so exciting about Salma’s story is here is somebody who’s prepared to come out, to appear in the film and to tell her story. This is extraordinary because those women don’t have anyone to speak up for them. They don’t have mass demonstrations saying, “Free Mandela.” There were no demonstrations saying, “Free Salma”, because nobody knew she was there. If they had known she was there then they would have just said that it was a cultural thing.

I believe there are parallels in our culture. Girls are still being sent abroad to get married, and they are now trying to stop that – the forced marriages, not the arranged marriages. There is still female genital mutilation (FGM) taking place in the UK as well as little girls being sent abroad. Whilst there is a law against it, as of yet nobody has been prosecuted. So there are all these human rights abuses as well as violence against women in families. I believe somebody told me that one in four women in Europe are regularly beaten or killed at home by their partners. But there are also other things happening in our country that link up with Salma’s story.

PR: Looking back to my own childhood, naturally amongst young people there is always a competitive element of the boys versus the girls, which I personally never understood. I say that but rather I saw it as something that was unnecessary, especially when it came to and still comes to sport. It was always as if there was this concern or even fear that if the boys were to admit that the girls were their absolute equals, then their position at the top of the social food chain would be surrendered.

KL: I’m really glad you mention this because in Salma’s world for example, all of these traditions and ruthless codes of conduct that are in place for women traps the men just as much as they trap the women. So Salma’s husband is just as trapped as she is, but at least he can go out. However, he’s trapped in the way that he has to behave. You can see that when he says, “I was always angry”, and then asks, “Why was I always angry?” You would imagine that if you had all the freedoms and all of the power you would be happy and relaxed. But no he has always been angry. He’s been violent and Salma’s father was the same – always shouting angrily around the house. So you can see that when one side of the equation, in this case when the women are put down and denied things, the men are forced into a role as well.

I have lots of male Indian friends who are coming up to the age when they are meant to get married. But they will say, “I don’t want to be the head of the family; I don’t want to be that character; I’m not comfortable with it.” Just like you’re saying they are realising that it limits them just as much as it limits the women.

PR: The documentary gives Salma an added voice to the one she’s already developed through the written word, and 04hopefully it will draw our attention to this wind of change, because art can support these women who are trying to create this change, and help it to evolve at a faster pace.

KL: I love the fact that you call it a wind. I remember there was a song that Jerry Dammer wrote Free Nelson Mandela. He saw it as a wind and it’s a great song – “Winds of change sweeping across the African continent”, and at the end he sang “Free Nelson Mandela.” [Laughs] He saw that as a wind, and it’s a great metaphor you just used.

It is also good because it is very hard to stop a wind. It’s like writing – you can’t really ban it because it tends to come out either in little plastic bags in peoples gardens or in the dirty laundry as Salma’s did. You can always find a way of smuggling the writing out, and that’s why the wind is a lovely metaphor for it, because you can’t stop wind. You can’t plug all the holes, and it’s always going to sneak out somewhere.

PR: You have remarked, “I really hate making films Every time I finish a film I think, God, I’m not doing this again, it’s too stressful. But then, now I’m thinking, God, I’ve got to go and make another one.” Did you have the same reaction after completing Salma?

KL: I’ve just finished a new film but I always have that same feeling. I think that’s it. I’m not making a film again; it’s so nice to be home. Then after about a week I start thinking. Either that or a story will come along. I’m sure your writing is a bit like that where you get an idea you think would be good to write about? I usually feel like that when I’m in the middle of a film, and it’s difficult. But then as soon as I finish it I start forgetting just how difficult it was.

PR: In speaking with documentarians, one of the interesting subjects is the relationship between documentary and narrative filmmaking. Whilst the two are perceived to be worlds apart, both are essentially narratives. You have remarked, “I like it when a documentary has the same constraints as fiction, when it doesn’t have to give you a lesson or teach you what to think and it is just an emotional experience.”

KL: I personally don’t like watching documentaries where I feel I am being taught something. I believe it is so narrow, and it means that the person is unequivocal about things. Life is so interesting and contradictory which you can clearly see in Salma’s story. There are no bad people. The woman that says you can’t go out; the woman who tricks her into marriage is the woman that smuggles her poems out. She still loves her mother even though her mother gave her away to a seven year old girl to look after when she was a baby. She still loves her mother and she still wants her mother in her life. Her mother could only behave like that because she is not in touch with her own emotions. When she asks her mum, “Why did you give me away as a baby?” Her mother says, “I didn’t really care – I was too young to care” in this very offhand way. Of course her mother cared, but she pretended to herself that she didn’t care, because she had to do so in order to live in that society. She had to convince herself that that was the only way to live, and all of those contradictions and layers are so interesting.

To watch a film where the person has decided what they think at the beginning, and wants you to take away a particular point of view I find both difficult and frustrating. That’s why I am quite often drawn to fiction, and I don’t know if you saw A Separation (2011), which is an Iranian film about a divorce? I love that film because you keep seeing a different person’s point of view. One minute you are completely with the daughter. The next minute you are with the husband, and the next minute you think the wife is right. You keep seeing different layers of it, and I absolutely love that whole idea or approach.

KL: If there was a villain in Salma’s story then it would probably be the father or the husband. But we came to realise that he was just as trapped as she was, and just as bewildered at times. He was just as angry and as hurt but in a different way. Once you begin to understand people, and once you get into their experience it is very hard to judge them exclusively harshly. Often films can take you into other people’s experience, out of your own, and link their experience with your own.

PR: Bringing the discussion back around to Nelson Mandela, in Salma there is the idea that you have to forgive and live with a sense of peace in order to create change. The film is a proponent of the ideology that you cannot create a positive change through violence and vengeance; only peace.

KL: I think that was what was inspiring about both Salma and Mandela, that neither of them wants or wanted vengeance. I went to Robben Island, and the guard that takes you around is an ex-inmate. He points out the kennels where the dogs were kept, and the kennels were better conditions than the prisoners’ cells. Even going through all of that, when Nelson Mandela came out of prison he was more interested in a just society than in getting revenge. I consider that to be what is so hopeful about both he and Salma. Salma’s whole emphasis is on changing a mind-set, changing tradition, and questioning any kind of revenge over her family.

PR: What do you hope people will take away from the experience of Salma?

KL: Everyone will take something different away. Some people may recognise things in Salma’s family from their own. This was something 05that I recognised. They will be inspired and encouraged by her with the belief that they can also be strong. Maybe men will see the film from those kinds of places, and question a little bit. I know her nephew when he watched the film – he’s the one that is very didactic in the film and tells her, “You’ve got to wear the burka.” He watched the film and he was really upset by it. He went to a film festival with Salma and spoke about how proud he is of her. So it did manage to change him. I think he saw the madness of what he was saying, which is encouraging. Everyone will see the film differently, but what I hope is that it will relate to people’s experience, and that it will mean something to them. I know when we showed it in America a lot of girls came up to Salma afterwards and said, “You’ve inspired me to stay in college, and I realise how lucky I am to be at college.” So that was nice.

PR: It’s rewarding to hear a film can connect with someone on such a personal level. It is a powerful image of the power of cinema.

KL: That’s the hope anyway. But whether it does or not I don’t know.

PR: You are nominated for a Documentary Award at the 26th Annual One World Media Awards. What are your thoughts on the One World Media Festival?

KL: It’s good to have a festival like this, because they promote films that challenge tradition. One of the greatest things that films can do is to question tradition, and I don’t know if you saw The Lives of Others (2006)?

PR: I have indeed, and it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking.

KL: Oh we’ve seen all the same films. Well, I loved that film because it shows somebody from one culture spying on another culture. But in doing so he questions his whole way of thinking and his whole life. It’s obviously a metaphor, and I don’t think it would have changed many Stasis, but that’s the hope that you look through a little window and it sheds light on your own life, and it changes how you feel about your own life. At the end when he reads the book, it changes his life because he sees the book as being for him. We are coming back to writing again, but that is why the film is my favourite film because it was about how relating to other people and seeing other people’s lives in a very interesting way can change you.

The One World Media Awards took place on Tuesday the 4th of May, 2014. The winners were announced by patron Jon Snow on Tuesday 6 May: http://oneworldmedia.org.uk/winners.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering MythStarburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

5 thoughts on “Writing Freedom: An Interview with Kim Longinotto on Salma

  1. We thank you for doing it, Kim! It’s a pleasure to read about your perspective on making the film.

  2. Thanks for your kind words Kim, and as Matt says for sharing your perspective on the making of the film with us. It was a pleasure to have had the opportunity to speak with you about ideas that are of such importance to human culture.

  3. After reading this terrific interview, I am really looking forward to seeing Salma. Longinotto’s films are consistently strong, yet complex in their embrace of ambiguity. I am fascinated here with her take on families and children and people’s different “truths” within the family. I agree that documentaries that don’t allow us to form our own opinion are generally unsuccessful. As they say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Nothing wrong with an agenda, but I appreciate filmmakers like Longinotto who neither insults our intellect nor emotionally manipulates us to get across her points.

  4. Excellent interview! Admittedly, I’d heard very little about Salma elsewhere, and though very much intrigued by the story, there was some reluctance to see it. I don’t watch as many documentaries as I once did because I grew tired of the one-sidedness of so many of them, and as already said, expected not to form our own opinion. However, I’m relieved to read that this one is the exact opposite of that, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this.

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