Kim Longinotto is one of Britain’s most under-appreciated documentarians. A graduate of the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire, she began her career in 1976 with a documentary about her old school. In a career spanning thirty nine years and twenty films, Longinotto has devoted herself to the study of gender and the systems of oppression and discrimination that distort and destroy women’s lives. Like many of Longinotto’s works, Dreamcatcher is a sensitive and deeply affecting film about some of the society’s most horrendously mistreated people but for all the emotions that Longinotto invokes, she never once loses sight of the fact that these people are victims of systems that need to be understood before they can be dismantled.
Recent years have seen the production of some truly insightful works about the plight of America’s poor. David Simon’s TV series The Wire considered the realities of gang culture from a number of perspectives and showed how politics, the media and even America’s schools contribute to a system that forces people into lives of horrendous violence and addiction. Equally analytical but considerably more psychological, Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss argued that America is a society that is powerless before trauma as horrific events warp survivor’s minds and force them into a pattern whereby their trauma and pain is passed along to their children who then pass it onto theirs. However, while the mechanics of oppression have inspired some amazing film and TV, a number of works such as David James’ The Interrupters have also been inspired by people who work to disrupt the system and prevent people from slipping back into a system that destroys not just individual lives but entire generations. As might be expected from an industry so overwhelmingly dominated by men, most of these works have focused upon the lives of violent men rather than the women who are just as much a part of these systems. In fact, the (somewhat glib) elevator pitch for Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher could easily have been ‘The Interrupters… for prostitution’.
Brenda Myers-Powell used to be a sex worker. During her time on the streets, she abandoned her children, used drugs and helped recruit under-age girls for a procession of pimps whose use of violence would lead to Myers-Powell having all of the skin flayed from her face and upper body. Aware of how the system mistreated her and continues to mistreat countless women, Myers-Powell set up the Dreamcatcher Foundation to help young women either survive a life on the streets or never set foot on those streets to begin with.
When we first meet Brenda, she is driving around the suburbs of Chicago handing out condoms to reluctant sex workers. Right from the start, Brenda is a captivatingly brassy screen presence who displays an amazing combination of empathy and intelligence without ever coming across as either a preacher or a conventional social worker. Brenda’s attitude seems to be that she ‘was’ all of the women she encounters and so she can speak to them and help them to do whatever it is that they need to do in order to survive and live free. Brenda’s capacity for understanding is captured in a series of amazing interviews where she will ask a teenage girl or a sex worker whether they have done something and, despite the other person’s denial, she will talk about how it is okay to do what you need to do in order to survive. The power of these scenes lie in the facial expressions of the people Brenda talks to as while they are used to lying through their teeth to parents and authority figures, they cannot lie to Brenda because she knows exactly what they are going through. The most moving scene in the film is undoubtedly the moment in which Brenda gets a bunch of teenaged girls to talk openly about their histories of sexual violence for what seems to have been the first time ever. Longinotti captures not only the moment but also the sense of relief that comes from sharing and knowing that they are not alone.
As moving as these moments are, Longinotti is not content with the ‘human story’ and so she cuts together interviews and talks that show how the sex trade is a system that has literally worked its way into American homes. Indeed, one of the most distressing things about Dreamcatcher is the way that it portrays the boundary between boyfriend and pimp as a matter of luck rather than judgement. All the women in this film have stories about how they were abused as a child and how this abuse got them used to relationships with older men who would exploit their sexuality in increasingly aggressive and brutal ways. One of Brenda’s helpers is a former pimp named Homer and he explains how childhood abuse served to normalise not only under-age sex and the exchange of sex for money but also the use of violence to keep women under control. This vision of the sex trade as a system of exploitation is made particularly clear when Brenda talks to a young woman who grew up in California and got her start in the sex trade at the age of eight when she was picking up money and taking it back to the pimps. Viewers of the The Wire will be struck by the similarities between this system of recruitment and the way that drug dealers use kids as couriers and lookouts before putting them to work as sellers or enforcers.
Another interesting facet of Dreamcatcher is the way that Brenda uses the language of addiction to talk about sex work. Much of Brenda’s income seems to come from her job talking to jailed prostitutes and Brenda talks to these women in front of a banner marked ‘Prostitution Anonymous’ in which sex workers share their horrendous experiences only to be thanked by the rest of the class who applaud their courage and their willingness to share. In fact, Longinotti does an excellent job of capturing the extent to which many of the sex workers struggle to remain clean even when they decide that they cannot go on. It is easy to see why the language of addiction would do well in this type of social work as it completely does away with the often counter-productive language of moral judgement. However, while using the language of addiction to talk about prostitution clearly works for some people, the film does hint at the problems of this approach when Homer steps onto a stage and requests a round of applause for the fact that it had been over a decade since he last pimped a woman. Homer’s personal journey is in and of itself fascinating but there’s being non-judgemental and then there’s giving someone a cookie for not sexually exploiting and brutalising the women in his life.
Dreamcatcher is an amazing documentary that does for prostitution what The Wire did for the inner city drugs trade. Powerful, moving and never anything less than insightful, Dreamcatcher will hopefully serve as an introduction to the work of one of Britain’s greatest living documentarians.