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REVIEW — Dreamcatcher (2015)

April 29, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Kim Longinotto’s thoroughly excellent documentary Dreamcatcher.

As I say in my review, Kim Longinotto is one of the most criminally under-appreciated documentarians that Britain has ever produced. Her latest film follows the exploits of Brenda Myers-Powell, a former sex-worker who has set up an organisation designed to help people leave the sex trade. The activities of Dreamcatcher Foundation include handing out condoms on street corners and helping people to find beds in drug treatment programmes but also to reach out to people in schools and prisons who are at risk of falling into prostitution.

Aside from being incredibly moving and a really amazing documentary about the lives of America’s urban poor, Dreamcatcher does two really interesting and important things:

Firstly, it takes its cues from Brenda and talks about sex-work as a form of addiction. Brenda’s methods are not those of the politician, religious leader, or social worker but those of the recovering addict who talks about their experiences and encourages others to do the same:

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.

I think there is probably an important book to be written about the language of addiction and how it has spread beyond the traditional confines of drink and drugs to encompass activities including sex and sex-work as well as food. Scarcely a month goes by without someone writing an article for the Guardian about the addictive nature of processed sugar and junk food.

 

Secondly, Dreamcatcher does for prostitution what The Wire did for the drugs trade. In other words, just as The Wire showed the drugs trade to be an amazingly complex social phenomenon whose tendrils had worked not only into local politics but also the school system, Dreamcatcher suggests that prostitution has its roots firmly embedded in the American family:

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.

The extent to which prostitution has perverted these women’s relationships is made particularly clear in a scene where a sex-worker takes a call from her baby’s father. Initially, the call seems a bit weird as she keeps calling him ‘baby-daddy’ but it then becomes clear that while the man is certainly her child’s father, he is also her pimp and so the role of ‘baby-daddy’ is reconfigured by the sex trade to include the sexual exploitation of women. This pattern plays itself out again and again throughout the film as women are never put onto the street by ‘pimps’ or ’employers’, it is always lovers and family members.

 

I simply cannot recommend this film enough, it’s an absolutely fantastic documentary that touches on many of the themes and ideas visited in David James’ The Interrupters and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss but I think it actually manages to do much better than either of those films. This is a great film and a great jumping-on point for anyone interested in discovering the work of one of Britain’s greatest living documentarians. Even the Q&A included on the DVD is amazing!

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