The lives of women in prostitution trying to survive in Chicago and young girls at risk of taking the same path, is revealed with compelling sensitivity in Kim Longinotto’s latest documentary, Dreamcatcher (2015). The film follows co-founder and executive director Brenda Myers-Powell as she works and volunteers tirelessly for the Dreamcatcher Foundation to help the lives of women and girls whose lives so closely resemble her own past. Early on in the film, Brenda tells the story of a child who was raised by her grandmother, was abused from the age of four, and who, having observed the women standing in the street, just wanted to be as glamorous as they.
Brenda learned that her value was in the money she could contribute to the household and so began to work the streets at age fourteen. Drug addiction, physical violence and further abuse followed, until now a woman, she eventually abandoned her children to the only life she knew how to lead. Having eventually woken up in hospital after her face was severely damaged at the hands of a ‘John’, she realised she didn’t want to survive this way any more. That was Brenda’s story, and it’s one of many desperate narratives that are shared in this remarkable film. Beyond the practical assistance, such as legal and health advice, the telling of stories is key to Brenda’s method of assistance and support. Her non-judgemental presence allows each story to be told, to which the response is ever, “it’s not your fault.”
That Longinotto has again built a relationship of trust with her unique subject represents a similar achievement to that of Brenda’s – the confidence created when a person feels no obligation to share, but understands that doing so might help someone else. Longinotto’s skill is in making intimacy she has created seem effortless and in one of the film’s most extraordinary scenes, the girls in Brenda’s after school club for those at-risk – prompted by Brenda sharing her own story – each describe the sexual and psychological abuse they have suffered at the hands of family members and their friends. What each of the girls have in common is the lack of an understanding adult who will listen to and protect them, as too often their own mothers blame them for their own torment. Their candour is heart-breaking, but having the space in which to share shows that already their futures are more hopeful. From the very beginning of Dreamcatcher it’s clear that Brenda is a truly unique person, with a striking charisma and dedication to the women and girls she supports that appears unending. Longinotto’s film shines a light on Brenda and her colleagues’ important contribution to changing both the legal system’s attitude to prostitution, and to the empowerment of women, who are shown that if they want to change their lives, there’s someone there who can help them achieve it.