Celebrating survival

Kim Loginotto and Brenda Myers-Powell talk about documentary Dreamcatcher

by Amber Wilkinson

Brenda Myers-Powell: 'Crisis doesn't happen from 9 to 5, it happens when it happens and you have to be ready'
Brenda Myers-Powell: 'Crisis doesn't happen from 9 to 5, it happens when it happens and you have to be ready' Photo: Kim Longinotto
Kim Longinotto's documentary Dreamcatcher is a celebration of just how much difference a single person can make - in this case, former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell, a woman whose positive energy hits you the moment she walks in the room.

The film charts the daily - and nightly - outreach of Myers-Powell, who has dedicated her life to helping girls trapped in the sex industry get themselves off the street at the same time as trying to prevent the next generation slipping through the cracks in the system into the same life. When I caught up with Longinotto and Myers-Powell at a condo at Sundance Film Festival, Myers-Powell was demonstrating what it means to be always on call to help. A phone call had come in just as I arrived from a girl, featured briefly in Longinotto's film, who had finally come to the end of her tether. As Longinotto and I chatted about the making of and aims of the film, we could hear Brenda in the background giving the mix of an open ear, sympathy and down-to-earth advice she is so memorable for in the film.

When she joins us some 20 minutes later, I ask her whether she hopes that the film will make a difference to her outreach organisation Dreamcatcher, which is driven by sex trade survivors and aims to end human trafficking.

"We really hope we do because we need the help," she says "We're hoping that other people who are working with this population learn something from the way that I work with the girls, the way that I take them in and I don't judge. It's not about just opening the door from 9-5 and saying, 'I have a place here for women and girls who are struggling.' You don't. Crisis doesn't happen from 9 to 5, it happens when it happens and you have to be ready. I was in a crisis just 10 minutes ago. Did I want to? No, but she was ready, so I had to get ready."

Dianah Bailey and Brenda Myers-Powell: 'For the first time, I wanted to give a human side to this issue'
Dianah Bailey and Brenda Myers-Powell: 'For the first time, I wanted to give a human side to this issue' Photo: Kim Longinotto
Speaking about her motivations for getting involved with the film, Brenda says: "For the first time, I wanted to give a human side to this issue. To look inside of us and say under all of that there's something beautiful in that girl. To know that this is not what we chose. You know how people say, 'She chooses to be a prostitute. There she is and she's making all this money just having sex.' Well, it's just not like that. It couldn't be like that because I just got off the phone with a girl who a year and a half ago when we were filming told me she was fine being who she was. Now she says, 'They're getting to me. I can't stand anyone touching me, especially these men'.

"That was a point in my life when I started using drugs to deal with it. First it was drink - I'd take a nice big swig before I'd go in the room, then it becomes smoking weed. But weed is a mellower and you don't want to be that mellow because you can lose sight of what's going on around you and you can't be relaxed around tricks. So you start using a stimulant - anything to help put you in another place while you are there. And that's what she'll start doing and it will be harder to reach her. So, that's what I want the audience to know, that we are human and this wasn't something glamorous and choosy that we're having sex with men. That's what men think - that we're having a ball with them - but we're not."

It's a reminder, although anyone who sees the film is unlikely to need one, that the critical work Myers-Powell does stretches well beyond the runtime of a movie. Whether she is going into schools and enabling children to talk about their fears, hopes and abuse at hands of others, handing out condoms at night, offering an open environment for convicted prostitutes to consider what they want from their lives, or simply being on the other end of the phone while at a film festival, the doorway to her support is always open.

Longinotto has a history of finding strong women to capture on film - with documentaries such as Pink Saris, Salma and Rough Aunties - and says it is "brilliant" when she meets someone like Myers-Powell.

Dreamcatcher director Kim Longinotto: ' I want to make films where watching the film inspires you to be stronger and makes you feel you can be stronger'
Dreamcatcher director Kim Longinotto: ' I want to make films where watching the film inspires you to be stronger and makes you feel you can be stronger' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
"I feel totally inspired," she adds. "The films that I don't like watching and really don't want to make, in fiction and in documentary, are films about victims. You can't assume that things are going to work out well but at least you're filming people who are struggling against things. And that's what Brenda's doing. I don't want to film prostitutes and it's all, 'Oh my God' and then you never see them again in the film and you're just depressed and you feel guilty about your own life. I want to make films where watching the film inspires you to be stronger and makes you feel you can be stronger. I have been totally uplifted by this experience with Brenda. If she can come from what she's come from and be the person she is now, then so can I.

"If you said, what's the most important thing in your life? I'd say, 'Making films is'. It's what I'm here for. That sounds awfully creepy but I don't really do anything else... I do the washing up!"

Just watching Myers-Powell onscreen is enough to find her inspiring, as this woman who is now making such a huge difference to those caught up in the sex trade was once a prostitute herself. She makes no bones about her past, empowering others around her to see themselves as survivors of the abuse who can, like her, become someone vastly different.

Speaking about her directorial technique, Longinotto says she doesn't like the idea in the public imagination that there's a huge 'crew' filming with her. Generally speaking it's just her and her camera, although on this shoot producer Lisa Stevens was also on hand to help. The director says her small way of working means she and her camera become the least interesting thing in the room to the people she is filming, particularly in a room that contains the high-energy Brenda.

"I'm really, really disciplined about what I film. I film very little - but I think it's masses," she says. " I film maybe 15 hours in 10 weeks. So, I knew that I wanted to follow as many aspects of it as I could. So, we knew we wanted Homer, the ex-pimp."

Homer is an interesting addition to the mix, especially given that documentaries about sex trade workers often shy away from including male perspectives for obvious reasons. Homer now works for Brenda – a reversal that amuses her – going along with her and talking to children about how he fell into the world of pimping. There's no doubt he's conflicted – and that's part of what makes him so attractive as a subject.

Longinotto explains: "The more I do these films, the more I realise that what is really nice is to get in any situation, the people that have authority to show how having too much authority actually damages them - and find out how they got there as well. So it was absolutely fascinating for me to start going into Homer's story and discover that he had been molested at the age of nine."

There is an almost jaw-dropping moment in the film, when we see Homer discussing his past in front of his ageing parents but, Longinotto says "it's all part of his recovery".

She adds: "It's like ... I've never really drunk alcohol but people tell me that if you've been an alcoholic, you're always recovering. So, Homer will always be someone that will need encouragement. You can see he's haunted by his past and at the same time, the ambivalence of everything. One minute, he's talking about the death of his daughter, which was his fault, and then next minute, the bravado he has to the girls - 'I don't regret anything in my life' and sort of almost boasting about what he was like as a pimp. "Then when he's talking to all those people in Las Vegas, he says, 'I think I deserve a round of applause for not pimping on anyone in 13 years.' Hello? You deserve applause for not pimping? It's like me saying to you, come on, give me some love for not abusing anyone for the last 12 years. It's twisted."

The idea of people changing is attractive to Longinotto and she says she never approaches her filming with a fixed idea in mind but is "always looking to learn".

"Even though I love action Hollywood movies, and I do watch them, I much prefer films when you get into the situation and you find out more and you're uncovering more layers and it's unexpected," she adds "So, Batman isn't always Batman, he becomes his tortured soul that maybe has done terrible things... that's a bad example but things that are much more equivocal, that's what I want to do."

Brenda Myers-Powell and Marie Miller in Dreamcatcher. 'The whole point of the film is that you come away and it means something to your own life'
Brenda Myers-Powell and Marie Miller in Dreamcatcher. 'The whole point of the film is that you come away and it means something to your own life' Photo: Kim Longinotto
She is, however, unequivocal in her desire to avoid overt politics. She didn't want the film to be used in a campaign to criminalise men who paid for prostitutes because she believes filmmakers shouldn't prescribe what audiences think.

"The whole point is not for the audience - which you do get in some films - to feel guilty or you're told what to think," she says "The whole point of the film is that you come away and it means something to your own life. Because all those scenes meant something to me when I was filming them. I learnt so much from Brenda, it's constantly turning things on its head and that's why we go to films, surely? That's what I loved about Breaking Bad, because the guy that starts off being the good guy, the pillar of the community becomes more and more corrupt and the so-called bad guy Jessie, you grow to love him and he does amazing things. It's sort of saying, morality isn't simple."

The film features some very emotionally raw scenes, including one in which schoolchildren talk about surviving abuse from a very young age.

"We filmed every girl and every girl had a story," says Longinotto. "Most of them it started at four or five years old. They were all in the one class. What's incredible to me, is that what we do in England. I feel it's so perverse - I can't speak for America – that we don't have somebody going into a school, a class of four and five-year-olds and say, 'Look, if any of you are experiencing any of these things...' in a really nice gentle way. 'It is not your fault, come and tell us'. It's not strangers. It's in your family, it's people you trust. "I talked to a teacher about it. They said, 'Oh, they'd never let us do that because kids deserve innocence.' Well, actually, if innocence is being taken away from them then... There's ways of doing it. When you read about those priests, they did it for generations. What I find weird is that it is still a taboo subject.

Brenda Myers-Powell - 'If she can come from what she's come from and be the person she is now, then so can I'
Brenda Myers-Powell - 'If she can come from what she's come from and be the person she is now, then so can I' Photo: Kim Longinotto
"Somebody came up to me and said, 'You should have blurred the people's faces. You shouldn't identify the victims.' And I said, 'I'm sorry, they don't see themselves as victims. The whole point of being in that class is to see that it is not their fault, it's not something shameful to talk about and that they are survivors and they are really brave to talk.

"Every single thing we filmed amazing things happened. But immediately after that scene, there was a lot of hugging - that we film but which isn't in the film - and then two of the girls came up and hugged me, because I was actually crying and they said, 'We did it for you.' And I thought about it and thought, what they mean is, they didn't do it for me personally, they chose to talk about it at that time because they felt ready but mainly because I'd shown them Sisters In Law [about two female judges fighting for women in Cameroon] and they'd seen a little 12-year-old talking about being raped and I said how proud I was of her and they knew that there was somebody there was going to believe them and they knew there was a point to it. And they said, 'Maybe it'll help other girls who have experienced the same thing.'

I just thought, 'That is so brilliant. You're feeling that your experience has some kind of use and meaning.' What do we want? People to hold it to themselves and never tell anyone? Think of themselves as victims, never go public on it? Never get retribution?"

She adds: "I want everyone to relate to that film viscerally in a really emotional way and for it to mean something to them."

Dreamcatcher screens at Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday February 28 (tickets here).

The film will be released across the UK by Dogwoof on March 6.

For more information on Myers-Powell's work with The Dreamcatcher Foundation, visit their official site

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