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Why documentary makers look down on TV?

Interview with Kim Longinotto, winner of Grierson Trustee Award

Kim Longinotto tells me several times during our interview that she has “very low self-esteem”, adding that “not being a very confident person” may have helped her 30-year career in documentary filmmaking.

It’s not the usual chitchat you’d expect from someone set to join the likes of Sir David Attenborough, John Pilger and Norma Percy in becoming the recipient of a Grierson Trustee Award for documentary film tonight.

But then Longinotto has spent much of her career stuggling to get her work funded, let alone noticed.

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“If people think it’s attention-seeking, weird, misplaced, I don’t care.

Loads of people are abused as children, raped, why should we keep quiet?

That’s what we want, people who speak out, not victims who are not embarrassed, not pathetic.

That is what the media can do.”

Award-winning film maker Kim Longinotto

Even her most recent film, Dreamcatcher, about the world of prostitution and sexual abuse of underage girls in Chicago, proved a tough sell.

Her documentaries cost a modest £200,000 for 10 weeks of filming with minimal crew and swift editing, but when she asked the BBC for money to make Dreamcatcher she was turned down.

“I was honest, and said I will do my best. It was risky. Everything is so insecure, they [the BBC commissioners] need reassurance as much as I do.”

She eventually raised $175,000 from a commercial source and “paid them back almost immediately” when, after its premiere at the Sundance Festival in Utah, it was picked up by US cable network Showtime.

Now the BBC have bought it, for more than she originally asked for and it will have its UK debut in BBC4’s Storyville slot on 9 November.

Longinotto has made more than 20 films, usually featuring inspiring women and girls at their core.

She’s delved into female genital mutilation in Kenya (The Day I Will Never Forget), women standing up to rapists in India (Pink Saris), and the story of Salma, an Indian Muslim woman who smuggled poetry out to the world while locked up by her family for decades.

But unlike many modern documentary makers her presence is rarely felt on screen.

She uses handheld cameras to get up close to ordinary people – disarming them. “I want you to forget me, so there is nothing between you and them, so it looks like a fiction film,” she says. “Everywhere I go, I have never had a film which people didn’t want to be in.”

The approach is evident in Dreamcatcher, which explores its subject through the story of an ex-prostitute, Brenda Myers-Powell, who has rebuilt her life and set up a foundation to help escapees.

“It was the last thing I wanted to make, it’s going to be bleak, where is the hope, the rebelliousness in it?” Longinotto thought, when a producer proposed the idea.

“Then she showed me a clip of Brenda, it was love at first sight.” It has a heartbreaking scene where, one by one, a class of vulnerable teenagers tutored by Brenda talk about being sexually assaulted and raped.

One says she was 9 and unable to protect her four-year-old sister. “I was crying for pride in them. They were absolutely thrilled to have their stories told. I think with a lot of the TV programmes what we get is the negative side … they are taking from people … somehow we are robbing people of their stories. Whereas I feel the opposite.

Those girls had never been listened to. Never been heard. Or have been disbelieved, or told off for telling. Here at last was someone [saying] ‘I’m on your side. You can do it’.”

To get the young women and girls to open up, she had showed them another of her films, Sisters in Law, about two women in Cameroon who stand up to male abuse, and told them about her own experience of being gang-raped in her 20s while she was studying at the National Film & Television School in London.

“It is only in the last few years I’ve been able to say that in front of an audience,” Longinotto says.

“I don’t care, it happens to us all. If people think it’s attention-seeking, weird, misplaced, I don’t care. Loads of people are abused as children, raped, why should we keep quiet? That’s what we want, people who speak out, not victims who are not embarrassed, not pathetic. That is what the media can do.

“I put my camera down, I said [to the women in Dreamcatcher], ‘it’s all right, you have got to let it go, learn to let things go’. We are survivors.”

The assault followed on from a sad start in life, a posh boarding school that sent her to Coventry, a cold family who pretended they were direct descendants of painter Edwin Landseer (her father was an Italian photographer), and a period of sleeping rough.

She was in penury for seven years in the 1980s as she held out to make her sort of documentary, but her work has given her perspective on her own life. “You can’t watch Dreamcatcher and think you had it bad. I didn’t have a couple of kids at the age of 14.”

It was the arrival of Channel 4 that offered her a way into filmmaking via a workshop focused on making films in local communities.

This led to a breakthrough commission, Divorce Iranian Style.

She has never earned enough to buy a home, but says being able to buy “the best bike in the shop” means she is well-off, and “you don’t do this for the money” .

It does, though, take money to get her films made.

She is used to making one film a year but that has dropped now it takes longer to get funding. She has used the BBC’s consultation on its next royal charter to argue the corporation should do more to help get documentaries made.

There should be a fully-funded documentary strand on television,” she says.

“I said fund Storyville properly. They get bloody good films, but they should be able to originate them. Have a budget. And the BBC should not be warring with ITV. They should be more public service. Strictly should not be against X Factor.”

However, she isn’t snooty about popular TV.

“A lot of documentary makers tell me they don’t even have a TV, they look down on TV, only watch cinema films. Telly is my pleasure in life. I am addicted. I can’t imagine not living in England because of the telly. It is that bad.

“There are things that are wonderful, The Naked Choir, Gogglebox, The X Factor, these programmes really enrich our lives, the good ones feed into our culture and make our society more adventurous.” She credits Graham Norton, Grayson Perry and Eddie Izzard for making Britain “a more fun place to live”.

She now teaches at the National Film & Television School, “encouraging students to find how they want to do it, maybe film a little less. It is about very basic things, not art, things like how to create a scene.”

Longinotto says it is “wonderful” to be given the Grierson award, but her main priority is getting exposure for her work.

“It feels like it’s not an award for me, but all the people in the films, these films are worth looking at. And it means more people will watch them.”

Meanwhile she is waiting to hear whether the BBC will fund her next film, set in New York.

Asked whether she is likely to succeed, her self-effacement resurfaces: “Who knows, they could easily say no. I probably messed it up.”

‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’: Sweatshop factories producing £45 T-shirts

This repost is not meant to side with a British political party, but to refocus on the miseries of the sweatshop factories

A Mail on Sunday investigation revealed:

Feminist T-shirts proudly worn by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman are made in ‘sweatshop’ conditions by migrant women paid just 62p an hour.

The women machinists on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius sleep 16 to a room – and earn much less than the average wage on the island.

The £45 T-shirts carry the defiant slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. But one of the thousands of machinists declared: ‘We do not see ourselves as feminists. We see ourselves as trapped.’

The T-shirts are designed to make a political statement about women’s rights – but the female workers making them are paid just 62p an hour in an Indian Ocean ‘sweatshop’.

Between shifts women making garments emblazoned with the slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ sleep in spartan dormitories, 16 to a room.

Scroll down for video 

The workers paid just 62p an hour: Machinists at the CMT factory in Mauritius with one of the 'feminist' shirts it would take nearly two weeks' of their wages to buy

The workers paid just 62p an hour: Machinists at the CMT factory in Mauritius with one of the ‘feminist’ shirts it would take nearly two weeks’ of their wages to buy

And critics say the low wages and long hours at the Mauritian factories amount to exploitation.

The shirts have been worn by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman, all keen to display their feminist credentials – even though the Deputy Prime Minister last night admitted he had ‘no idea’ where the garments were made.

But The Mail on Sunday has toured a factory producing the T-shirts, where workers earn just 6,000 rupees a month – equivalent to £120.

The figure is just a quarter of the country’s average monthly wage, and around half of what a waiter earns.

Each ‘feminist’ T-shirt costs just £9 to make, but high street chain Whistles sells them for £45 each – a figure it would take the women a week and a half to earn.

The retailer promised an urgent investigation last night in the wake of the Mail on Sunday exposé.

At one factory visited by The Mail on Sunday, a female worker told us: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism when we do not see ourselves as feminists? We see ourselves as trapped.’

An official from factory owner Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT) told us he ‘would not be happy’ if the women left the work camp during the week in case they turned up for work ‘hungover’.

Whistles, whose customers include the Duchess of Cambridge, is selling the T-shirts in aid of women’s activism group The Fawcett Society – which receives all profits. The campaign is backed by fashion magazine Elle.

Reality: Migrant worker Primerose Marcelin, 37, at one of the T-shirt firm's factories on Indian Ocean island
Reality: Migrant worker Primerose Marcelin, 37, at one of the T-shirt firm’s factories on Indian Ocean island

Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman wore a shirt carrying the slogan on the front bench of the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions last week, while the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders proudly posed for photographs in Elle’s ‘feminism issue’ in the T-shirts.

Fayzal Ally Beegun, president of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union said: ‘The workers in this factory are treated very poorly and the fact that politicians in England are making a statement using these sweatshop T-shirts is appalling.

‘It would take a woman working in the factory nearly two weeks just to buy one shirt. What is feminist about that? These women have nothing in this world. They are paid a pittance and any money they do receive they send back home.

‘They work very long hours and have no lives other than their work. They are on four-year contracts that mean they don’t get to see their families in that time. What kind of existence is it when you are sharing your bedroom with 15 other women?

Ed Miliband (left) and Nick Clegg (right) posed in the 'This Is What A Feminist Looks Like' T-shirt

Slogan: Ed Miliband (left) and Nick Clegg (right) posed in the ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt

Posturing: Harriet Harman wearing the T-shirt during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of  Commons
Posturing: Harriet Harman wearing the T-shirt during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of  Commons

Harriet Harman wears ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt

‘The women have no careers or even the most basic of opportunities. This is not what feminism is supposed to be.’

Celebrities pictured wearing the feminist T-shirt in Elle magazine include Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinie Tempah, Eddie Izzard, Richard E Grant and Simon Pegg.

Yesterday a reporter and a photographer from The Mail on Sunday were given a guided tour of CMT’s factory in La Tour Koenig, north Mauritius.

As managing director Francois Woo showed us around the sleeping quarters he said:

‘All of our dormitories are identical. There are 16 beds in each room. They are based on university dormitories in China. They don’t need a lot of room because they only use them for sleep.’

He told us that the plant is one of six across the island where living conditions and wages are identical.

He could not say at which factory the Whistles T-shirts were made, but confirmed they made 300 at a cost of £9. ‘The machinists at our factories made the feminist T-shirt for Whistles’ he said, adding: ‘All the machinists earn 6,000 rupees.’

Mr Woo instructed workers to smile as our photographer took pictures of them on the shop floor.

The tour was delayed when we asked to view the women’s accommodation block. Staff made several phone calls and 30 minutes later we were allowed to view the bedrooms.

The 20ft square rooms are home to eight sets of bunk beds, each with a thin mattress and a pillow. Shelving on the far wall houses the workers’ meagre belongings.

Sleeping conditions: One of the dorms used by the women with thin mattresses and a few shelves for their meagre belongings 
Sleeping conditions: One of the dorms used by the women with thin mattresses and a few shelves for their meagre belongings

The women – who we could not talk to – work 45 hours a week basic and can earn more if they work overtime.

After the tour and without the company’s senior staff, we visited another of the company’s factories, in Curepipe.

Outside we spoke to one 30-year-old worker. She told us: ‘I have worked here for four years and I have not been able to see my son or husband in Bangladesh during all that time. We work very hard, sometimes 12 hour days, for not much money. I send all my money home and could not afford to fly back and see my family.

 I’ve not been able to see my son or husband in Bangladesh for four years, 30-year-old migrant worker

‘It is awful but we have no choice. In my country, the rupees I earn here are worth three times as much as they are in Mauritius.

‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism?

‘These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’

CMT has an annual turnover of £125 million. It produces 40 million T-shirts a year for clients including Topshop, Next and Urban Outfitters.

It employs 13,000 staff at its factories and about 4,500, all foreign, are housed on site. Migrants come from countries including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Vietnam.

There are around 2,800 female machinists. Workers are expected to produce around 50 shirts a day and face discipline if they do not reach their target.

Mr Woo said: ‘The Mauritian government has set out a minimum wage that we must pay and we abide by their rules.

‘I am like a parent to the workers. They are free to come and go as they please but if they go out on a weeknight I will not be happy because then they will turn up for work the next day hungover.

If people didn’t want to work for us then they don’t have to, nobody is forcing them. If they have the chance to earn more somewhere else then they should go elsewhere.

Control: Managing Director Francois Woo fears his immigrant staff would come in 'hungover' if they didn't sleep on site
Control: Managing Director Francois Woo fears his immigrant staff would come in ‘hungover’ if they didn’t sleep on site

‘If they didn’t like it, then we would not have existed as a company for 28 years.’

The factory was the focus of an exposé in 2007 when it was revealed that workers were being paid just £4 a day to make clothes for Sir Philip Green’s Kate Moss range at Topshop.

At the time, the factory employed agents who promised migrant workers good wages but when they moved to Mauritius they were told they would earn a pittance. The factory was also criticised for paying workers of different nationalities different wages.

Mr Woo added: ‘A lot has changed since then. The workers know exactly how much they will make when they start working here and people are paid the same, regardless of their race or sex.’ 

Last night Dr Eva Neitzert, deputy chief executive at the Fawcett Society said: ‘As a charity that campaigns on women’s rights in the labour market, we take ethical standards very seriously. We have been assured by Whistles that the “This is what a feminist T-shirt looks like” range has been produced to ethical standards.’

Dr Neitzert said they had originally been assured the garments would be produced ethically in the UK, and when they received samples in early October they noted they had in fact been made in Mauritius.

They were assured by Whistles that the factory was ‘a fully audited, socially and ethical compliant factory’ and decided to continue with the collaboration.

‘We have been very disappointed to hear the allegations that conditions in the Mauritius factory may not adhere to the ethical standards that we, as the Fawcett Society, would require of any product that bears our name,’ she said.

‘At this stage, we require evidence to back up the claims being made by a journalist at the Mail on Sunday. However, as a charity that campaigns on issues of women’s economic equality, we take these allegations extremely seriously and will do our utmost to investigate them.

‘If any concrete and verifiable evidence of mistreatment of the garment producers emerges, we will require Whistles to withdraw the range with immediate effect and donate part of the profits to an ethical trading campaigning body.

‘Whilst we wish to apologise to all those concerned who may have experienced adverse conditions, we remain confident that we took every practicable and reasonable step to ensure that the range would be ethically produced and await a fuller understanding of the circumstances under which the garments were produced.’

Factory: The factory was the focus of an exposé in 2007 when it was revealed that workers were being paid just £4 a day to make clothes for Sir Philip Green’s Kate Moss range at Topshop

Factory: The factory was the focus of an exposé in 2007 when it was revealed that workers were being paid just £4 a day to make clothes for Sir Philip Green’s Kate Moss range at Topshop

Whistles refused to say how many of the T-shirts had been made, or indeed where

The chain initially said they did not feel they had been given adequate time to respond to our questions about the T-shirts.

But a spokesman later promised: ‘We place a high priority on environmental, social and ethical issues. The allegations regarding the production of T-shirts in the CMT factory in Mauritius are extremely serious and we are investigating them as a matter of urgency.

‘CMT has Oekotex accreditation, [an independent certificate for the supply chain] which fully conforms to the highest standards in quality and environmental policy, while having world-class policies for sustainable development, social, ethical and environmental compliance.

‘We carry out regular audits of our suppliers in line with our high corporate social responsibility standards and can share the following information regarding the CMT factory in Mauritius.’

However the company acknowledged: ‘We will require time to thoroughly investigate the allegations with the factory and our lawyers in great detail. CMT is one of the largest suppliers to many high street brands, including the Arcadia group [owner of Topshop and Burton].

When she founded Whistles, former Topshop executive Jane Shepherdson vowed: ‘Customers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and not ask where they come from’ – as ‘someone somewhere down the line is paying’.

Last night, a spokesman for Nick Clegg said the Deputy Prime Minister had not known where the shirts were made. He said: ‘Nick Clegg had no idea where these T-shirts were being made and can only assume that the Fawcett Society were unaware of the origins, or they would not have asked him to wear it. He remains entirely supportive of efforts to ensure all women are treated as equals in this country and the world over.’

A spokesman for Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Leader Harriet Harman would only say: ‘This was a campaign run by Elle and the Fawcett Society to promote feminism and we were happy to support it.’ 

 


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