This British Documentary Filmmaker is Having a Moment

This British Documentary Filmmaker is Having a Moment
This British Documentary Filmmaker is Having Moment

After a 30-year career of making observational documentaries about women in difficult situations around the world, British director Kim Longinotto is having a moment. “Dreamcatcher,” her latest film and her fifth feature documentary to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, won the Director Award (Documentary World Cinema) at the festival.

“Astonishing in its intimacy and wrenching in its emotional rawness, ‘Dreamcatcher’ captures moments of such startling pain and anguish so well it’s a miracle that a camera-person was sitting close by to record it,” wrote Anthony Kaufman for Indiewire.

The multi-award winning Longinotto will receive the 2015 Robert and Anne Drew Award at DOC NYC Film Festival tonight, just a day after she was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Direction by Cinema Eye Honors. Jill Drew, the general manager of Drew Associates, who helped select the recipient, said, “Kim has trained her lens with a graceful touch on some of the most heartbreaking stories of women around the globe. By letting those stories unfold naturally, Kim lets the viewer feel what it’s like, to feel our shared humanity.”

READ MORE: Watch: Exclusive Trailer for Kim Longinotto’s Sundance-Bound Doc ‘Dreamcatcher’

Meanwhile, SundanceNow Doc Club is currently featuring a digital retrospective of her work.

“Dreamcatcher,” Longinotto’s first film to be shot in the United States, follows Brenda Myers-Powell, a former Chicago prostitute whose Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking and to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth.

In cinema vérité-style, “Dreamcatcher” treats its subjects with the utmost of respect and grants them room to tell their own stories in their own words. Without hitting the viewer over the head with a message, the film presents a powerful vision of young girls in unbelievably difficult situations. Though their stories are unbelievably bleak, the film isn’t at all. In fact, with Myers-Powell’s charismatic and open-hearted presence, “Dreamcatcher” is uplifting and hopeful. 

Showtime Networks acquired the rights to the film before its premiere at Sundance. Indiewire spoke to Longinotto in advance of the film’s screening at DOC NYC.

How you find your subjects in general, and in particular Brenda, who is just remarkable?
In general, they come from all different places. Sometimes it’s an article I read. Sometimes people find me. With Brenda, the film’s producer knew Brenda and showed me a little clip of some filming of Brenda and it was sort of love at first sight. It was like the first day of school and you think, “I want to be friends with the popular girl. I want that girl to be my friend.” It was that sort of thing. I thought Brenda was just fantastic.

One of the things I really love about her, and there are so many things I love about her, one thing I really value is that she’s come out of something really tough that a lot of women would come out of and then put the past behind them and deny it. Brenda never does that. She never pretends to be what some would call “respectable” or like she’s part of some privileged class.

That’s how she gets to the girls [she mentors]. She’s constantly thinking of herself as them and identifying with them and I think that’s so brilliant. It’s a kind of deep honesty, and at the same time, when she’s in the car towards the end of the film and she’s saying, “It takes a lot to put this person together every morning and sometimes I have panic attacks and sometimes I feel I can’t cope,” she’s in recovery. When you’re in recovery, you’re never safe or better, you’re always aware that you’re on a journey and that you’re never in a safe place. You always have to put effort into being a survivor. I loved that she brought the audience into that.

She doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t. She lets us see everything. We’re in the bathroom, she’s naked putting her eyelashes on and putting her hair together, putting this gorgeous diva-like beauty together. We see it all and she’s taking us in with that wonderful Brenda fearlessness.

Did you spend any time with her before you started shooting just discussing the process?
No, I don’t do that because I think, a bit like going back to the first day at school thing. If you and I were sitting somewhere having a cup of tea and talking about something, pretty soon, we’d be talking and sharing something. That’s how you make friends, you share little things about each other. I wouldn’t want to go and get Brenda and know her and then start all over again. Maybe she would tell me things that were really great, like when she can’t find her hair [piece] at the beginning of the things I filmed. I would hate to have been there for that and then think, “Well, she’s never going to do that again ever.” That happened once where she told me she didn’t feel like that hair, she felt like another hair. I know that she never told us that again. We go on this journey from the beginning and we learn about each other as we go along. Obviously, you don’t see the part where I’m saying, “You know what, Brenda? This happened to me or that happened to me or my family was this.” You don’t get that because my bits aren’t interesting, but we’re sharing along the way and that’s how films are made.
So how did you get Brenda and the other subjects to feel at ease when you were filming?
It wasn’t a conscious effort. I remember that the girls in the school, I showed them a film I’d made before where these amazing, brave girls speak out against all sorts of things and none of them had any questions. I thought, “Oh, they don’t like me!” They were very quiet so I told them a little bit about myself and they went away very, very quiet. Then the very next time they filmed them was that scene where they talk about those very, very personal things they’ve either told people and not been listened to, or they’ve told people and people have been angry, or they’ve told people and not been believed. I think I’d had that experience and we shared that and we shared it on film and it was the most amazing, moving thing for me. It as a shared journey we were going on.
I know Nick Broomfield was a big inspiration for you.
I mean he’s my best friend, my mentor. I adore him. He’s wonderful.
I was actually thinking about his film “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” when watching “Dreamcatcher.” Obviously, the biggest difference is that Nick injects himself into his films. Did you ever consider that type of approach?
No, never because I don’t think I’m that interesting. I always wanted to be a rebel and I never made it, I’m  basically somebody who tries to get through life with the least bad things happening to me and they seem to follow me. I love people like Brenda and I admire them and I want to bring them onto the screen and share things with them. Nick is completely different.

I think you make the films that reflect the person that you are and Nick is a little scamp, I love his scampishness. He’s got this huge sense of fun. He’s mischievous. I think our two films have huge similarities, but we were saying last night, they’re hugely different and they reflect the sort of people we are. Nick’s is a thriller. It’s an investigation and it’s a very angry political film with a big P. Mine is a more emotional, personal, exploratory film that is very, very different. I adored “Grim Sleeper” when I saw it and I loved that it exposes things in that way. Ever since “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” Nick has been furious about so many things and I think that strain goes through the films and I think that’s what makes them so wonderful. He knew he wanted to find out all sorts of things. In my films, it’s very much more people taking me on this journey and getting really really close into people’s lives.

Did you discuss at all with Brenda or any of the other subjects in the film about whether they would have any sort of creative control? Did you show the film to them?
I said at the beginning, and it was truthful and I meant every word, “Look, we’re doing this together. This is our film.” It was a journey that we made together and the fact that those girls said all those things the very first time we filmed meant that they took me at my word and they went for it. You can see in that scene that Brenda is not prepared for all that and she’s been with them for over a year and she’s going, “I’m going to teach you how to avoid having to have sex with boys and hold onto your childhoods,” and they’re saying, “This happened a long time ago when I was four and we haven’t told anyone ever” and Brenda’s like, “Woah! I didn’t expect this to happen!”

You see it happening as we’re filming and that is because we made a joint decision that we were going to go through with this and we were going to do something together and it was worth doing. They took the opportunity to say what they had hidden. There was a huge sense of relief. I was crying in that scene! Not because I felt upset, but because I was so proud of them and because of the relief. It was such a brilliant thing to do and one of the girls said to me afterwards, “I hope it helps other girls in my position. I hope it helps other girls to speak out because I feel so much better now that I talked about it.”

I can imagine. With your previous films, you’ve focused on the plight of women in, for lack of a better word, developing nations. Did you actively decide to focus on issues facing women in a Western nation? Or did that happen because of Brenda?
It happened because of Brenda. I follow the stories and the stories either crash into my life or people find me or what happened with the producer where she asked me to make the film. I would love to make many more films in English-speaking countries, because I love being able to have heart-to-heart conversations with people. I loved that I could ask them things. I said a lot of things to them about my own life which is much harder to do through a translator. It different for each film, really, but all the films are about personal things. They’re all about things that we share. We’ve all got so much in common and there are these rebels and people trying to change things and that’s what they’re all about.
Now that you’re getting this retrospective from SundanceNow Doc Club and you’re being honored at DOC NYC, do you feel like you’re part of the establishment now?
It’s gorgeous because this award is for them. The award is for these women. If these people, if Brenda or the kids that I’ve filmed, if they weren’t brave enough to make these big leaps of imagination, I wouldn’t be getting this award. I don’t fool myself that I’m special. This is not my award, this is our award. I’ll always feel like an outsider and I’ll always feel hugely insecure, which I think a lot of us are, and I’m so grateful to get this. It’s brilliant because it says to me, “We love these women and they’re worth listening to and we love Brenda.” Every time “Dreamcatcher” gets some sort of recognition, it’s good for Brenda, it’s good for the girls, it’s good for all of us in the world that can speak out and believe in change. That’s what it’s about.
Do you think that with all these honors, it will make it any easier to get your films funded?
No, it’s always going to be hell [laughs]. “Dreamcatcher” got that award in Sundance and it’s been so hard to fund the next one. “Dreamcatcher” was really hard to fund. We had to come to America for the funding because we couldn’t get it in England. I think funding is hard but I don’t feel sorry for myself. It’s hard for everybody.
That’s true, but it’s obviously harder when you’re approaching difficult issues as opposed to feel-good documentaries.
I did try and say to them that I feel this is a hugely feel good film. I did try and say, “Brenda is so inspirational and she’s such fun!” A lot of people think, “I don’t want to watch this, it’s about prostitution,” but it’s not really about prostitution. It’s about surmounting insurmountable odds and it’s about change and it’s about all of us being able to turn things around. There’s not a “them and us.” We all have those moments when we feel that we can’t go on for whatever reason. Every day I think, “If Brenda can do it, I can do it. Come on, Kim! Stop feeling so sorry for yourself. You actually went to school. You didn’t go through anything like this and if she can do it, don’t be so pathetic. You can do it.” That’s one of the many things I’ve learned from her.

READ MORE: SundanceNow Doc Club Announces Retrospective in Honor of Kim Longinotto

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