Salma, and an interview with director Kim Longinotto

Salma follows the incredible Tamil poet whose story is one of hope and defiance. She refused to stay silent as she went up against family, tradition, society, and an age-old imbalance of power through writing.


This film struck a very personal chord with me, because I experienced many years of abuse and isolation for just over the first half of my life. It was an experience that I only discuss nowadays in the spirit of helping or guiding others who have gone through similar struggles. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful support network as I began and continue the long journey of healing. Too many girls and women in the world do not get to have that, let alone someone who would openly listen to their stories. So I ask you now to listen to this one. And search for more, for you will find them.

Films like Salma show the price many pay just because they're women, and the highest of these prices is paid with soul and psyche. In one scene, Salma's aunt talks about the times when she would hide the fact that she'd started menstruating by washing the blood from her dresses in the evenings, because menstruation means being old enough to marry, and therefore, being locked up until getting married. That blood -- that cycle, something so deeply connected to being a woman -- had to be frantically hidden and made as if it didn't exist. That level of disempowerment is staggering.

Needless to say, the film left me with many questions and thoughts. It was wonderful to speak with Kim earlier this week about filming Salma, and what inspires her as a director. Here are some of the best bits.

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CR: What was it like to approach Salma about the film?

KL: She was ready to go, she really wanted to do it. You know, in a wonderful way, what really surprises me through all the films I've made is that people have said things like "I've been waiting for you." One girl we filmed, Fazia, brought me to her house and really wanted me to film her. She was this little 8 year old girl, and felt that nobody bothered to listen to her. So you get the sense that there are women everywhere who have these incredible stories to tell. They all want their stories told, they all want everyone to know about them. Salma smuggled hers out but so many never get them out.

CR: What was it like to be in the village and have everyone know that you were there with the direct intent of telling Salma's story?

KL: There was a day where a mother ran out into the street, and she went and got us to come talk to her daughter. Her daughter spoke really good English; she was one of the few people in the village who did, and she said, "I've been hearing about you being here, I am so happy you're here, thanks so much for coming to the house." She was so excited -- she had to have been about 14 or 15. I said, "How do you speak English so well, have you been abroad?" And she said, "No, I can't cross the threshold now, this is as far as I can go. That's why I had to send mum to come out and get you. I can't go out now until I get married." She talked about how much she had always wanted to speak English with someone, and for some reason that really hit me. She spoke English so well, and it seemed like such a terrible waste. She was prepared to just stay in this room until she got married. She'd accepted it. She showed us the line she couldn't cross over in the house; in this dark house, with no windows out onto anything, and she'd put all her effort into learning English yet she was probably never going to use it. This was the one time. I told her how happy I was that we'd come, and then I noticed that I was crying. She really got through to me and it was a sense of waste that hit me, an overwhelming sense of waste.

Afterward, when we were filming street shots, we were looking around and noticing how all the houses had barred windows in them, everywhere you looked. We were thinking, there's probably girls behind all those windows. That's where I really felt the enormity of the situation.

CR: It seemed throughout the film that the village was like its own character.

KL: What I did was work in the sense of the village being a place and a state of mind. You can't escape the state of mind. Like Wasim [originally from the village who visits once a month], who works in tech in Chennai, but he's still got the village in his mind because he tells Salma to wear her burqa, to follow the rules. There's also a scene in the film with these two little girls on a rooftop, who were about 12 or 13. They're doing this sweet little dance, looking at the sunset and pointing it out to each other. I remember thinking, these two girls only have a few more sunsets. It made sense that they'd come up on the roof in part because they may not have many more sunsets to watch together. They don't know where they'll end up when they get married, they may not have a roof, they may not see the outdoors at all again. This has all been going on for thousands of years. So again, I was just so happy to hear about Salma. Here at last is a woman who's truly gotten out. And that's why we're all so thrilled that she's doing this now.

CR: There are scenes and sequences where Salma is reading her poetry either off-camera or directly to the camera. Between those times she is soft-spoken, honest, relates the stories of her confinement and the acid threats with an anxious smile. But when she talks about or reads her writing, her demeanor instantly changes. What was it like to be there when she was very present as Salma the poet, the creator?

KL: So incredibly powerful, and there's a conversation in the film where, one of Salma's old schoolmates for example, had to creep out in the middle of the night in a burqa just to come see Salma when we were there. She's whispering to her in the kitchen, and she says "You're my role model, I tell my sons about you, but I'm not allowed to even come and see you. I can't have books -- my life ended when you left. And the only way I could do anything was when you were here. When you were here I was strong. But I tell everybody about you, you're a hero." And that really drills it in how strong she is, how powerful she is, because you see can obviously see what the norm is there, and the contrast that Salma represents.

CR: What keeps this tradition going?

KL: It's everything and it's a mystery. It's a deep, deep tradition, all about power, and it's about women having no power. I think this is something that started before religion, though in many areas religion is used to prop it up. What I found really interesting was, for example, Salma's father, who had been such an unhappy, angry, violent man when she was small. And Malik, her husband, saying he was angry as a child, angry as an adolescent, and that he'd always been angry. The men aren't happy either! It doesn't suit them. Yet everything still seems to be all about saving face, following the rules, worrying about what other people will think. Nobody can say it's one thing or the other because it's so interlinked. What I think is so wonderful about Salma is that there doesn't seem to be any anger in her, but there's a deep, deep sadness in her. I would sometimes feel angry on her behalf but I wouldn't express it because that doesn't help anybody. And also the people you're going to be angry with are the ones who'd been through it themselves. Who're you going to be angry with? Mum? Her aunt? The other women in the village? Her sons?

CR: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the film so far?

KL: It's still very new, we've only had 3 screenings. The first one was at Sundance where a Mormon woman came up to us afterward, and she really "got" the film and related to it. We had a big screening at a school in Utah, and Salma said to the girls in the audience, "None of you would be here if this was my village" because they were all over 13 or 14. The girls were so shocked. They felt really dedicated afterward to staying in school and so on. In Berlin she was just mobbed and got a standing ovations everywhere she went. The last one was at The Hague, and Salma got a trophy for being an activist and for changing culture. I think when you struggle and are an outcast in your own culture, it's so life affirming to get recognized for it. Some women came up to her and just cried, and it's obvious it's touching people's life stories.

CR: What do you think has been the most valuable thing you've learned through your career in filmmaking?

KL: It's that wherever I go, there are these amazing women and children finding different ways to resist their difficult conditions. Salma's story makes me so excited because if authority is so frightened by the written word, then it is obviously so powerful. Salma told me how people were frightened and angry when it was revealed that she was indeed a woman, and had written the things she'd written. Some people wanted her and her poems burnt. It's the resilience of women and the stories that come out of the most remote and incredible places that's so moving. And now, the village being so shocked by these writings -- they can't stop them. Salma has really done something that's unstoppable, and she's become a legend in her own village. She's continuing to write, people will hear about her and read her work, and you can't stop it. She's going around the world with the film now. I'm teaching and working on a new project, and she's traveling with the film now, and it's just amazing.


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Kim Longinotto is the acclaimed director of the documentary films Rough Aunties, and Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, among many others. For more on her work, visit her page on the Women Make Movies website.

To learn more about Salma and her poetry, you can read some of her work on Poetry International, and don't miss this wonderful article by Fariha Roisin on IndieWire.

My thanks again to Kim!

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