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Kim Longinotto On Fostering Intimacy With Her Subjects and Giving a Voice to Women’s Stories in Dreamcatcher
Monday, January 26th, 2015
Kim Longinotto has to be approaching some kind of record, if she hasn’t already broken it. This year she returns to the Festival for a fifth time with a documentary feature (The Day I Will Never Forget in 2003, Sisters In Law in 2006, Salma in 2013, and Rough Aunties took home the World Cinema Grand Jury prize in 2008) the latest in a 30-year, career-spanning project of giving a voice, face and human complexity to women’s stories around the world. Her first film to be shot in the United States, Dreamcatcher follows Brenda Myers-Powell, a former Chicago prostitute who’s dedicated her life to pulling young women off the streets, and preventing at-risk girls from ending up there. A true force of nature, Myers-Powell allows Longinotto to sit in on interventions with teens, accompany her to a women’s prison, and drive around Chicago looking to engage, educate, and help women on the make. In this extensive interview conducted via Skype before the Festival, the veteran filmmaker talks about how she met her charismatic character, how she fosters such intimacy with both her subjects and the audience, and why she never, ever tells a subject what to do.
How do you think Brenda will take to being at Sundance with Dreamcatcher? It would seem she’s primed and ready to be in the spotlight.
I imagine that Brenda will love it. She’s very much a star. You know, the way that her pimp got her in his clutches was he promised to make her a recording artist. It’s so cruel what he did. He paid for a really pathetic little gig in some horrible dive, and she sang. She’s actually got a good voice—she probably could have been a recording artist. She’s got the personality for it. But she probably would have been about 14 or 15. Then he said, “oh, you know, I’m trying to get money for you to be a recording star, meanwhile if you sleep with all these men we’ll get some money and put it into the record deals.” And of course he never did. And that’s how it all started. So I think this kind of stardom is going to be really amazing for her. Because she’s a diva, in the best sense of the word.
But being in a film that addresses your own very traumatic life is different—was it hard in any way for her to get used to the camera?
She loved being filmed. She loved driving the car and me filming her. Everyone in the film loved being filmed for different reasons. It was the first time that people were listening to them. In the film [there’s a scene where] Brenda was really shocked that they all started to talk about [being raped] in class. Afterwards she said, “God, I didn’t know this was going to happen, I’ve been with them for two years. Why does this happen now? I should have had a counselor here. I’ve really mucked it up.” And when they were going out, the girls hugged me and said, “We did it for you.” And what they meant was not me personally, but me as a sort of conduit to you. That at last their voices were being heard and they could tell their stories. To have their stories appreciated is going to be a huge thing. And that’s why Sundance is the best possible place.
That’s incredible that they said that to you, that they had all decided that this was the time and place to talk about being abused.
And this was the first time we’d filmed them. But what I’d done was I’d shown them Sisters in Law, and I had a whole day of talking to them. I said, “I’m relying on you. This is your film. We’ll do it together.” And they didn’t seem to be listening—they were eating their food and looking at their nails. But it obviously really meant something to them. And I love the irony of it, because Brenda’s going “I don’t want this to happen to you, you’ve got to work out strategies for it not happening to you,” and it had already happened to all of them. From the age of about 8.
You said that you told them you want to make something together, with them. Is that generally your strategy, to talk about it that way?
It’s just truthful. It’s the only way to make the sort of films I make. Because the sort of films that I’m interested in making involve people really enjoying being in the film. Often I say that to people and they misinterpret it. They think it means people act up for the camera. It’s not at all that. It’s about being heard. It’s about being valued. And it’s a feeling that their whole lives have led up to this one point. What’s amazing about Brenda is that 99% of people who have a respectable life—she’s got a husband, she’s got a kid, she’s living in the suburbs—would keep their past quiet. But what she does is use her past to help other people. And that’s why she loved being in the film. The film is now going to do it for her. The film can go all over the world without her.
I wouldn’t necessarily call what she does on screen performing—she’s clearly herself—but she’s usually addressing people, consciously presenting herself, mindful of whomever she’s dealing with.
Exactly. But she never felt that with me. We’ve got her in bed being depressed. We’ve got her saying, “I put on this front, I don’t feel like that inside.” You know, that it takes a lot to be the person she’s trying to be. I think maybe performing is a good word, but what she’s really doing is putting herself out there, being what people need. She’s being strong, she’s saying to people “I’m a survivor, I did it, you can do it too.” And that’s a performance. Because there’s Brenda who’s feeling terribly depressed, there’s Brenda who’s sad, there’s Brenda for whom all these girls slip through her fingers. There’s Brenda who has flashbacks, and panic attacks about what she’s been through. I think you have to qualify the notion of performance, because I really don’t want people to think she’s acting.
When talking about documentary subjects, I don’t really think straight acting comes into it. To me it’s a universal truth that we perform for each other. I’m performing myself to you—I’m being genuine but it’s also a presentation.
But to be honest with you, I work as camera for a lot of my friends who make documentaries, and I have seen how they put people in a position where they have to act. They will say to them: I want you to walk in now and do this for me. And then can you repeat what you said yesterday? And I film it, which seems fine. But it’s the opposite of doing the film together. They’re doing the film for the director. And it makes me uncomfortable [working on these films] but I don’t ever say anything. So there are a lot of documentaries where the people act.
How would you describe your relationship with your subjects, and how do you talk about what you’re doing with them?
I usually say we made the film together. Because we absolutely did. When we were in the taxi with Marie (one of the subjects), and she’s been on crack again and she’s opening her heart to Brenda, she could have easily said I don’t want you to film this. And I would have said fine and I would have understood it. But she didn’t. She never did. Nobody ever did. I mean [other filmmakers] even say things like, “don’t look at the camera.” If you said to me “don’t look into my eyes,” I would, because the natural thing is to look into somebody’s eyes if they’re filming you. But it doesn’t matter. I like it when people look at me or say something to me.
It doesn’t seem that you’re working too hard to enforce certain rules for what you’re doing.
No rules. I hate rules.
I think that’s a bold thing to do as a filmmaker, to relinquish control to a certain degree. Sometimes we hear your voice, other times we don’t, sometimes there’s an interview setting, other times you’re off in the corner.
It’s whatever happens.
How did you find Brenda as a person? Did you know about the Dreamcatcher organization?
My producer, Lisa [Stevens] makes these current affairs kind of films about women in American, and she met Stephanie [one of the subjects] in a film she was making called Crackhouse U.S.A., and Stephanie’s son was one of the people that the police were carrying out a sting against—he got 42 years. And through Stephanie she met Brenda. And she’s kept in touch with them, and she brought the idea to me.
Did you spend any time with her before you started filming?
No. I think you have to go in, say to people we’re going to do this thing together, I’ve never met you before but I’m going to get to know you, and then the getting to know you is in the film. It’s not for research. I can’t stand that idea. People say, I went and met people for 5 months, or I spent 2 years getting to know them and then I went back with a camera. I mean, you could ask me anything about myself and I would tell you, and then if you came back with a camera I would go, well I’ve told you this. Don’t ask me again. Because it would be false.
It certainly shows what you’re not going for. Because when people spend time before shooting, it’s often because they’re building up for a desired effect. And it doesn’t sound like you’re doing that at all.
I’m going on a journey, and I want them to do it with me. And it makes it very scary. I never sleep and I feel sick every time I go, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that’s why we didn’t get any money in England for it. Everyone said so what’s the film going to be about? And I’d go, I don’t know. Well is it going to be any good? I don’t know.
So when you show up, you start filming immediately?
Yes. First day.
Even the beginning conversations, the camera is on?
Oh no, no. I film very little—15 hours or so for the whole 12 weeks. I only film when I get goosebumps. Because I want every single scene to be a brilliant scene. I don’t want to film stuff that’s rubbish. I don’t want my editor, who I love, to watch more than 20 hours. And I don’t want [my subjects] to feel that everything they do I’m going to film. We’re in Brenda’s house a lot—imagine if every time she went to the loo I filmed her, or every time she’s putting her makeup on. Whereas when she did have my attention she really talked to me. You know, [taking on Brenda’s POV] ‘great, I’ve got Kim in the car at last. I’m going to tell her how I’m feeling. She doesn’t always film me, so I’ll get her to film me. Come on, Kim. I’m going to tell you this.’ You don’t get that if you film them all the time. They start to feel beleaguered or invaded. I have the camera in my lap or on my shoulder. I have it all the time, ready, but I hardly ever use it.
So I would imagine that you don’t film much for cutaways.
I don’t do cutaways. I hate cutaways. I don’t get it. You and I are not particularly different from anyone else, and you and I would notice if there’s a cutaway—if I cut to your hands, which is what people always do, or a picture on the wall. I know that we’re all so media educated now, we know what a cutaway is, and when one’s just plunked in, we recognize it and immediately think, oh, something’s been cut out here. I wonder what it is?
It’s all just you shooting?
Yes, it’s all shot by me. That’s why I love making films like this. Things actually happen for real as you’re filming. They’re not being reconstructed. You’re not asking people to tell you about things that have happened. You’re discovering them for yourself on a journey, and the audience is going on a journey with me. And when Homer [one of the subjects] talks to me, he’s talking into the camera. That’s why I would never have a second camera. I don’t want them looking anywhere else, I want them looking at me. So it’s the opposite of don’t look at the camera. I’ve got a really big camera because I want it to look really good. And so it’s not that we’re invisible. We’re really, really there. We couldn’t be more there. And there’s a sound recordist with a boom and mic and headphones. We’re this very noticeable crew. But people forget we’re there. It happens all the time, in almost every scene.
Well it sounds like it’s a combination—they may forget you’re there but they’re also ok with you being there. There’s no moment where it seems you’re invading into a moment.
I think it links to not filming very much. If nothing very much is happening and I film it, then people are aware of me. But if I start having a really intense conversation with someone and you’re filming it, I’m not going to be aware of it. Because what’s happening with that person is so much more interesting.
That would seem to come from you doing this for a while, knowing what’s worth filming. You just said you’re also thinking about your editor while you’re filming. I don’t get the feeling that your films are overly constructed, that they’re being filled into a preordained story. But you’re thinking about the final shape while you’re filming?
I’m totally thinking about that. That is exactly what I’m thinking about. And sometimes that makes me feel really bad, I’ll admit it. Because I might be filming and a part of me is in floods of tears or laughing, and the other half is thinking of Ollie [Huddleston]. What I love is when I’m with Ollie and the scenes fall into place and they’re easy to edit. Because they’ve been shot to edit. I don’t want him to be struggling with the scenes, I want him to be struggling with the overall arc of it, getting the rhythm right. He edited this in about seven weeks—it didn’t take long to edit. We had a beginning, middle and end. It’s all chronological. It’s quite easy to put together, but the art that Ollie brings to it is the rhythm, and how he respects the shots. It’s like a piece of music. There’s drama and then he’ll give you something to relax—he works out what the audience needs all the time. I don’t want him to be worrying about what I shot, or how much there is to watch. No scene in the film is more than 5 minutes long, and they were more or less edited while they were shot.