Coming on the heels of the recent rape-murder scandal in India, Kim Longinotto’s “Salma” feels like a dispatch from the social-justice front, a profile that in many way symbolizes women’s resistance to a developing world that hasn’t caught up with developments in gender equality. This, along with Longinotto’s international reputation as a documaker of rare insight, should generate specialty interest, widespread festival play and a point of discussion about whether people like the Tamil poet Salma — who strain against the corseting traditions of societies, religions and families — are born or made.
The single-named poet, who grew up in a virtually Stone Age village in the south of India (the only reading material she could find, and eagerly read, were the newspapers that came wrapped around the groceries) fell victim to a syndrome common to girls in fundamentalist Muslim communities: At the onset of puberty, she was locked up in a small room until she agreed to be married. After resisting proposals for nine years, she finally consented to be wed, upon which she was locked up again, for a total of more than two decades of virtual house arrest. Meanwhile, she was smuggling out verse that was eventually published, and made her one of most renowned poets in India.
Longinotto’s considerable filmography includes “Rough Aunties,” about child advocates in South Africa; “The Day I Will Never Forget,” about female circumcision in Kenya; “Divorce Iranian Style”; and “Pink Saris,” which concerns violence again women in India. Like any of her docs, “Salma” might have been treated with a kind of knee-jerk triumphalism, but the helmer has an uncanny ability to achieve intimacy with her subjects, thus gaining a deeper understanding, and finding far more elusive ramifications of the issues at hand.
In “Salma,” these include the poet’s profoundly conflicted feelings about having violated the social mores of her town, however backward they might be. Her relationships with her mother and her mother-in-law, both of whom locked her up, are ripe with unresolved anxiety; her marriage, to a man who, despite abetting her repression, urged her to run for political office, is complex to the point of awe. Salma is also conflicted about having taken upon herself a role that may, by example, help other women throw off their yokes, but which has put her own life outside her control.
Longinotto seldom confronts the subtler aspects of Salma’s emotional life head-on; through an observational survey of the poet’s family and the various people surrounding her, she captures the moments that reveal much, but couldn’t be articulated through interview questions or dialogue. “Salma,” for all its celebration of a life lived against the grain, has a sweet strain of melancholy that resonates, and suggests the story isn’t over.
Production values are suitable to the story, Longinotto being an able d.p., and writer-editor Ollie Huddleston providing clarity to what might have been an impenetrable narrative.