Kim Longinotto’s latest documentary is a quiet triumph. Dreamcatcher tells a beautiful and hopeful story about Chicago’s at-risk women, and their mentor, Brenda. Brenda is an ex-prostitute and drug addict; her final john dragged her from the back of his car, ripping off skin from her face and her body. She is a revelation; despite all of her history and struggles with addiction, her energy and exuberance is unwavering. Brenda works with women who have been jailed for prostitution, runs after-schools clubs with local high school girls and drives around at night, talking to streetwalkers and giving out condoms.
The film doesn’t stray away from the grisly details of what the women have gone through – beatings, rape, drug addiction – but neither Miss Brenda nor the filmmakers dwell too often on these details. Instead, we are shown the process of survival and of thriving, something which Miss Brenda stresses prostitution allows these women to do. They are not criminals; they are trying to get through life. In one sequence various inmates with whom Brenda works describe their experiences and you can sense the violence, the desperation and the hopelessness. Most importantly, the film represents the women as human, as people, something which has been lacking from their experiences with the authorities.
In terms of the cinematography, the shots throughout vary in style, and while the film doesn’t have a clear aesthetic, it doesn’t really need one. We see and hear very little of the filmmakers, and they are noticeable only when giving a few prompts to the parents of Homer, an ex-pimp who helps Brenda with her work. There is a rarely a continuous narrative and Longinotto’s shots jump from place to place, from subject to subject. While this could potentially be disorienting, it never reaches a level the audience is unable to follow what is happening. One formal issue of note, however, is that the font used for the subtitles and the supers throughout is not continuous. Although this might merely be a small issue, it was one that pulled my attention away from the narrative. In saying this, though, technical errors were few and far between.
Whilst the film is titled after Brenda’s charity – the Dreamcatcher foundation – a portion of its runtime is devoted to an in-depth profile of her, and her presence on-screen is a breath of fresh air. The film shows her changing wigs and applying her false eyelashes, activities which are fairly intimate; this allows for an insight into her personal life, a look behind the bravado. We see flashes of this personal life throughout – her stories of being on the street, her experience with her final John, tales of her new life with her family. She is portrayed as strong and unwavering in all but one scene, in which her vulnerability, her emotion, and her basic human feelings come to a heartbreaking light.
Dreamcatcher reflects extreme economic inequality, the struggle of black communities within urban areas, drug use, gun control, domestic violence and sexual abuse and exploitation. It’s not the first to comment on the state of America’s legal system or its polarisation of income and it shan’t be the last but it is a beautiful tale, and a very important piece of storytelling. Longinotto, a filmmaker whose body of work often focuses on the oppression of women, has crafted an excellent film, one which is wholly compelling to watch, and continuously intimate – shot with a crew of only 9. You may leave Dreamcatcher feeling drained, but underneath, somewhere deep down, you will feel hopeful.
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