Gape at the Documentaries of Kim Longinotto


A 16-year-old girl stands before an Iranian judge, pleading for a divorce from her 38-year-old husband. The judge and the husband swat away her arguments: She’s too young to be married! “A girl can reach puberty at nine, and then she can be married,” declaims the judge. Her future has been ruined — she must go back to school! “Mine too,” the husband says. “My reputation has been damaged!”

The husband will not consent to a divorce. Iranian law says that he must if one is to be granted, except in cases where the husband is proven insane, unfaithful, or abusive, and, often, not even then. So, the young woman does what she must. She files a complaint accusing him of causing her “bruises and bodily harm,” and tells the judge that witnesses will attest he once tried to set her on fire. The husband sputters that these are all lies, and then, right in front of the judge, the wife tells her husband, “I’ll withdraw my complaint: Just say you agree to divorce me by mutual consent.”

She gets what she wants. Things become stranger still when august male relatives of both are brought in to serve as arbiters over the specifics of the separation. Much ado is made about the cash wedding gift the man was contracted to provide. Her arbiters lament the fact that she can never be a virgin again, so she had better get that money now.

The documentaries of Kim Longinotto place viewers in impossibly tense and personal situations, steeping us in worlds that, as we watch, we can’t believe she secured access to. It’s heartening, then, that the women whose stories she tells are possessed of ferocious will and, just as vitally, a savvy adaptability. The vérité marvel Divorce Iranian Style (1998, co-directed with Ziba Mir-Hosseini) is much less depressing than it sounds, as again and again we relish women outfoxing a system meant to trap them.

Divorce Iranian Style joins two other Longinotto revelations — 1995’s Shinjuku Boys and 2000’s Gaea Girls, both co-directed with Jano Williams — at Spectacle. All three warrant the highest of recommendations. Shinjuku Boys digs into the lives of three Tokyo onnabes, transgender men; all three work at an onnabe hostess club and speak with startling candor about all aspects of their lives. The film is bittersweet, of course, although the friendship (and romance) between the principles is wonderfully moving.

That’s not the case in the harrowing Gaea Girls, which also explores a gender-role–defying Japanese subculture: women’s professional wrestling. Here, the fly-on-the-wall approach captures the brutal training of hopeful grapplers. This variety of wrestling is wicked fast and full of direct kicks and poundings, and the training seems stupidly, elaborately cruel. One scene of a woman practicing an off-the-ropes flying kick is unforgettable. She soars again and again at the chest of her hectoring trainer, who, disgusted, shouts, “You’re taking the piss!” and then launches herself at the trainee with a cannon-like two-footed kick to the face. The camera, unlike us, doesn’t blink.