Game changer

Riveting documentary “Dreamcatcher” explores tireless activism of a former prostitute

Brenda Myers-Powell emerges as a vivacious, powerful force against human trafficking

Courtesy of Women Make Movies

On dusky evenings, Brenda Myers-Powell cruises around the West Side of Chicago, looking for prostitutes. When she sees a woman on the corner, she pulls over her hulking white van and invites them in. She offers them coats and condoms, listens to their stories, receives their tears. She tells them that she understands their pain, and that things can get better. These aren’t just platitudes.  Myers-Powell knows with certainty that scarred and hurting women can build a new future after a life on the streets, because she has done so herself.

For twenty-five years, Myers-Powell worked as a prostitute in Chicago. During that period, she developed a drug addiction, was shot five times, and stabbed thirteen times. In a chillingly gruesome episode that prompted her to change the course of her life, Myers-Powell’s dress got caught in the car of a client, who dragged her along for six blocks, ripping off the right side of her face. And now, Myers-Powell runs The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that strives to support women involved in sex work, and to prevent at-risk youth from getting drawn into the industry. Her tireless efforts to create a survivor-led movement against sex trafficking are chronicled in a quietly shattering documentary by veteran filmmaker Kim Longinotto, aptly titled Dreamcatcher.

With a gentle tone and unadorned technique, Dreamcatcher follows Myers-Powell as she carries out her work—in a local jail, where she conducts seminars with prostitutes; in high schools, where she teaches young girls about the perils of human trafficking and seeks to infuse in them a sense of self-worth; on the streets, where she drives around in a van emblazoned with the words “DREAMCATCHER FOUNDATION,” offering both empathy and practical assistance to sex workers. Myers-Powell’s approach is entirely non-judgemental and thoroughly positive, grounded in the belief that anyone can turn their life around if they are given hope and support. As she tells one young woman, “If you know somebody’s got your back, you’ll make it.”

It is a riveting story, but Longinotto was initially hesitant about taking it on. Some ten years ago, Dreamcatcher’s producer, Lisa Stevens, met Myers-Powell while filming a documentary about a crack house in Rockford, Illinois. Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, who works with Myers-Powell at the Dreamcatcher Foundation, is the mother of a former Chicago gang leader and was interviewed for the documentary; she also introduced Myers-Powell to the film crew. Stevens later got in touch with Longinotto—who has been at the helm of many documentaries that explore the struggles and triumphs of indomitable women—and asked if she would be interested in making a film about Myers-Powell’s unique, survivor-driven approach to fighting human trafficking.

“I didn’t immediately say yes,” Longinotto told Women in the World“I quite like films that are about now, and it seemed like it would be very much a backstory of Brenda getting off the streets. And then [Stevens] showed me a trailer of Brenda that she’d made: a five-minute trailer of Brenda on the streets, talking to women. I suppose it was kind of love at first sight. I just sort of thought, ‘Oh I love this woman. I want to make a film with her.’ It was pretty immediate.”

Director Ki Longinotto. Courtesy of Women Make Movies.

Director Ki Longinotto. (Courtesy of Women Make Movies)

After watching Dreamcatcher, it is easy to understand why Longinotto was so smitten with Myers-Powell. The woman is a magnetic whirlwind of brassy pep-talks, guttural chuckles, and a seemingly endless supply of affection for every beleaguered person who wanders into her life—including, in several instances, a former pimp. Myers-Powell is resolutely tough, and at times, intensely vulnerable. “Even sixteen years out of the lifestyle, seventeen years, I still get emotional,” she says toward the end of Dreamcatcher. “Sometimes people think you dress up, you look well, you make it to everything you’re supposed to make it to. But they don’t know how you’re feeling on the inside.”

What emerges is a delicate and probing portrait of a woman who once worked the streets, which is what Myers-Powell sought out when she agreed to participate in the film. “I saw a lot of TV shows, movies, different stuff about human trafficking and the girls and all of that,” she said in an interview with Women in the World. “And I hated it. I hated the storyline … I wanted [people] to know that [prostitution] came from a lot of pain. It came from a lot of pain before they got there. And the girls who are out there are not just happy hookers. They’re not enjoying the sex. It’s not a lot of fun. I want people to know that. I wanted to take people on a journey from my eyes, and the girls’ eyes, and what we actually do. Our lives.”

Using Myers-Powell as a link to a silent community, Dreamcatcher delves deeply into the vast and corrosive cycle of abuse that so often feeds the sex work industry. The film features a pastiche of interviews with women who rely on Myers-Powell for support—a homeless teenager, a pregnant prostitute, a young woman in prison, Myers-Powell’s drug-addicted sister—and they all share deeply heartbreaking stories of violence, rape, poverty, and neglect. A former pimp named Homer, who now partners with Myers-Powell in her fight against human trafficking, reveals that he also grew up in a broken home, and that he was also sexually abused. In a particularly striking scene, Myers-Powell visits a school to conduct a workshop with at-risk, teenage girls. One by one, the students recount their experiences with sexual molestation, which almost uniformly began in the home when they were small children. Sometimes, they said, their parents knew about the abuse and looked the other way.

Very rarely does a film present the voices of poor, black, and otherwise disenfranchised people with such unobtrusive patience. Myers-Powell knows this well, and communicated as much to the women who appear alongside her in Dreamcatcher“One thing I told them is, ‘Most of the time, you do not have a voice, or a say in what happens to you, or what’s going on around you, or in your community,” Myers-Powell said. “‘But today, you get a chance to be a voice. You get a chance to be a voice in your community, and maybe help someone through your voice.’ It was the first time someone was listening to them.”

Brenda Myers-Powell in "Dreamcatcher." Courtesy of Women Make Movies.

Brenda Myers-Powell in “Dreamcatcher.” (Courtesy of Women Make Movies)

While the action in Dreamcatcher is rooted in an impoverished, predominantly black community of Chicago, Longinotto believes the film carries messages that can transcend the boundaries of location, race, and class. “Of course it’s really important to make an anti-trafficking film, but I wanted to make something where different people could go to the cinema and watch the film, and feel it meant something to them personally,” Longinotto said. “The really interesting thing about Brenda is she talks a lot about families, and secrets, and lies within families, and silences that go through generations. Loads of things that affect us all. In all communities everywhere, worldwide, we have this.”

For her part, Longinotto was able to find palpable—if not nearly as extreme—similarities between Myers-Powell’s life and her own. Though she was born to a relatively affluent family, Longinotto was homeless when her son was born, and ultimately gave up custody to the boy’s father. While filming Dreamcatcher, Longinotto was able to meet Myers-Powell’s daughter Ruth, who was effectively abandoned by her mother as a small child. Ruth is now a child psychologist, and she visited one of Myers-Powell’s high school workshops to speak about the difficult circumstances of her youth. As she addressed the groupLonginotto spotted Myers-Powell in the back of the classroom, crying.

“I went to Brenda and I said, ‘But look at Ruth now. Look at her. She’s fine … You’ve got to forgive yourself and let go.’” Longinotto recalled. “And then it suddenly struck me, and I started to really cry silently, because I thought, ‘There’s terrible guilts that I’ve carried around with me [for] things that I’ve done. I’ve actually got to let them go as well.’”

And really, in spite of its grim backdrop, Dreamcatcher is ultimately a film about moving forward, about hope. Myers-Powell is a vivacious testament to human potential for change, and sprinkled throughout the film are other women who are pulling through in the face of tremendous adversity. “I need to show people that girls can come out of it and they can change,” Myers-Powell said. “They have a saying, ‘Once a ho, always a ho.’ I used to hear that all the time. ‘You’ll never change, you’ll always be a prostitute. And even if you do change, who cares? You are damaged goods.’ Well, I may be damaged, but I’m good. I’m a very good person.”

Dreamcatcher, which is distributed by Women Make Movies, is currently being screened in select cities across the U.S. As the movie about her life makes its rounds, Myers-Powell is busy working on a new project: The Dream Center, which she hopes will become a comprehensive care facility to help women transition out of prostitution. To make her vision come to life, Myers-Powell will need to raise $500,000, which would—among other things—allow her and her Dreamcatcher co-founder to quit their day jobs and focus full-time on this work.

“Since 2007, when we first started [The Dreamcatcher Foundation], we’ve reached out to over 2500 young ladies in some kind of way,” Myers-Powell said. “We have rescued over 87 girls … We have sent eight girls to college, who started with us in 7th or 8th grade, who were molested, damaged in some kind of way, who were at risk … Imagine the impact that we would have on this issue if we were able to do this full time. Right now, we have a huge impact on what we’re doing part time. Come on, now. It just seems like something that needs to be done.”

Until she raises the necessary funds, Myers-Powell will continue to perform her outreach work on her own time, without pay. She jokes that she would rather “be on a couch watching Law and Order,” but she knows she is a powerful advocate for women who have been sloughed off as hopeless causes—women, in fact, who are just like her. “Without permission, we’re out here surviving,” Myers-Powell said. “How bout that?”


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