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Unforgettable journey into the women's world of circumcision
The English documentary film maker Kim Longinotto displays a unique talent to draw us into a seemingly exotic aspect of women's experiences somewhere on the globe and then make us recognise, sympathise, wonder, abhor and doubt, often at the same time and about the same characters. More particularly, she succeeds in activating our empathy with the plight of 'oppressed' women without simply denouncing the 'oppressors'. Although 'Divorce Iranian Style' portrayed the male judge of an Iranian divorce court in a very patriarchic system, it never failed to make us see all participants in the process as people striving to make the best out of a bad situation. In 'Gaea Girls' she showed us Japanese girls training their butts off to get a shot at becoming a pro wrestler: it inspired admiration for their intense dedication and pity for the endless litany of failure and humiliation that most of them had to endure. In 'Runaway', about the only place in Iran offering shelter to girls and young women who have run away from home, you empathise totally with the desparation of the girls. But you also gradually develop an understanding that some of them would have given their family a hard time under any circumstances. Now in 'The Day I will never forget' Longinotto depicts what is experienced by many as the ultimate crime against women: genital mutilation of girls in order to prevent them from taking an interest in sexual intercourse with other men than their own(er). In several forms, this is a habit among millions of people in (North) East Africa, mainly but not exclusively among Muslims. By diligent field work in Kenya, building up contacts among women of several ethnic and religious groups, Longinotto has managed to take us into the heart of this practice. This does not refer primarily to seeing circumcision on screen (we very nearly do), but to the way that both circumcision and the protests against it are shown to be interwoven with local culture. As in all Longinotto's work, we really feel we intimately get to know both the persons involved and their motives. The girls appear to be ambivalent: they want to become 'real' and 'clean' women as truly as their mothers, older sisters and (tribal and religious) girl friends, but they don't really understand why this should involve such a frightful procedure. Parents may often be doubtful themselves, opting for milder forms than in earlier generations. Only the practitioners we get to know (older women)and some of the parents, women as good as men, do not display any doubt.
But there's a good chance, of course, that Longinotto and her camera were not invited into the hard core world of circumcision, only in families and groups who are aware of the controversial nature of the procedure. An indication for this latter fact is that all defenders explicitly use concepts such as 'tradition' and 'culture'. I guess that where tradition and culture still go unchallenged, there is no need to use such abstract concepts. The 'oppressors' are aware that their actions are not self-evident or even highly controversial and more or less helplessly declare that one ought to preserve some anchor in a rapidly changing world. A brilliant Longinotto touch is the hesitant, ambivalent and/or negotiating key character. The first part of the film follows a nurse who confronts parents, husbands and practitioners with arguments concerning the risks and harm of the procedure and against the religious foundation of the practice. But she is also a practical woman, realising that in order to remain on speaking terms with the families and to do some good for the girls involved, she had better not state her case too vehemently. She's always smiling and understanding and offers advice on performing circumcision and undoing the stitching in the most moderate and safe ways. This kind of stuff reminds us of the good willing judge in the divorce film, the female trainer with a heart in Japan and the staff in the Teheran shelter for girls. Through these characters, Longinotto makes it impossible for us to feel ourselves the superior spectators. 'The Day I will never forget' is not about being against female circumcision (it is), but about making a difference for real people in difficult circumstances. It's great art that inspires great compassion.
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