POV: There’s a sense of intimacy to Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go. As the audience, we feel very close to the subjects and situations. How did you capture that?
Kim Longinotto: It was just me, with the camera, and Mary Milton, who does sound, and the two of us were there all the time. We’d be there when the kids woke up in the morning and we would just hang out with them. I had the camera with me at all times, but I didn’t film all the time. In fact, I didn’t film very much. And sometimes I got the sense that the teachers and kids forgot we were there, especially when something powerful was happening. It’s interesting to watch the film and see people going in and out of being aware of us, even in one scene. Also, because all the teachers and kids knew me, even when they were aware, they weren’t thinking of the camera — they were thinking of me. They forgot about the camera. In the film, there’s a scene where Alex looks directly at me and says, “Adults get things wrong.” He’s saying it to me, Kim, but the lovely thing is that he’s also saying it to the audience.
POV: How long did you film at the Mulberry Bush School?
Robert gets his stereo. Courtesy of Women Make Movies
Longinotto: About 12 or 13 weeks. And Mary and I were there continuously, all the time that the kids were there. I wanted to show the small, intimate moments when the kids had breakthroughs, like when Ben says to his teacher, “My mum’s bored of me. she doesn’t really want me.” The kind of moments when they open up. Or the moment when Robert gets a CD player for not peeing on the floor. I mean, the staff wasn’t going to ring me up and say, “Robert’s going to get a CD player because he stopped peeing on the floor.” You can’t get anyone to tell you that. You have to be there all the time to capture that moment. That moment was probably the first time in Robert’s life where somebody said to him, “You’ve done something really well. Here’s a prize.” And he was beside himself! So to get those scenes, I had to be there all the time.
POV: You’ve made many, many award-winning documentaries. What approach do you take to capturing your subjects in general?
Longinotto: I sometimes think that making a film is a little bit like falling in love. At the school, I just filmed the kids who liked me and those I liked. I was thinking, “Alex, I absolutely love you. I want to film you. I want to know who you are. I genuinely want to find out why you are here.” And so it wasn’t as if I were filming somebody I didn’t care about. I hope it comes through that we had a real connection with each of the kids we filmed. Otherwise, it would have been quite hard.
Some of the teachers were very anxious about being filmed and didn’t want to be filmed, but other teachers — Tim and Pete and Fiona — wanted to be filmed, so those were the ones I filmed. The actual filming was a good experience. I said to everybody that if there was a point where they wanted me to stop filming, they just had to say so. And they never did say to stop.
POV: How do you work with your editor?
Longinotto: I’m glad you asked me about that, because Ollie Huddleston, my editor, is one of my dearest friends. We’ve done quite a few films together, and I’ve learned a lot from him. In particular, I’ve learned a lot about filming. He used to say to me, “You should have held that shot longer. Why are you in a rush to go?” So I’ve learned to hold my shots. Ollie cuts by rhythm, and I think what he does is extraordinary. In a way, editing is the heartbeat, the rhythm of a film. The sound is the emotion; the image is the information; and the editing is a wonderful kind of rhythm, like music. Ollie and I watch the rushes together, and I trust him completely, and when he sees the rushes he’s seeing it as something that’s going to be on a screen, whereas I’m seeing it as what I experienced at the time. So he’s seeing it as an outsider, which is really good.
POV: Can you tell me a little bit about your process in general?
Longinotto: I usually film for about 10 to 13 weeks, and it’s incredibly intense. With Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, I was there every single day when they woke up and we were there all day long. I couldn’t have stayed longer – I was a complete physical and mental wreck by the end of it. And so was Mary, who did the sound. It’s so intense, and you’re so much a part of people’s lives.
When I was making the film Rough Aunties, one of the subjects, Mildred, would phone me at six every morning and asked me what I was doing. For the duration of filming I knew everything about her life and I was so close to her. I had to be that close to her, because I wanted the audience to feel that closer to her. I wanted to get into her soul, in a way. Now, Mildred and I still email a lot and talk on the phone, but I don’t think she would have wanted me to be as close to her for the last two or three years as I was during those 10 or 12 weeks of filming. And I know that I couldn’t do that for two years. So my approach is just to make films in a very intense, short burst — though actually, three months isn’t that short and it seems quite long to me — and hope that things will happen when I’m there.
If I were filming for two years, I couldn’t be there every single day, and then I’d miss things. What the subjects think is important is not necessarily what I think is important, and what I want is those little intimate moments that maybe the subjects aren’t even aware are happening. I want to be there, and I want them sometimes to forget I’m there, but I also want them to be pleased that I’m there.