Kim Longinotto is one of the most renowned filmmakers in the world. Known for making observational documentaries that reveal untold stories of women’s daily lives and highlight female victims of oppression or discrimination in all corners of the globe, the 63-year-old British director made her latest film, “Dreamcatcher,” in Chicago.
The film focuses on a former Chicago prostitute — Brenda Myers-Powell, who at the age of 11 was sent to the streets to work as a prostitute named “Breezy” — and her efforts through The Dreamcatcher Foundation to get girls like herself off the street, and to help them break the cycle of neglect, violence and exploitation.
For her film, which gives voice to the voiceless, Longinotto was awarded the World Cinema Directing Award in the documentary category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Currently, it is airing on Showtime and will return to theaters soon. She spoke to The Chicago Ambassador about the film and how its themes relate to us all.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) What drew you to this story?
LONGINOTTO) I think it was Brenda. I thought she was amazing. The fact that she has her life together and is what we might call a respectable housewife, with kids and a husband, and yet, when we were filming she told someone ‘I was a prostitute for 25 years, that’s why they are filming me,’ and I thought, good for you, Brenda. She doesn’t try to hide anything, she’s just brilliant.
LONGINOTTO) Yes, it was. I thought it was like a fairytale city in a lot of ways. I was pleased to look at the lake, I thought it was the sea. Everything in America is so huge.
I love Chicago, by the way. I thought it was the most wonderful city. One of things that really, really amazed me about Chicago is how segregated it is. A few minutes down from where we were staying, where everybody was black, none of the street lights work, the roads are in disarray… a few blocks down, there’s book shops and cafe’s and the differences in the neighborhoods took my breath away. It’s not like that in the UK.
CA) Watching the film, right away the first impression I got, only a few minutes in, was the fallacy that prostitution is some sort of occupation of choice. Can you speak to that?
LONGINOTTO) I know. Can you imagine? She was sent out at 11. A lot of girls were doing it since the age of four. No one thinks ‘I’ll become a prostitute, that’s a good job.’
CA) Most of the women in the film were abused or raped as children, most by people they knew, relatives, etc.
LONGINOTTO) You have this thing in America, we have it in England as well, where people say beware of strangers and strange men. But (abuse) is usually within the family.
CA) It seems the woman in the film believed what happened to them was their fault throughout a large portion of their lives. How hard is it to get these women to believe that it isn’t their fault and what happened to them isn’t acceptable?
LONGINOTTO) I think that’s what the abusers do, they’re so clever. Brenda tells them ‘it’s not your fault.’ They realize that no one has listened to them and just by sharing their stories with other people, they see it completely differently. None of them had ever shared their stories.
CA) In the film, Homer is an interesting character. (Homer, molested at 9 by his aunt — later got into the game as an abuser/pimp who called himself “Fancy.”)
LONGINOTTO) Yes, I like him. He thought he was having a love affair at 9.
CA) Yes, he was a victim as well.
CA) It kind of comes full circle later in the film when Brenda talks about how when she was in the game, she would recruit girls for her pimp and basically became a victimizer as well.
LONGINOTTO) Yes, I’m so glad you picked up on that. I remember reading about Primo Levi, he committed suicide. He was in a camp in World War II. He said the guilt was too terrible to live with and I said ‘what did he feel guilty about?’ and someone said to me that the people who survive are the ones who become victimizers in one way or another. So, it’s not as simple as victims and victimizers. It all gets blurred.
CA) It’s really a vicious cycle.
LONGINOTTO) Yes, but it’s wonderful that you see it broken. You see Marie saying to Brenda throughout that she wants to form her own agency, she wants to get her own girls. Then at the end she says ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to help girls stop doing this.’ It’s a huge breakthrough.
CA) They are victims, but is there a point where people must be responsible for their own actions?
LONGINOTTO) Yes, but I think it’s a bit difficult when you’re 11 and you get sold to a drug dealer. And Marie was on the streets at 8 years old. I don’t think you can really take responsibility at that age.
CA) Probably the most important thing about the film, is as you said, these women have not been heard and you are giving voice to the voiceless.
LONGINOTTO) They were so excited to tell their stories. None of them ever had a platform and a lot of them were not even believed by their own families growing up.
CA) People who have not experienced the hardships that these women have, what can they relate to in the film?
LONGINOTTO) We’ve all experienced some of these things. We’ve all experienced lies and secrets in our families, and the way things are handed down through generations. Probably not as dramatic as the things in the film, but we’ve all experienced a lot of the things. Violence in our families, angry fathers… People talk about the ‘perfect family.’ I don’t think there are many of them. I certainly haven’t met anyone that has lived in one. I think the film is mainly about families and cycles and how things keep getting repeated. You can see it in America now with the police shooting unarmed black men. The violence that’s just beneath the surface and the difficulties with being black in America as well, that comes out very strongly (in the film).
CA) We interviewed Steve James a few months ago and he follows his subjects around for years in some cases. How long did this film take you?
LONGINOTTO) This one we filmed for 10 weeks and edited for 10 weeks. I can’t imagine spending as much time as Steve James did on his films because I think people will get sick of me after 10 weeks. It was the right amount of time because I’m there the first thing in the morning, at the end of her bed, and I’m pretty much a part of her life. I know he took years with “Hoop Dreams.” I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. A lot of American filmmakers seem to edit for ages. I like to cut it in 7 or 8 weeks.
CA) I brought up Steve James because despite not working years with your subjects, you still were able to get the trust of the women. Was that ever an issue?
LONGINOTTO) No, it was never an issue. I don’t think spending years and years causes people to trust you more. If you’re very clear with what you’re doing — you’re not there to make a lifelong friend, you’re there to make a film together, you’re going on a journey together. You might as well enjoy it and enjoy each other’s company. I would never make an effort to get someone’s trust. It was an immediate thing.
CA) What was the biggest challenges you faced with the film?
LONGINOTTO) I think it was a lot of my own demons, facing up to things in my own life. I think we’ve all got things that we’ve done, or things where we’ve let people down or things that have happened to us. I didn’t feel separate from any of it. I found a lot of it quite emotional, so that was one of the challenges. I think the other challenge was worrying about doing justice to Brenda’s story and the others. It’s quite a responsibility.
CA) It sounds like all the reaction has been positive.
LONGINOTTO) It has been and she loves it.
CA) People can still see it on Showtime?
LONGINOTTO) Yes, and it will be distributed in cinemas and in colleges and schools. I believe the license with Showtime ends in June. It will also be shown in jails and prisons.
CA) As a Chicagoan, the film shows a side of the city that’s rarely shown or talked about.
LONGINOTTO) I know, and it’s really quite amazing.
CA) The film is upsetting too because one may think of the saying that prostitution is ‘the world’s oldest profession’ and then you see what it really is and you just hope the cycle can be permanently broken.
LONGINOTTO) I think it can. I think the way to start breaking the cycle is to talk to each other and for parents to start listening to their children. That doesn’t seem to be happening an awful lot in the film.
Dreamcatcher will air next on Showtime Friday, April 24.