Natalie Gravenor | Tuesday November 24th, 2015 | 8
A car glides through the light-drenched city streets of Chicago; together with an almost subliminal electronic score the twinkling headlights and street lamps create a woozily hyperreal atmosphere, like the state of heightened awareness between waking and dreaming. This introduction to “Dreamcatcher”, the latest documentary by veteran filmmaker Kim Longinotto, sets the stage for a fresh take on subject matter otherwise painted in grim, dark tones: prostitution, abuse and addiction.
For nearly 40 years, Longinotto has portrayed women who follow unusual paths to speak out for their rights and those of others while providing insights into the societies in which these women live and often rebel against: an oppressive girls’ boarding school in England – the alma mater from which Longinotto herself ran away – in “Pride of Place” (1976); fluid gender identities of Japan’s “Shinjuku Boys” (1995) and “Dream Girls” (1994); “Divorce, Iranian Style” (1998) and “Runaway” (2001) which explore family issues and sexual politics in Iran; female genital circumcision in Kenya (2004’s “The Day I Will Never Forget”); female judges in Cameroon fighting for children’s and women’s rights (“Sisters in Law”, 2005); South African “Rough Aunties” (2008) helping children who have suffered sexual abuse; “Pink Saris” (2010) and “Salma” (2013), both set in India, which show the power of group action and the written and spoken word. Keenly aware of her privileged position as a white, Western European woman, Longinotto has often worked with local filmmakers, sharing directorial and authorial credit.
Longinotto’s latest film is both a new chapter in her ongoing series and a departure. At the center of “Dreamcatcher” is a quintessentially Longinottian protagonist: former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell who co-founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation in Chicago to offer moral and legal support to prostitutes who want to exit sexwork. In the opening minutes of Longinotto’s first film ever set in the U.S., this support ranges from inspirational talks and a number to call for later consultations to passing out condoms. And indeed, as reassuring and hopeful such hookup lines as “we reach out and hold your hand until you learn how to walk” sound, the viewer is left a bit unsure what to think of the Dreamcatchers. Too good to be true? Is this a religious cult recruiting wayward souls?
As Brenda Myers-Powell’s personality and back story move into sharper focus, it becomes clear that her intentions are most sincere. She herself began sexwork at a young age, at first to bolster the paltry household income of her grandmother, who raised Brenda after her mother died. After 25 years of abuse and degradation, a particularly nasty attack by a john almost disfigured Brenda and bolstered her resolve to quit. Today, Brenda devotes her steely charisma, wisdom and street smarts to showing other women a way out.
Dreamcatcher Foundation strives to be non-judgmental about prostitution per se (and this is reflected in the film). Instead the film offers an analysis of the initial lure and viability of “the lifestyle” for poor, abused young women – and also men: Brenda’s former pimp Homer aka “Fancy” movingly talks to a group of girls about how his mother’s endurance of abuse at the hands of his father made him think that’s the way it should be.
The sequence with Homer is one instance of how the film successfully resists the temptation to paint in black and white. Not all men are villains; women are not reduced to victimhood. The film patiently follows the women approached by Dreamcatcher – some have difficulty staying out of trouble despite their desire to do so, others seem to be on a slow, cautiously optimistic, self-aware upward trajectory. Most of their thoughts and stories are revealed in interaction with Brenda that Longinotto observes as impassively as possible. (We occasionally hear her off camera questions.) Brenda could easily have been portrayed as a modern day saint (she has even taken her young nephew into her household); instead, she’s a highly admirable, witty and likeable woman who is also human: at times overwhelmed, distracted, impatient. And a consummate role-player: Brenda creates variations of her persona using wigs, depending on whether she wants to come across as “fun” or no-nonsense and business-like. This opens up interesting ideas about how women are obliged to construct various identities to survive in Western culture – not only as (former) prostitutes.
After some worthy but rather formulaic films, “Dreamcatcher” marks a return to form for Longinotto. She manages both to introduce a truly inspiring personality in Brenda Myers-Powell and make some salient points about the social, economic and cultural situation in the U.S. today.
Dreamcatcher screens at One World Berlin on Tuesday, November 24, 6 p.m., Czech Center Berlin.
Eight earlier films by Kim Longinotto are available on realeyz.