I remember the first time I saw Japanese women's wrestling. I was in a hotel in Tokyo, flipping through channels, and suddenly there were these two women screaming their heads off, trying to break each other's arms. They looked wild, and far scarier than their counterparts in the States, who were always kind of sexy, in a She-Ra way.

The 2000 documentary Gaea Girls is an unflinching look at the brutal physical training and mental abuse these women go through to prepare for their debut match. Set inside the barracks of the titular wrestling company, it focuses on the journey of Takeuchi, aka Chibi (rough translation: small child/dwarf) as her trainers and buddies try to turn her into a wrestler by kicking the shit out of her and telling her she's crap while she (literally) begs for more – all under the supervision of Nagaya Chigusa, a superstar hardcore wondernut with serious paternal issues.

Kim Longinotto is a documentary maker known for her portrayals of women refusing to shut up and do what's expected of them: Kenyan girls opposing circumcision, Cameroonian women divorcing their rapist husbands, and abused Iranian teen runaways. I met up with her while she was editing her latest film, and spoke to her about Gaea girls and documentary film-making. She made me toast with Marmite, and a cup of tea.

Vice: So how did Gaea Girls come about?
Kim Longinotto:
Well, this was the fifth film we made in Japan and we thought, Let's do something showing Japanese women really doing something for themselves, and Gaea girls just look so wonderful. They are very powerful, beautiful, talented, skillful women. And it really is an artform, you know, when they jump off the side and do a somersault into the air and land absolutely perfectly. I mean, you could kill someone if you landed even half a centimetre in the wrong place, and it's so incredibly well done, but… it was a very difficult film to make.

Difficult in what way?
Emotionally. I found it very, very painful filming some of that. I mean, my mum used to watch it when I was a kid, and even though she used to tell me it was all set up, I used to find it very difficult. It's the pain, it's about pain.

[caption id="attachment_14565" align="alignnone" width="671" caption="Chibi"]


The fact it is choreographed is never addressed in the film.
You can actually watch the fights and see which ones are set up. Nothing in the gym is ever set up, like all of those fights between Chibi and Satomura, when they're trying to get Chibi to have the killer instinct, trying to get her to be aggressive, they're not set up. She wants to be somebody, to be a star, and they want her to be a wrestler. And they want her to want to hurt the other person and want to win. And you can see it in someone's eyes. Satomura, for example, is completely and utterly dedicated.

[caption id="attachment_14566" align="alignnone" width="671" caption="Satomura"]


So much of the film is Chibi just crying. You know with American wrestling it seems like the guys are into violence – pretty much – but with her it seems more about putting herself through it to prove something to herself.
I used to think, Why is Satomura so angry with Chibi? And it's because she doesn't show aggression, she doesn't show she's enjoying it. Satomura thinks that if you are like this when you debut, people are going to take the piss out of you because you're not portraying yourself as a wrestler. You know, you either have it or you don't, but if you don't have it, we're still gonna let you debut anyway, because there's no one else. So when she does fight, of course, she loses. She could have won that fight, I don't think that is was fixed, but that's not the sort of thing you could ask Gaea, because they would always say nothing is fixed.

I can see why Chibi wanted to be a wrestler. She would always say, "They look so beautiful, I want to be like that." And when she has her photograph taken at the end, when she's debuted, which is her big triumph even though she lost. I find it incredibly sad. She's posing with her family and they're all saying, "You've done it, you've done it!" and you can see that she knows she's still the same Chibi that she always was and she's not transformed.

She didn't last very long after that. She ended up working in a petrol station.

Even when she passes the test to allow her to debut, she's still just crying and doesn't look happy, because she knows she doesn't deserve it and it doesn't really mean anything.
I think it's true for all of us really. When I was at boarding school I wanted to be the popular girl but I was one of these people that was an outsider and just never fitted in. I remember winning the tennis cup and thinking, I'm gonna be the glamorous, popular one 'cause I've won. And no one even bothered to clap when I went up to get it, because I was still me, you know?

Do you ever get to the point where you want to just put the camera down and step in and do something? I'm thinking about the bit where Takeuchi is having her test and she's just getting punched repeatedly in the face by Nagaya.
That was the one time in the film where I felt something was a bit out of control. There was something going on between her and Nagaya. Nagaya says she thinks of those girls as her children, and the thing about being a parent is, there's absolute power and people do terrible things to their kids. There was something going on in that ring and I remember thinking how far is this going to go? And actually there comes a time when you can't go on filming it anymore.

Does being behind the camera help you to distance yourself from what you're witnessing to some degree?
Sometimes it does. I remember there was this film of a camera operator in Gaza, and you watch him film his own death. An Israeli soldier points a gun at him and he films it and then he gets shot. Sometimes you're thinking of framing and you're in a kind of different, displaced space. But it was different with Chibi because we grew to love her, I really identified with her and that's why I said it was a difficult film to make; the whole ending was very difficult to film.

If you grow to love your characters, how do you weigh that up with your desire to make an accurate portrayal of what's happening?
Very badly. And I think Gaea Girls was a turning point for me. This film that I'm working on at the moment, there's no sense of objectivity about it, it's completely seeing everything through the eyes of the girls who are in the film.

So do you have an agenda when you go to make films now? Does it lie between documenting what's happening and promoting a cause? Because something like Sisters In Law really seems to promote what they're doing.
I would never ask someone to do anything, but you know you're spending three months somewhere and every day you're giving it your all really and you have to care about what you're doing. And we were happy to be on Amina's [a woman trying to divorce her husband who beats and rapes her] side, we didn't want her to go back and be killed and we were happy to be there and encourage her, and I think that's why she won. I think us being there enabled her to take the whole thing through, otherwise it's too much of a coincidence that when we were there, there was two cases where the women won, when there hadn't been any for 18 years.

And I feel fine about that, you know, that in all cases it was so clear that I was on the side of the weak person.

So, in a way, you become more than a film-maker and almost like an activist?
Not really. All the risk and energy and pain they have to endure, we just have to film it and be there. Be a witness. What they're doing is incredibly brave, they're breaking all the rules and all the taboos.

When you have really young children in your films talking about traumatic things that have happened to them, like in Sisters In Law with the girl who was raped, how do you think they will feel about the film when they see it as an adult?
Well with that girl, Sonita, the whole village knew about it because she was very badly injured and the women came out with a basin and there was blood everywhere, and then there was a big trial, so there's no way of her forgetting it or it being private. And she won, and that was the first case like it. That man had been doing it for years and years and getting away with it because the reason he tied her up with red cloth was to do with witchcraft and they were frightened of him. And the way I look at it is rather than saying she was a victim, that by taking him to court and standing up to him like she did, she should be proud of it. And I think this whole thing with rape in this country, like the woman is supposed to feel somehow shamed and she's got to be anonymous, you know, all the shame is to do with the person who's done it to her. I don't understand it. When I was raped I was quite badly beaten up and I remember people would ask me what happened and I thought I'm not going to start lying, I haven't done anything wrong, it's ridiculous. And I think we underestimate children as well because Sonita felt proud that she'd done that; she's actually done something amazing.

[caption id="attachment_14570" align="alignnone" width="655" caption="Still from Sisters in Law"]


Have you ever had any problems with censorship, because you show distressing scenes in your films?
Well we had a screening in South Africa of Sisters In Law, and a man stood up in the audience and said, "How can you show Sonita in that way? It's shameful, the girl's been raped." But then loads of women came up afterwards – loads – and said, "We've all been raped, we're now gonna tell everyone." I think it's old, 20th century-thinking maybe. I think things are changing.

And how do you think documentary is changing? They've risen in popularity a lot over the last decade, with many getting cinema releases. Why do you think that is?
I think it's because people are making them in a different way. We were used to documentaries being commentary, being quite boring, being good for you, lots of facts and figures… just quite dull. And now the dividing line is blurring even more and you get entertained, moved, you go through an emotional experience, and you get a window into another world that you're entering into in the same way you do with fiction.

Gaea Girls is out now on Second Run DVD and is screening at The Curzon Renoir on 31 January, followed by a Q&A with Kim Longinotto.