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British film-maker Kim Longinotto has made documentaries on female wrestlers stretching their bodies and wills to breaking point in Japan, housewives desperately trying to get divorced in Iran, and legal activists representing troubled women against obdurate men in Cameroon. By contrast, her latest work Salma, about the Tamil poet, is relatively uneventful.

Salma visits her village and chats with her family and friends. We settle on the couch with her husband and two sons, and sit across from her publisher. The documentary’s punch isn’t in what the characters do, but in what they say about Salma and her remarkable journey, from an under-educated housewife to a feminist poet and writer.

Born into an orthodox family in Thuvarankurichi village in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli district, Salma was pulled out of school when she attained puberty, as is the local practice, and kept indoors till she agreed to marry a man chosen by her family. Despite vocal and sometimes physical protests from her husband, Salma began recording her thoughts in notebooks hidden among her clothes. Her husband even threatened to throw acid on her face, she tells Longinotto with a smile. She saved herself by making one of her sons sleep next to her and nestling her face close to his.

Kim Longinotto
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Kim Longinotto

Salma’s voice is “not just the poetry of a victim or a flag-waving victor: It is the voice of a battle-scarred survivor with all the torment and fear and rage that goes with being human," says poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. “Salma is important for me because she’s an unsettling reminder that so many of our gender freedoms are recent, still highly contested, and still need to be constantly reclaimed,"

Salma is one of four female poets featured in SheWrite, by Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar. In Longinotto’s 83-minute documentary, which was shown at this year’s edition of the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, the poet’s story is told at a greater length, and is far more disturbing as a result. Longinotto says she was reminded of the South African leader Nelson Mandela when she first heard of Salma during a conversation with feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia in Delhi in 2011. She was in the Capital to show her films, including Pink Saris, about the Gulabi Gang and its founder Sampat Pal, at the Persistence Resistance documentary festival.

Longinotto thought of Mandela because Salma too endured a form of incarceration before she could speak her mind. “I was in the middle of reading Nelson Mandela’s memoir, in which he talks about smuggling out information on pieces of toilet paper," says Longinotto in a Skype interview from her home in London, “We were all campaigning for Mandela, but there were all these girls under a kind of house arrest and nobody was campaigning for them."

Longinotto became a film-maker in 1976—her first film, Pride of Place, was about her boarding school—and has earned a reputation for sensitive and insightful observational documentaries, many of them about contrarian women. Yet it took her seven months to fund a documentary about a poet that few people had heard of outside India.

Although Salma’s poems haven’t been widely translated, Zubaan Books published the English translation of her semi-autobiographical novel, The Hour Past Midnight, in 2009. By the time Longinotto landed up in Tamil Nadu to record Salma’s story, the poet was unemployed. Although her husband stridently opposed her poetry, he acknowledged her sudden fame and nominated her as a village council leader. Salma became a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) member and was appointed president of the State Social Welfare Board, but she lost her post after the DMK was voted out of power in 2011.

Longinotto spent 10 weeks in February 2012 in Chennai, where the poet lives, and her village, where her husband spends most of his time. Like so many of Longinotto’s films, including Gaea Girls and Divorce Iranian Style, Salma is many things at once: a memoir of what it means to be born into an ultra-conservative family and what it takes to fight your way out of it; a confessional about Salma’s innermost desires and fears; a meditation on the difficulties of sticking to her beliefs. The documentary is a testament to the role of delicate negotiation and necessary compromise in the lives of several Indian feminists.

Despite the troubles she endured, Salma remains close to her family, and is still married. “It’s sort of said between the lines—if she were to leave her husband, she would lose the people she loves," Longinotto observes. “I can’t understand how she can be so loving after all she has been through. She loves the people who were her jailers, if you will."

The film-maker compares Salma to the women featured in Rough Aunties, about a group that works with child sexual abuse victims in Durban in South Africa, and Sisters in Law, about a women’s court in Cameroon. “These women are larger than life but are also full of humility," Longinotto says. “All the characters have an immensely strong inner core and don’t feel that they’re better than other people."

The film-maker’s ability to blend into the background and unobtrusively record her subjects has paid off richly in her previous works. In Salma, she champions her heroine, whose progressive views on marriage and education are contrasted with the lack of educational opportunities and mobility faced by her neighbours, many of whom live in incongruously popsicle-coloured homes. “She is an extraordinary beacon of hope, I’ve never met anybody like her," Longinotto says. “The film is a celebration of a woman who speaks out." Yet the documentary isn’t a single-note paean to its subject’s courage. Salma’s husband, Malik, comes across as a complicated man rather than a monster.

Longinotto shoots her own documentaries and creates empathy for her subjects by letting them “have the space to wonder" and also creating “enough space within the film for contradictions". Rather than rolling as soon she lands up at her locations, Longinotto tends to wait. “We hardly filmed anything for the first two weeks," she says about her new film. “We waited till Salma got comfortable."

The film-maker overcame the language barrier—Salma answered questions in Tamil put to her by the translator, Samyukta P.C.—by sitting close to Samyukta and letting herself be guided by her instinct about the import of Salma’s statements. The approach “is more respectful of the audience, but also more dangerous—you don’t know what you’ll get," Longinotto observes.

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