I like to think of Kim Longinotto's films as gangster movies. Only, instead of giving violent men the limelight, Kim's protagonists are the women who fight back against the men – the kind of women you wouldn't dare fuck with.
Take Kim's 2008 documentary, Rough Aunties, which won the Sundance documentary award for its portrayal of the "Bobbi Bears", a gang of five women in South Africa who look after abused and abandoned children. Or 2010's Pink Saris, the story of Sampat Pal, a formidable vigilante taking on India's endemic rape problem. You could say that, throughout her prolific career as a documentarian, Kim's always championed the female as the underdog.
"It's not really about the oppression of women," says Kim, when I meet to interview her for the second time. She's not keen on that word. She says she doesn't like films about victims – watching or making them.
"Take Sampat Pal," Kim starts. "She's quite dour, she's full of anger and she's quite damaged – but she's not a victim. She was a woman with nothing, no money and no education, who triumphed over it, and is now helping other people and breaking all the rules. If you think about it like that, these stories are about rebels, and those rebels are usually women, because, in most situations, men have an awful lot more power."
British-born, Kim started making films in the late 1970s, when she attended the National Film and Television School in London. The first film that really got people talking was Shinjuku Boys, a sensitive look at Tokyo's female-to-male transgender community and a nightclub that only counts trans boys among its staff. Unlike her good friend and contemporary Nick Broomfield, Kim doesn't appear in her own films. She is softly spoken and, by her own admission, quite scruffy.
We've met to talk about Kim's new Chicago-set documentary, Dreamcatcher, the story of Brenda Myers, an ex-prostitute and crack cocaine addict turned guidance councillor. Like Sampat Pal, Brenda is a survivor. Near the opening of the film, she recalls the time a John attempted to cut away her face with a blade, setting a precedent for the shocking accounts of violence that pervade the film; murderous pimps, systemic child abuse and drug-related crime all feature.
Kim was homeless herself at one time, and empathises with Brenda's situation: "A lot of people who've been down and out in different ways want to deny it or move on," she tells me. "Probably the hardest thing in the world it to admit to being an ex-prostitute for 25 years, whereas Brenda doesn't care. She's now living in the suburbs, she's got a job in the jails and she's got a husband.
"A lot of women would think, 'I want to be respectable now. I don't want people to know about my past. I'm going to reinvent myself and work in a bank, or something.' But Brenda isn't doing that; she's constantly telling these girls she's one of them. And I love her for that."
Brenda conducts her outreach work under the banner of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, which she founded in 2008 to aid women like herself and fight human trafficking in Chicago. Today, Brenda holds seminars for female sex workers in prisons, as well as talking to "high-risk" girls in inner-city schools. The foundation also owns a van, which Brenda and her colleagues drive around downtown Chicago at night, offering girls on the streets everything from condoms to a support network, should they want to quit drugs or leave the game.
The opening scene of Kim's documentary shows Brenda talking at length to the girls she pulls into her van off the street. Kim and her producer, Lisa Stevens, are right there in the conversation, their camera unflinching, as one women recalls multiple stabbings from a client, followed by another young sex worker talking about her homelessness and crack addiction. There is no other film I can think of that listens so calmly and intently to the critically underrepresented voices of black American women – or women anywhere, for that matter.
I ask Kim whether she'd consider her work vérité, and she said she found it quite the opposite: "It's not fly on the wall, it's participatory. I don't know what the word is, but it's totally subjective, totally involved. I want the audience to feel like they're there, and they're me, and they're watching it through the camera."
I ask her whether access was ever a problem, given that none of the sex workers in the film seem to have a problem with safeguarding their identity. "There was never any problem," she says. "I don't think anyone said they didn't want to talk to us. I think it helped that we were women, that we looked a bit scruffy and we weren't putting them down. They knew we would do it with them."
The only time Kim's presence is felt is when you hear her voice float over the camera as she asks someone on screen a question. Even though you haven't seen her, the suddens sound of her voice feels natural. Maybe it's because, throughout the film, you can subtly tell a woman is filming. Kim agrees: "You could see that Dreamcatcher was definitely made by a woman. It couldn't not be made by a woman; a man couldn't have filmed Brenda in the bathroom with no clothes on, or have got so close."
Dreamcatcher is a powerful and harrowing character-led documentary from start to finish. But there's one scene that really stays with you – the worst rape scene I've ever seen in cinema. Kim is filming Brenda giving her weekly school workshop, and the girls start to talk about their experiences of sexual abuse. One by one, domino-effect, they blankly recall childhood rapes from family members and strangers, as though it was perfectly normal. Almost every girl in the class has been abused. The rape is graphic – more graphic for the fact that we don't see it – and particularly horrific because abuse is clearly so engrained in this community.
"The young girls talking about rape in the class really rocked me," Kim remembers. "I was crying as I filmed that. When one girl, Sharita, said, 'I tried to fend them off, but I couldn't because I was only little, so my body was covered in scars and I was nine when it happened to my four-year-old sister,' I was thinking, 'Oh my poor girl, how are you still sane?' I'm not meant to cry, but I do. And Brenda is shocked because she's there to tell them all how not to get raped and how not to go into sex work, but finds out they've been having sex since they were four. I think what moved me most was the fact that they were all so nonchalant about this abuse. And I think, 'I hope they don't see me crying, because it seems so indulgent.'
"Most people I know have had some kind of experience of violence or abuse, and we don't tell people – we're trained not to because it's such a taboo subject and so shameful when it happens to us. When I was raped at film school it was this horrible gang rape. I was really beaten up and I remember going into the canteen and this one woman said to me, 'Oh god, what happened to your face?' And I said, 'Last night I was on the heath and I was beaten up and raped,' and she backed away from me. I never spoke to that woman again, and I thought, 'It's going to be hard to keep telling people why I'm like this, because it makes them awkward with me.'
"In this country we do tend to call people victims and blur their faces and give them special court screens. It's like you're not meant to tell people it's happened. Actually, it would be so much better if everybody was open, because sexual abuse is far more widespread than everybody thinks, or anyone wants to believe. So is child abuse, and we're starting to come to grips with it, but what we need to do is learn from Brenda. I want people to see this film in schools and colleges, because she's saying to them, 'I'm teaching awareness of this so that it doesn't happen to you.'"
When Dreamcatcher ended, I sat in my kitchen and cried for about five minutes. Like, really cried. Cried like Kim did in the classroom. Which demonstrates the success of her films; the extent to which they really do pull you into the story. By the end of the 100 minutes you are there with Brenda 100 percent. You might know that she left her babies in cockroach-ridden crack-houses; that she, at one time, was responsible for bringing other girls in for her pimps. But you entirely forgive her.
This was always Kim's intention: "What I'm trying to do is put layers into the story," she says, "so that every time you watch it you get something different. I'm not so interested in an investigation, I'm more interested in making a film that's like a novel; novelists can empathise with someone else's situation, they can see into other people's lives. That's what I'm trying to do, even with the pimps in Dreamcatcher... I want you to understand people rather than judge them."
Dreamcatcher is in UK cinemas from the 6th of March.
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