DIR: Kim Longinotto • WRI: Lisa Stevens
Over the course of her career, Kim Longinotto has built a deserved reputation as one of the finest documentarians working today. A truly global filmmaker, her work is set in places as diverse as Iran, Cameroon, Japan, India and occasionally the U.S. and her native U.K. Her films often focus on women who are taking stands against the oppressive society they are a part of. Unfortunately, despite the acclaim and awards that are usually bestowed towards her films, Longinotto and her work remains little known to wider audiences. The reasons for that are pretty simple; much of her work gets very little distribution. Outside of film and documentary festivals, her work is not shown in cinemas. While DVD labels such as the fantastic Second Run have made efforts showcase her older work, many remain unavailable, limiting the opportunity for anyone to see her work outside the occasional television screening as was the case with her last film Love Is All, which was shown on BBC4 around Valentine’s Day earlier this year.
With that in mind it is a pleasure to see that Longinotto’s latest documentary, Dreamcatcher, is not only receiving a limited theatrical release here, but is also scheduled to be released on DVD by the documentary label Dogwoof towards the end of April. For those who are new to the films of Longinotto, Dreamcatcher is a good place to start, operating on the familiar themes that can be found in nearly all of Longinotto’s work, all within the observational filmmaking style, whose non-intrusive manner allows her subjects to feel completely at ease in front of the camera offering a more revealing portrait of who they are and what they do.
Dreamcatcher follows Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a grassroots organisation based in Chicago that was set up to allow sex workers the opportunity to exit the profession on their own terms. Myers-Powell and her co-founder Stephanie Daniels-Wilson drive around the streets of Chicago in a minivan, stopping to talking to the young women out on their street and handing out condoms. This work is unpaid and we see Myers-Powell in her regular job talking to at-risk high-school girls, as well as her home life and the people who she works with.
Early in the film Myers-Powell tell the story of woman who, after suffering from sexual abuse at a young age, became a sex worker for 25 years. During that time this woman was shot at five times, stabbed around thirteen times and after an attack that left her face disfigured, she decided enough was enough and made the effort to turn her life around. Revealing that this woman’s story is that of her own, Myers-Powell shows us why she has devoted her life to this cause. A charismatic figure with the ability to hold the attention of any room she is in, Myers-Powell’s greatest ability is that she is able to approach the women that she meets, both women who are working on the streets or the teenagers in the high school she works in whose history makes them venerable to living this kind of life, without any air of judgement, making them feel completely at ease in her presence. She makes every effort to reach out and help, from visiting the homes of the at risk teenagers to taking phone calls in the middle of the night from distressed sex workers.
What is interesting about the film is that it focuses on the socioeconomic conditions that are the main causes of this kind of sex work. Longinotto uses stock footage of aerial shots of the Chicago that would be familiar to us, the sleek skyscrapers that tower over the skyline, the bustling metropolis overlooking Lake Michigan. Longinotto contrasts this with her own footage, set between the boarded-up houses and businesses alongside the dilapidated factories that used to dominate the city’s economy. It is here, in these neglected parts of the city, where the cycle of abuse continues, shown here with an interview with Homer, a former pimp who now works alongside Myers-Powell. Giving speeches to educate people about the realities of living that life, he talks about how, as a kid seeing his father regularly beat up his mother without her leaving him, led him to believe that this was something that men naturally do. We are a long way from the “tart with a heart” cliché as you can get. Here is the reality, where the cycle of sexual and drug abuse traps women into the world of sex work and with no help from those at the top, it is up to people from within this system to try and make the changes necessary.
Myers-Powell’s approach to helping these women, gaining their trust and listening to them with complete understanding and sympathy is exactly the same as Longinotto’s filmmaking. Longinotto’s greatest skill as a documentary filmmaker is that she allows her subjects to remain comfortable in her and her camera’s presence. This gives her films a sense of intimacy while at the same time they never carry that sense of intrusion or exploitation. The admiration and sympathy she has for her subjects shines through, allowing their humanity to become the main focus point. Every time I watch one of Longinotto’s films I end up feeling nothing but complete admiration for the courage and bravery of the people that she has brought to light. While it is a shame that her work isn’t as well known as it should be, I take comfort in the fact that they are filmmakers like Longinotto that are determined to let these stories be heard.
Dreamcatcher is released 6th March 2015