Early on in “Dreamcatcher”, two female prostitutes struggling to leave their professions behind after a lifetime full of pain and regret, sit across Brenda Myers-Powell, an ex-prostitute who now dedicates her life to save as many victims of human trafficking as possible while providing them with all of the emotional and practical support she can muster. Listening to these women tell their horrifying stories, it’s not hard to come to the inevitable conclusion that they didn’t have many positive or nurturing influences in their lives. Like millions of other women like them all around the world, they’re ignored by the public and relegated to being lowly sex workers. No one cares about them, except for Brenda.
As Brenda listens, really listens, to these women’s dreams and aspirations, a glimmer of hope emerges on their forlorn faces. Yet, they are also afraid. They’re afraid that after someone finally acknowledged their presence in their cold and uncaring world, they will relapse into their old ways of prostitution and drug addiction, losing Brenda’s support in the process. At this point, something extraordinary happens. Before they can finish articulating this concern, Brenda cuts them off and explains to them with words brimming with compassion and kindness, that she will not give up on them, even if they give up on themselves. She tells them that sometimes it takes her many years to successfully rehabilitate her clients, with many relapses in between, and assures them that she will never give up hope, that she will never judge their decisions. “How can I judge you?”, she asks. “I am you.”
“Dreamcatcher” is a raw, powerful, and downright inspirational documentary that once again proves how much positive change even a single person can bring to the world. Founder of The Dreamcatcher Organization, a Chicago-based program that seeks to put an end to human trafficking, Brenda is a headstrong woman with an infectious personality full of life and energy. Yet things weren’t always this sunny for her. After years of being beaten and abused as a prostitute named “Breezy,” her moment of clarity came when a john beat her within an inch of her life, cut almost her entire face off, and left her for dead.
After doctors were miraculously able to fully reconstruct her face, she decided to help those who suffered the way she did while hopefully saving them before they reach her level of desperation. During her nightly trips around the most dangerous parts of Chicago, she fearlessly approaches even the most hardened women of the night, asking them if they need shelter, condoms, or just someone to listen to their troubles. In order to truly reach these people, most of whom never had a positive human presence in their lives, she utilizes three almost deceptively simple yet staggeringly effective approaches: Compassion, empathy, and patience. Isn’t it amazing how qualities of basic human decency, that trait William Holden thought was the modern world’s unwanted nuisance in “Network”, can still move mountains?
Director Kim Longinotto, a prolific documentarian with over 30 years of experience, employs a fly-on-the wall approach in order to successfully connect the audience with Brenda’s story. There isn’t any voice-over narration, edutainment sections full of animated charts about human trafficking, or any visual essay aesthetics that might come off as didactic or preachy. There’s only a single and short sequence where Longinotto makes her presence known as she asks questions to an ex-pimp who helps Brenda on her mission, otherwise her camera simply works as a window into this sadly underrepresented world.
A good chunk of the film’s run time is dedicated to honest testimonials from sex workers, whose stories range from depressing to downright devastating. Longonitto simply points her camera on these women and lets them expunge entire lifetimes worth of abuse and pain. The hardest sequences to watch are the stories from “at-risk” teenagers, whom Brenda coaches at a public high school. These girls were sexually abused for years, mostly by close family members, starting as early as age 9. No one, not even their own parents, helped or even listened to them, choosing instead to ignore their cries to simply be allowed to experience their childhoods without this level of trauma. Yet even after all of that hardship, Brenda manages to extract some hope and humor out of these girls, perhaps because she knows that she was also able to reinvigorate a hopeful and humorous outlook on her own once miserable life.
If I had to point out one negative aspect of “Dreamcatcher,” it would be the unnecessary and sometimes borderline offensive use of subtitles that corrects the subjects’ grammar and translates their occasional use of slang. Anyone, regardless of race and educational background, should be able to understand what the film’s subjects are saying at any given time. Some of these translations are so absurdly contrived, they reminded me of the subtitles given to the jive-talking black characters in “Airplane!”, which is the last movie that should pop into your mind while watching “Dreamcatcher”. That being said, if the subtitles allow someone to better understand the film’s subjects, empathize with Brenda’s mission, and hopefully donate some money to her cause, then I’m all for it.
During a time when capes, cowl,s and comic book worlds dominate the big screen, telling fantastical tales in wild other worlds, “Dreamcatcher” is a love letter to a true American hero who roams our streets. [A-]