INTERVIEW: With "Gaea Girls," Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams Hit the Mat
by Philippa Bourke
(indieWIRE/ 04.25.01) — British filmmaker Kim Longinotto took with her no script, mannered informant, or crystal ball when she hit the ground running in the concrete fields of suburban Japan. The story of a wrestling boot camp for young women otherwise raised to make kimono-wrapped debuts would surely tell itself. Yet it was on the set of “Gaea Girls” — screening in competition at next week’s DoubleTake Documentary Film Fest — Longinotto and Jano Williams‘ latest fly-on-the-screen door pass into Japanese subculture that this filmmaker’s tried and true approach (“Hidden Faces,” “Eat the Kimono,” “The Good Wife of Tokyo,” “Divorce Iranian Style“) got its toughest workout to date. Nothing could have prepared the three-woman crew for what it took to realize their unseen narrative.
In her militarist trainer’s eyes, Takaeuchi, a trainee wrestler trying to break onto the star-strewn professional circuit, lacks the requisite stamina and jungle instinct. Her tiny frame becomes increasingly blood-doused — and mortal — as she braves yet one more dressing down and flesh slamming in the unpoliced ring. The result is a series of shots that build mercilessly to shrieking pitch: in filming them, Williams had to leave, while Longinotto held tighter to the camera through tears, and their unflappable sound recordist later asked, “Should they have been there at all?”
Pretty much mandatory on set, too, is the crew’s silence. Apart from teatime, speaking English breaks into the reality of those observed, according to Longinotto whose most recent work is a documentary that filmed in Iran last winter. Rather than capture it, the aim is to become part of that reality — to be imperceptible. But again, “Gaea” put things to the test. At one point that Longinotto recalls with awe, Takaeuchi, who allowed countless hairsbreadth close-ups, broke down in tears. She had failed her first debut test and Longinotto had approached her to apologize for filming in a moment of humiliation. Instead she apologized to them. When asked repeatedly what she was sorry for, she finally told the silent observers, “I’ve let you down.”
Longinotto spoke to indieWIRE from her London home about objectivity, storytelling, and feminism.
indieWIRE: How did you, a Londoner, start making films about sex clubs and cross-dressers and rock stars in Tokyo?
Kim Longinotto: I’d made all my films in the British Isles before; I’d made some in Ireland, most of them had been in England and they were all in English. One was about a Catholic kind of ghetto in Northern Ireland called “Cross and Passion.” I made one about my boarding school. It was a critique of my boarding school. I got it closed down actually. And then I read this article in “The Guardian” about this woman called Hanayagi Genshu, who’s the woman in “Eat the Kimono” [with Claire Hunt, 1989], and it said she’d stabbed the head of her theater school as a protest against the hierarchy system in Japan, and she’d been in prison and she’d taught herself to read and write. And I thought, I’ve never heard of women like this in Japan. I just thought, I’d love to go and see what this woman’s like; I’d love to go and make a film about her. So it was an obsession about one particular woman.
iW: So “Gaea Girls” was far more gritty and more daring than anything you did before, even “Divorce Iranian Style.” Would you agree?
Longinotto: I would agree absolutely. It was like we were part of something. We were filming something that was happening and we didn’t know what was going to happen. And we were inspired. We were horrified. We were shocked. We had all these different emotions when we were filming it. And we didn’t know how it was all going to turn out.
iW: Were you kind of galvanized by doing the divorce film, that you wanted to take on this bigger challenge?
Longinotto: I think we thought the Takarazuka Revue women [“Dream Girls,” with Jano Williams, 1993] would be strong because they appeared that way on stage. And then when you get to know them, you realize that most of them want to get married. You know, they have all these preconceptions about what men and women are. And what we loved about the idea of doing women wrestlers was women who were actually doing something for themselves. Who were living apart from men, who weren’t really interested in getting married or going through this traditional system. Who actually really wanted to be stars in their own right. And really tough. And athletes. So that was the attraction. It was, Oh here at last, we’re going to find some really strong women. And they are.
iW: What were the particular challenges of filming the unrefereed fights, the blood, and this emotionality?
Longinotto: To be absolutely honest, I don’t think we had any idea of how painful it would be. We thought — because wrestling is sports entertainment and because the fights are these amazing public spectacles, which are choreographed, and so full of kind of showbiz — we thought there might be a few exercises. But we had no idea how rigorous the training would be. And we had no idea that the training would be for real. And the chronology of the film is actually the chronology of what it was like when we were there.
iW: So how did you deal with that?
Longinotto: We’d go home. We talked a lot about courage and violence. You know, we’d say, “Well, of course, they do need to experience these things, because otherwise they’re not going to be able to perform well in the ring.”
iW: Did you reach a point where you could not continue?
Longinotto: In the final debut test, Jano ran off. She just had to leave; she went out of the gym and Mary and I filmed it together. Because in a funny way, being behind the camera does kind of inure you a little bit, because you’re worrying about focus and framing and you’ve got something to do. But I was crying all the time that we were filming. I remember when we went home afterwards saying to Mary, “Is there any time that we would’ve stepped in. What would we have done?”
iW: You became so close to your subjects when you’re making it and that’s how you get this great natural footage and material, but it must be a bit of a double bind because you know, it probably does affect your perspective and I know you must have had criticism that you’re not objective enough?
Longinotto: Always. Yes. We really got that with “Divorce Iranian Style.” After screening the film, men say, “Why didn’t you put the men’s point of view?” My answer to that is, there’s loads of documentaries that you watch with no women in it. Nobody ever says, why are there no women in it? I suppose particularly somewhere like Iran, all women have is their passion and their voices. So we’re proud they say we’re on the side of the women because we are really. And we don’t want to be objective. We try and film things as they happen but our emotion is definitely on the side of the women.
iW: You seem to adopt an ethnographer’s approach. You don’t want to have any filters, you’re just trying to get the whole thing and you’re mixing verite with story building?
Longinotto: Yes. Yes. I think the thing with stories is really important to me. Because what I want to get away from is this sense of a documentary being something that’s hard work, that’s good for you. That somehow, you watch it because you’re being informed. And we all love stories and that’s why I think, if you have a story that you can get involved in, hopefully what’s happening is that the audience isn’t being told that these people are obviously in a different culture to us, but is finding they have the same emotions as us. A way of getting close to people is through following their stories and getting involved in their stories, and getting emotionally involved in their stories.
But also there’s this kind of panic when you get there. You know, “Maybe nothing’s going to happen.” Because you have to be very alert and aware but you also just have to be quite passive in a way. To allow yourself to be taken in and taken over by these stories — and to know which are the ones to go for.
iW: Do you think of yourself as any kind of advocate, you know, when you’re talking about power, institutions? And, I’m sure you’ve been asked, is feminism part of what you’re doing, too, with “Gaea” and the divorce film?
Longinotto: It’s to give a voice really, isn’t it? I suppose it’s very unpopular, it’s a kind of unmodern word, isn’t it? Feminist? But I suppose if it means that we want women to have an equal part of things, to have an equal respect, an equal power, then yes, you know, I suppose I am a feminist. Yeah, there’s no way around it.
iW: Also, the way you have women-only crew and get involved on an emotional level. Men get involved of course, but possibly it might be something you can do more readily as a woman, do you think?
Longinotto: There’s something very nice in this last one with Ziba and Mary, it worked really, really well. There was something very nice about how nobody was trying to blot anyone out. The three of us were just there. You know it was so nice. I’m sure men are like that. I haven’t worked with men. But for me, it’s just very nice to be with women. You can just be totally yourself. You can totally relax. And you know each other really well. And it just takes off another added pressure.