Judgmental, tone deaf condemnation of sex work is nothing new. For the latest on that front, look no further than Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell’s much-derided op-ed suggesting that sex workers can't be considered victims of rape. She's wrong, of course, and for proof, she should watch the documentary Dreamcatcher. Everyone should. It’s playing at the Gene Siskel Center tonight at 8:15 p.m.—Showtime has also bought the rights—and it offers a refreshing, illuminating counterpoint to the standard noise about sex work.
Shot in Chicago by British documentary maker Kim Longinotto, the film follows 10 weeks in the life of Brenda Myers-Powell, a former sex worker-turned-activist who spends most of her time reaching out to at-risk girls. She goes out a few nights a week with fellow volunteers to her old haunts mostly on the West Side, offering free condoms and a listening ear. She doesn’t press, she doesn’t judge. She observes and supports. Throughout the film, whether she’s counseling a group of teenage girls in an after school program, speaking to detained prostitutes at Cook County jail, or playing with her adopted son, she’s motivational and empathetic, charismatic and graceful.
Her performance—and “performance” is the right word, as she indeed has the bearing of a diva—is remarkable, considering the grim beginnings of her story. Subject to systematic sexual abuse in her youth (a recurring thread for almost every woman onscreen in the film), she turned to prostitution at age 14 after an older pimp seduced her with the promise of a record deal. She was repeatedly raped, stabbed multiple times and once beaten so badly that she “had no face.”
Her story is one of ruthless, aggressive survival, but the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t deify her. “You can’t survive on these streets and not play a part in victimizing,” she says at one point, relaying the story of how she would ensnare young girls to work for her pimp.
Due diligence must be paid to the veteran documentary maker and director Longinotto, who notably refrains from easy sentiment, no saccharine music (for the most part), no overarching narrative lift. In an interview with Sundance’s blog (where the film premiered in January and won an award for best directing), Longinotto reveals how rarely she filmed, though she always had her camera with her ("I only filmed when I got goosebumps") and how she never reshot or reconstructed anything. It shows. All the revelations and plot twists that viewer experiences for the first time, Longinotto is experiencing for the first time also. It's not fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, it's participatory revelation.
Dreamcatcher screens tonight at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. siskelfilmcenter.org $11.