AWFJ Women On Film – Sex Trafficking Film Forum – Erin Trahan reports

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“I’m hoping this film enrages you enough to act,” said Andrew Levine after his documentary, “The Day My God Died,” screened at the Human Rights & Sex Trafficking Film Forum held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 2-5.

Part film festival, part academic convention, and part activist call-to-action, the forum was the first of its kind, according to organizers Kate Nace Day, professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston, and Alicia Foley Winn, executive director of the Boston Initiative to Advance Human Rights, a nonprofit with a mission to end the sexual commodification of children and women in the US and abroad.

The event convened about 125 stakeholders in domestic and international law, human rights, public policy, and human trafficking—in addition to Boston area moviegoers—over four days of film screenings and panel discussions. Of more than 100 documentaries Nace Day and Foley Winn viewed while preparing to teach a law school class on trafficking, 12 made the final cut for the forum. They chose films that collectively expose the trafficking crisis within North America, across borders, and in societies as closed as Myanmar or as unrestricted as Israel, where prostitution is legal.

“The Day My God Died” focuses on girls trafficked between India and Nepal and a grassroots up swell to thwart their further coercion into sex slavery and daily physical abuse. Two champions of the film, who are also benefactors of one of its featured intervention programs, Maiti Nepal, joined Levine on stage.

“Please don’t stop at awareness,” said Joe Collins, co-founder of Friends of Maiti Nepal, “Write a letter. Make a donation.” He then described how at Maiti Nepal’s border stations, survivors help spot and stop new girls from being unknowingly transported into lives of sexual servitude.

According to Nace Day, there are few scholarly or legal texts on the sex trade but there’s a body of knowledge on film. Documentaries in particular, she said, “offer an epistemic starting point for making victims of sex trafficking real to power.” She co-organized the forum to share that knowledge with a larger community of activists and to rally a call to action. Screening kits for two films are online at as well as tips for how to influence policy and where to volunteer in the Bosto area.

At a luncheon following “Selling of Innocents,” a film that traces the sex trade’s chain of sale from the hands of a father in Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney spoke about the mental and physical hardships women and girls suffer when trapped in the life of prostitution. She outlined a need for domestic policy to track statistics and fund victim services, as well questioned why drug and arms trafficking are given higher priority than sex trafficking. “Unlike drugs and arms,” she pointed out, “the human body can be sold over and over and over again.”

Siddharth Kara, author and fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center Program on Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery, expanded on Maloney’s comments with research from his book, “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery,” which frames sex slavery as an economic crime. “There are endless industries in which labor can be exploited with relative impunity,” he said, adding that a huge barrier to ending sex slavery is that there’s “no one to testify.”

It’s difficult, he also acknowledged, to cope with the sheer scale of global victimization. “If you only saw [“Selling of Innocents”] you already heard more human suffering and pain than you’ve ever needed to hear,” he said, which is why it’s important to identify and then minimize or reverse the conditions that make slavery profitable.

Throughout the weekend speakers expressed frustration with the invisibility of sex trade victims and the absence of policy or political will to prosecute buyers. “They can’t vote,” Maloney reminded her audience in a call for advocacy on behalf of victims. “They’re lucky to get their life back.”

Filmmakers also spoke about making their films at great personal risk. For “Anonymously Yours,” director Gayle Ferraro smuggled tapes and equipment in and out of Myanmar to record firsthand testimonies by four prostituted women. One of the four young women interviewed in depth, Zuzu, 17, described a typical day of seeing johns, then turned to the camera and said, “I wonder what English-speaking people will think of this. Please don’t think badly of me.”

After the screening, Ferraro told the audience that her finished film had a cool reception on the festival circuit. She lived through a year of film festival rejections, fifty in a row, until two fests (both programmed by women, she noted), said yes. Though the film eventually built momentum and support, Ferraro said at the Human Rights & Sex Trafficking Film Forum, she received “probably the most validation I’ve ever gotten for that movie.” “I felt normal and that was a big change,” she said. “Normal and appreciated, what a combo for something that serious and difficult.”

Ferraro said she talked to Nace Day and Foley Winn about taking the film forum on the road to other US cities, a plan they are considering. She expressed her support and excitement. “I hope they do it,” Ferraro said, “We’ve got a prototype that works.”

For more information on the forum, visit the Official Website.

AWFJ president Jennifer Merin reviews one of the film forum’s films, “Very Young Girls.”

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Erin Trahan

Erin Trahan edits The Independent, where she’s overseen publication of books on film distribution and spearheaded preservation of the Association of Independent Video & Filmmakers’ archive. She contributes to WBUR (Boston’s NPR station) and has written about movies for The Boston Globe, MovieMaker Magazine, and other outlets. She’s served as panel moderator for The DocYard and at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library, and film festivals, where she’s served on juries. She’s past president of Women in Film & Video/New England.