Prostitution is a subject that is regularly explored through cinema, but never has it been examined in such a daring, compassionate and unapologetic way. The focus is on former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell. Myers-Powell runs Dreamcatcher, a project that aids vulnerable women who are either current or former prostitutes, or are at risk of entering that world. The help she provides varies from handing out condoms, to campaigning for the rights of incarcerated prostitutes, to being a mother-figure to those who so desperately need it. She is a modern day heroine, full of whit, but with a sturdy, calming presence.
We follow Myers-Powell through her endeavours, as she expertly manages a wide range of increasingly desperate situations; situations that are, as becomes apparent, part of her day-to-day existence. Nobody can really be prepared for the harsh reality that comes crashing down when it becomes clear that in a classroom of ‘at risk’ girls that she is working with, every single one of them has dealt with physical or sexual abuse, neglect and exposure to hard drug use from their caregivers. Every single one. In one classroom, in one part of one country – it makes the scale of the problem impossible to comprehend.
Longinotto is an expert in humanising people. Her unfathomable ability to delve in to the heart of each of her subjects, without judgment or agenda, is astonishing. This includes a reformed pimp, who now works with Myers-Powell to try and shed light on the psyche of the men who are part of this world. The inclusion of his voice is a brave, but essential move from Longinotto. The film isn’t about blame, it’s about understanding.
Myers-Powell’s incredible ability for compassion is enhanced through the film. Longinotto’s exploration of her as a woman, rather than as a former prostitute, is one of the films’ greatest achievements. Perhaps the only shred of genuine pleasure that can be gained from the film, which deals with such a horrific subject, is via Longinotto’s observation of Myers-Powell choosing which wig she is going to wear for work one day. As she frets and fusses, declaring how her choice of hair is a reflection of how she feels that day, we see her at her most empowered. Her femininity is hers to have, it does not belong to anybody else.
When you consider the subject matter, and indeed when you hear some of the painful stories that are told by the subjects – many of whom are very young girls – it’s hard to comprehend there being even an iota of hope for anyone in the situation. In fact, Longinotto is careful not to present the piece as a tale of triumph, nor as a bleak presentation of a hideous epidemic. In reflection, there is no overriding feeling of positivity – how can there be when what is presented is only the tiniest insight in to the smallest cross-section of a world-wide issue that is far beyond anybody’s control?
If there is one, absolutely glaringly obvious fact that the film illuminates unashamedly, is that every single one of our subjects does not want to be in the situation they are in. Even Myers-Powell, who throughout the film comes across as a stoic, proud, powerful women, mourns her past. She feels crippling guilt at the thought of the women that she pulled in to this world, and for her children who undoubtedly suffered as a result of her time as a sex worker. This film is a vital antidote to every titillating, romanticised study of prostitution in Hollywood; this is real, this is how it really is. What Longinotto has achieved cannot, and must not be underestimated.