Dir: Kim Longinotto. Documentary with: Brenda Myers-Powell. 15 cert, 104 min
While fictional superheroes soar through contemporary cinema with the regularity of planes on the Heathrow flightpath, those of the actual, flesh-and-blood variety remain dispiritingly sparse on the ground. Enter Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder of the Chicago-based Dreamcatcher Foundation, and subject of Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher. By day, Myers-Powell counsels schoolgirls and convicted sex workers on their life options; by night, she tours the projects, offering active prostitutes handfuls of condoms, snippets of practical advice, and limitless reserves of empathy. An early speech reveals Brenda once walked these streets herself: the lady knows whereof she speaks.
If the woman before the camera is a whirlwind of positivity – you wonder when on earth she sleeps – her counterpart behind it is agreeably patient. Longinotto hails from documentary’s observational school: she’s here to look and listen rather than impose her own agenda, and in fading discreetly into the background, she sees and hears things she (and we) normally wouldn’t. For one, she notes Myers-Powell’s enviable ability to transform a car’s backseat, prison rec rooms, and inner-city classrooms into calm, accommodating safe spaces; within these, her charges can freely give their reasons, confess their failings, share their most private fears.
In the course of these conversations, one woman casually lets slip that she’s been working the city’s streetcorners in one capacity or another since she was eight years old; another that she was raped at nine. Brenda, in turn, shares the information that she was molested when she was four or five. One schoolgirl’s proud boast – “I been to school two days in a row now!” – speaks volumes about the general level of expectation for a woman raised on these streets; gradually, under Brenda’s guidance, we start to sense a perilously low bar being raised.
Such testimony might redflag Dreamcatcher as a grim slog; in fact, Longinotto and editor Ollie Huddleston stitch it, with lightness and dexterity, into a wholly edifying, often stirring tapestry of survivors’ stories. The frankness of Brenda’s methods fascinates: while hauling a sometime pimp into class might be beyond the remit of educators in Chichester, say, the reactions of his rapt, engaged, questioning teenage audience suggest how the tactic has succeeded in Chicago. This happens, Brenda insists, so let’s talk about it. In doing so, a furtive, degrading, abusive form of intercourse is replaced by one that is open, nurturing, healthy, healing. Dreamcatcher shows how, simply by changing the meaning of a word, this one woman really has changed the world.
Dreamcatcher opens in selected cinemas from today.