When audiences first meet Salma, it’s hard to imagine that this 45-year-old Tamil poet was once locked up her in home for 25 years. Today, Salma is vibrant and confident. She smiles, laughs often, and isn’t timid when it comes to standing up for girls’ rights, especially in her Muslim-dominated south Indian village.
British filmmaker Kim Longinotto recounts Salma’s extraordinary story in her latest documentary, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Loginotto is somewhat of an expert when it comes to exploring the secret lives of women. Her previous films have included Shinjuku Boys, which tells the story of three Japanese women who live their lives as men; Divorce Iranian Style, which looks at what divorce is like for women in Tehran; and The Day I Will Never Forget, which follows a group of young girls who challenge the tradition of female circumcision in Kenya.
In Salma, Longinotto returns with Salma to her family’s village in Tamil Nadu, India. There, we see interviews with Salma’s mother, aunt, and older sister, who each relate similar stories describing Salma’s hunger for education as a child, her great determination through her imprisonment, and her talent as a poet.
It’s clear that Salma’s circumstances were part of a larger cycle for women in her community. Salma’s mother was forced into marriage as a teenager and gave birth to Salma when she was only 17. Her concern for her own daughter’s fate is clear when she says matter-of-factly to the camera, “I was too young to care.”
In this village, it is customary for girls to be taken out of school and locked up at home upon signs of menstruation. For Salma, this happened at the age of 13, when she was confined to the family’s basement with a small, steel-barred, street-level window as her sole connection to the outside world. When Salma was tricked into marriage years later, her confinement continued while living with her husband’s family. It was there that Salma began writing poetry.
The dangers Salma faced in order to write were immense. At one point, her husband purchased some acid. Later, he threatened death. But Salma was determined, hiding scraps of paper in her saris and scribbling words down late at night after her husband was asleep. After what can only be described as a serendipitous meeting with a publisher through her mother, Salma’s poems were published. Her poetry quickly became very popular, as no Tamil woman had previously written so intimately about her challenges, and relationships, and life.
Salma’s story will feel almost unreal to western audiences, and you’ll find yourself shaking your head and asking “how?” and “why?” throughout the film. Longinotto’s experienced hand, however, allows for the film to unfold objectively and swiftly. Interviews with family members are conducted with an unemotional, journalistic quality, and Longinotto’s lens never dwells on an interview subject for the purpose of creating a sense of pathos. Salma is equal parts alarming and inspiring.