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.

Patrick Townsend

98 minutes

Dreamcatcher is released 6th March 2015



Issue 133 – Documentary Longinotto Style

Kim Longinotto

Ross Whitaker took a trip to Guth Gafa film festival to talk to an extraordinary documentary maker, Kim Longinotto. The director tells us about her unique approach and the difficult decisions she’s made whilst making her films.

Guth Gafa is fast becoming one of Ireland’s most enjoyable festivals. Locked away in the north west corner of the country, it is delightfully small yet perfectly formed and screens some of the world’s most exciting documentary films, always with the filmmaker in attendance.

One of this year’s undoubted highlights was two screenings and a masterclass with Kim Longinotto, whose marvellous films have been gracing festivals around the world for over thirty years…

Kim Longinotto refuses to be unequivocal. She has done these masterclasses before and as she begins to speak to the group, she is just a little careful about what she says. ‘I promised myself I’d never do one of these things again,’ she says with a smile.

But everyone here is glad she didn’t stick to that promise.

Longinotto has a way that she likes to make films and it has served her well. For many years her films have been greeted by critical and audience acclaim and she was given an Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Hot Docs. Major awards at festivals like Cannes and Sundance and a European Film Award prove the world likes the way she makes films too.

No cutaways

Generally speaking, Longinotto doesn’t use interviews in her films, uses little music and rarely uses any kind of voiceover. She never wants to ask her subjects to repeat anything or act in any particular way and she doesn’t shoot cutaways. But she doesn’t want people to think that she is against these things, she just doesn’t want them in her films. She is at pains not to generalise about how films should be made.

‘What we all do is make films that reflect who we are,’ she says. ‘What you make shows so much of what kind of person you are and how you see the world and you just have to go with it really.’

Longinotto’s personality seems reflected in the films that she makes. She seems unassuming, quiet but confident and very open. You can see how the subjects of her films might warm to her.

In her films, she doesn’t tell the audience what to think but instead creates a narrative with complex, human characters. She does all her own cinematography but she is not a fly on the wall, rather she’s another person in the room. The audience becomes a witness in the world she portrays rather than a passive observer.

‘It’s a different kind of information that you’re getting. I remember sitting through documentaries that were on before a fiction film and everyone used to talk through them because documentaries were the boring bit where you were told something and it was supposed to be good for you somehow. What I’m trying to do is make a story where you’re being drawn into a world and you’re watching a story unfold and you stop thinking about what type of film it is and just follow the narrative.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 133