Few documentaries these days align themselves as concretely and directly with a particular cause or worldview as Dreamcatcher does. Most documentaries prefer to expose and to criticize without ever offering much in the way of alternatives or positives. Equally, many documentaries prefer hard-hitting action film camerawork and editing over stories about people eloquently and humanistically presented. Dreamcatcher then is a true documentary – a tough view of a world that needs fixed and a clear-sighted but non-judgemental view of the people on all sides of this world, an angry but compassionate, affectionate film about people and their world.
The film follows the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based movement that provides a framework for women to get out of sex work on their own terms and in their own time. The co-founders, Brenda Myers-Powell and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, are both former sex workers themselves, are first seen driving around the streets of Chicago at night, offering help and assistance or simply condoms to anyone they find. Their approach to the problem is to act as a movement of solidarity, to support women who want to get out and to provide for them when they are ready.
Where many documentaries will have a political agenda and then find the people to fit, Dreamcatcher approaches the issue of sex work entirely from the perspective of the people both involved directly with the Dreamcatcher Foundation and those who came under their wing along the way. As a result, the film moves along with a world view that is totally undeniable and thoroughly authentic. Film culture is remarkably poor when it comes to the sex worker – they are common enough on screen, but they are usually confident and well-rounded and ultimately happy. Dreamcatcher has the effect of an angry polemic, but it is only angry as far as it makes the viewer angry – the film itself is relatively restrained, it does not even use much score to guide the viewer, rightly aware that the life stories told on screen are enough to make the point.
And these stories are powerful. In one shocking scene, Myers-Powell sits quietly in an after school meeting in which student after student offers up their experiences of sexual abuse and deprivation. We move from this to a scene of Myers-Powell in her day job, talking to sex workers in prison. The point is obvious – that sex work is not a choice but is being prosecuted as if it is – and powerful (there are still enough people in the world with delusions about the sex trade) but it is the stories of these women that is the focus, providing the true corrective. As much as Dreamcatcher is a film of solidarity, it is a film of collective action and experience.
Where other documentaries will settle for providing a villain for the audience to despise, Dreamcatcher and the founders of the Foundation itself do not settle for vilification. We also hear the story of Homer, Myers-Powell’s former pimp and now a key speaker in her organisation. Again, his story provides a further corrective, being another story of sexual abuse and economic deprivation, providing again a political point (the victimisers are often as much a victim of the cycle as the more obvious victims) through and because of a human story.
As a result, Dreamcatcher is a powerfully humanist film, addressing an argument in human terms where it has too often been presented in terms of statistics and criminality. Being a story of a grassroots movement and the good work that they do, the film provides more than a powerful push for change. It shows this change in motion and working. The film is not an easy watch but few films give as much hope.
Offering a view that cannot be ignored or belittled as well as providing an insight into how revolution can be achieved through collective action, Dreamcatcher is one of the most important political and humanistic documentaries ever made. It is an urgent and thoroughly moving film that bears witness and gives hope. Find it and see it.