HOT DOCS ’15: ‘Dreamcatcher’ fights human trafficking with both truth and hope

Dreamcatcher_2

DREAMCATCHER premiered Friday, April 24 at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre. For further screenings of the film, head here.

A dreamcatcher keeps a watchful eye out for evil forces. So it only seems fitting that the spiritual token would inspire the title of Brenda Myers-Powell’s inspiring, yet heartbreaking organization focused on saving young women from entering prostitution (and other women from staying in it), as well as the title of Kim Longinotto’s brutally honest, yet hopeful film centred on it.

Dreamcatcher not only follows Myers-Powell as she helps women find their way out of the damaging–we’re talking physically and mentally in all senses–and discrimination-based trade, it is also about digging up the truths about the trafficking of women, particularly African American women, in America. And let me just say that the truth ain’t pretty. No, not at all.

Before we even get to the women that Myers-Powell is helping, we learn about her personal history with prostitution, a former life where drugs and turning tricks came before her children, not to mention her own health and safety. If it isn’t shocking enough to find out that Myers-Powell got out of the business after she lost her face–her face!–during a horrific encounter with a client, wait until you hear how casually some of the still-working women she deals with brush off the fact that their friends have been killed (and we’re talking recently) on the job. Better (or should it be worse?) yet, prepare to hear the nightmarish tales of some brave former prostitutes, now in jail for trafficking, who are willing to share stories of their days of dealing with the type of abusive, misogynistic men who would break their jaws and still ask them to perform oral sex.

Although many of the stories women reveal in Dreamcatcher offer unshakeable insight into an industry fueled by a lack of respect for women and their bodies, Longinotto juxtaposes them wonderfully against the exact opposite: moments of Myers-Powell doing her best to show women, young and old, that they deserve to be treated as people of worth, not as commodities for show. This woman is honestly a goldmine of a subject, not only because she does incredible work, but because she does it all with an upbeat grace and endless amount of understanding. One minute she’s respectfully real-talking with a pregnant prostitute about relapsing on crack, the next minute she’s singing “As” (by Stevie Wonder) to a group of high school girls who have been victims of sexual trauma and thus, she believes, could be at risk of turning to prostitution in desperate times. (Trigger warning: a lot of the film deals with sexual abuse frankly, suggesting that it can often colour how a woman views appropriate sexual conduct.)

The fact is, Longinotto’s film would be more realistically depressing than surprisingly loving without Myers-Powell. But Longinotto clearly sees Myers-Powell’s strength as well, as the director not only allows her subject to be seen in most scenes, but also allows her to interview most of the subjects featured. This gives the film a genuine, true-to-life quality, as if you’re walking in on one of Myers-Powell’s sessions with these women. It’s an especially effective technique as Myers-Powell speaks to some of the younger women featured in the film, as you can see them open up to their mentor in a way that they wouldn’t a filmmaker.

If these reasons weren’t enough to make you want to catch Dreamcatcher ASAP, do know that in addition to speaking with Myers-Powell, her “Dreamcatcher girls” and her family, we also get to know the other side of prostitution, a.k.a. the men who lure women into, and keep them coming back to, the game. One interviewee is Brenda’s reformed male coworker and while speaking with both Longinotto and the aforementioned high school group, he provides real and harrowing insight into how pimps view their so-called “wives” and what damage this view can do.

Clearly, if we’re going to stop human trafficking, we need to confront it from both sides of the unfortunate equation. Thankfully, women like Myers-Powell and Longinotto not only see this, but are working tirelessly to make the rest of us get there too.

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Emily is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.

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