BREAKING SILENCE: AREA WOMEN USE FILM TO FIGHT HUMAN TRAFFICKING
04/13/2018 • BY WENDY BYARD •
As she steps off her high school bus, the dread returns. There he is. Parked on the street. Waiting for her. The man drives her to another location. A dismal house where heavy, dark curtains hang in every window. They hide the violent acts that are committed against her body and soul. In this place, dangerous men constantly come and go. Waiting for their turn to abuse.
This sinister scourge – human trafficking – is the fastest growing crime in the world. Estimates put the number of victims at 20 to 30 million people worldwide; more than half are female, and about one quarter are children (International Labour Organization, “New ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour”). Yet, everyone could be prey. This modern-day slavery does not discriminate based on gender, age, class or race.
It also does not restrain itself at the shores of distant countries. Instead, this evil, which enslaves and abuses human beings for profit, has moved stealthily into every community in the U.S. For years, it has crept onto America’s streets – hidden in plain sight. In its selfish web, it weaves heartbreak and despair, hopelessness and shattered dreams.
However, people are fighting back. A group of dedicated local women came together in 2017 to produce a film – Ring of Silence – to battle this heartless legion that is ruining lives in our community. onthetown Magazine publisher Kim Gray and director and owner of NBW Films Nicole Bowers Wallace, along with Patti Higgins, Sue Lauber and Rosa Wang, joined to complete this feature-length movie to empower youth everywhere.
The women belong to the Genesee County Human Trafficking Taskforce. All activists and philanthropists, they decided to educate teens by creating a relatable educational tool: a film that will be released this summer. Higgins reached out to Wallace, a Flushing resident and film industry award winner. Wallace had recently directed a short film about female sexual abuse.
Of Ring of Silence, Higgins says, “This is kind of like our #MeToo moment. We are standing up for people in our community. We are trying to keep our children safe. We need to protect our kids: They belong to all of us.”
Adds Lauber, “My goal was for the film to reach teenagers, both male and female, to make them aware of the horrific magnitude of sex trafficking. It’s a dark world out there.”
“The general public has no idea that many women and children are being trafficked in our state,” Gray says. Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline rank Michigan seventh nationwide in reported human trafficking cases. “This film is not only going to bring awareness. It will also educate children and their parents on the many different ways our children are vulnerable to becoming victims.”
Wang agrees, saying the movie “reflects the imminent threat to the community. The Hollywood movies with…human trafficking are mostly about things happening in foreign countries, and the documentary HT [human trafficking] movies are short films and not touching the up-to-date information our teens are facing, and the worst of all, they are not drawing interests from our teens.”
To create Ring of Silence, the founders assembled a diverse group of youth from Davison, Flushing and Grand Blanc High Schools; the Genesee Intermediate School District; and elsewhere. The founding five wanted to produce a film that would resonate with young people. So, the teens took part in developing the characters and story. The characters are brought to life by Screen Actors Guild talent: April (Ava Deluca-Verley of Growing Up Fisher), Sean (Brian J. O’Donnell of Contagion), Luke (Brandon Butler of 13 Reasons Why) and Rachel (recording artist Daneisha Turnbull).
Ring of Silence, based loosely on FBI, law enforcement and victim stories, is about April, an average suburban teenage girl who is beaten, drugged and sold to men. April, like many adolescents, has low self-esteem that leads to a hunger for love and acceptance. She encounters Sean, an older man, online. Sean pretends to be a caring boyfriend, but his ulterior motive is to lure April into sex trafficking. It is a tale of how easily a young person can become entangled in an unhealthy relationship and then the dark world of drugs and forced prostitution – even without her family and friends’ knowledge.
“Ring of Silence wanted to use these real stories in the movie so that young people could learn how human trafficking starts,” Higgins said. “A handsome young man finds a young girl on the internet – so many ways to do this on social media. The grooming takes time. There is trust. But the predator is smart; he knows young women want love and acceptance. It starts with compliments, caring and gifts and evolves to drugs and sexual slavery.” Perpetrators use various means to lure their victims. They prey on youth who have been abused, have moved recently or have unstable housing, run away, use substances, have mental health issues or are isolated.
To create this film, the founding group created a fundraising goal, and Wang raised a significant amount. The majority of the nearly 30 donors – 80 percent – are female.
“Our community has been so receptive and supportive,” Wang says. “We all have a part to play in the awareness and prevention.”
Some 500 people from all around Michigan and elsewhere took part in this project. That includes area schools, law enforcement, hospitals, businesses, community agencies and citizens because Ring of Silence was filmed at various Genesee County locations.
“The community’s response has shown us that any community can battle this epidemic,” Lauber says.
Although the film could represent any American town, it is a crucial tool for creating awareness in our area. According to Kurt Heise in “2013 Report on Human Trafficking,” Michigan residents are at greater risk because of the state’s proximity to the Canadian border and major national highways.
Michigan State Sen. Judy Emmons, chair of the Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee, says, “Many folks in Michigan and around the country don’t understand human trafficking. They don’t realize how prolific it is. It could be right next door to them . . . It’s urban. It’s rural.”
Emmons’ office reports that minors have been trafficked at Michigan truck stops and then transported to hotels in Toledo. It also reports that Michigan cities generating the most human trafficking calls are Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Mackinac Island.
Wallace says, “Once kids know the realities of human trafficking, they will be better prepared to walk away and start taking action.” When the film is ready, Wallace said her company will hold a premiere in Genesee County.
The film’s founding five – Gray, Wallace, Higgins, Lauber and Wang – are using their voices, talents and resources to prevent further victimization. “Producing this film has been an emotional journey,” Gray says, “because it’s difficult to see what these victims go through and how hard it is for them to get out. But at the same time, it brings me great joy, knowing that this film can save the lives of future victims.”
To seek help or report human trafficking, call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888, email NHTRC@polarisproject.org or text HELP to 233733 (befree).
HER STORIES: FOUR FLINT PHILANTHROPISTS FUND FILM ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING
GENESEE COUNTY, MICHIGAN – Human sex trafficking is a misunderstood concept. Like many others, I initially believed the Hollywood version of the problem: A victim is kidnapped off the street and whisked away to a faraway land and sold into slavery. While that world is indeed an unfortunate sector of this very lucrative business, it wasn’t until I began researching the domestic and local sex trade that I became truly aware of its reality, a far cry from Hollywood, but devastatingly more common and dangerous.
My community in Michigan is blessed with wonderful arts and cultural women’s organizations and I was fortunate to speak to a group of philanthropic ladies about independent filmmaking. After my talk I was approached by one woman, Patti Higgins, about writing and directing a film on human sex trafficking as I had recently completed a short film –“Pretty Funny Nicole”– a documentary about actress and comedian Nicole Madjili who was a victim of sexual abuse in Hollywood and beyond.
Initially, I wasn’t sure I was ready to embark on an even darker subject. However, after learning that our mission would be to educate society about the insidious, seductive and manipulative ways that perpetrators prey on our most vulnerable—our youth— it was a project I full-heartedly chose to embrace.
Meetings ensued with local police, the FBI, school administrators, and most compelling of all, victims. It was through these encounters that the full breadth and risk of trafficking became real for my co-writers and me. Perpetrators search out lonely, hurt, disaffected young people, actively searching the internet for potential victims and scouring Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites for signs of the vulnerable: a broken relationship, parents divorcing, the shunned, the bullied, the isolation of the homosexual student. How many teens are struggling with low self-esteem and would welcome an invitation from a good-looking, charismatic recruiter inviting them on a date? After all, these kids are growing up in the age of online dating and this trickle down normalcy permeates the thinking of even our middle school children.
My production company, NBW FILMS, has a team of writers that consists of two women and two men. The gender and race differences between us help to capture a diverse perspective in the dialogue and the plot. We wanted the film to be real and we wanted it to resonate with teens along with their parents.
One of the most fascinating components of putting this project together was the young people that we engaged to assure we were developing dialogue that was real and contemporary. A group of teens representing rural, city and suburban from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds became our lifeblood and our inspiration at the beginning. We had them name the characters and develop their personas. They commented on story development, which helped us be sure that our story concentrated on teens’ perceived understanding of love, acceptance, security and needs.
“Ring of Silence” is a story about April, a vulnerable teenage girl from a stable, suburban family who is searching for love and acceptance in a relationship. She meets an older man on social media, Sean, who lures her away from the safety and security of her family and friends, and betrays her into his seedy world of drugs and sex trafficking. She is robbed of her innocence from the very man she loved and trusted. She is manipulated, beaten, drugged and sold.
When casting for April, we needed an actress who could play the innocence of a virgin, with the maturity of a responsible young adult who took care of her father and younger brother. Ava Deluca-Verley, from the television series “Growing Up Fisher,” portrayed this role with incredible ease and depth, bringing nuances and aspects of this character to the set that continually surprised. I knew after my first initial FaceTime with Ava, that she had a natural essence about her that encapsulated the feeling of April.
Sean, the character that seduces April into trafficking, was played by Brian J. O’Donnell (who was in the film “Contagion”) who in real life is the perfect gentleman that every mother would like her daughter to date. He is kind, personable and a wonderful actor. The role he plays is dark and cunning, and at times Brian would have to take a moment to get rid of the grimy feeling of such a hideous role. In fact, at times, we all would need a mental break. There were numerous scenes the crew had a hard time watching.
The reality continually sank in as to the hell these victims face on a day-to-day basis. One scene filmed at Flint’s Hurley Hospital, where April is admitted after a night of being forced into countless sexual acts at a local motel, was particularly upsetting for all of us. Prior to filming, Hurley nurses explained in detail the process of admitting these vulnerable victims. The pain from the rape kit violation, the humiliation, the filthy hair and nails— it was hard to fathom. We attempted to capture this horrific experience in the opening of our film.
Sean’s boss, the character Luke, is played by Brandon Butler from the hit series “13 Reasons Why.” Brandon had a commanding presence on set and a powerful actor. According to my contact at the FBI, there are many hierarchies in the business of trafficking and often girls are sold into larger circuits and transported to main cities. We wanted this reality to be noted in the film. We also have one character named Jesse, a gay teen and April’s best friend, who is transported to Atlanta.
“Ring of Silence” explores love, manipulation, betrayal, and exploitation. It captures the essence of victims whether male or female, city or rural, race, sexual identity, economic wealth, and the seemingly uninformed adults that are supposed to protect them. It shows how this world happens right in front of our eyes, and how the signs are lost in everyday life. One scene takes place at a Christmas party, where people are enjoying the celebrations while trafficking is happening in other rooms. It is a metaphor for society: trafficking happens in our local schools, local sports events, local truck stops and yet most of us are unaware. Worst of all, our teens are unaware.
The stigma within our communities is something that keeps us back from understanding the truth and recognizing a victim. One police officer who spoke to me described the many years of busting in on local “whore houses” where women were arrested for prostitution. “Back then we didn’t realize these women were sex slave victims,” he said to me, shaking his head. “We assumed they were prostitutes who chose this lifestyle to support their drug habits.”
Through recent training, many police officers have begun to recognize that many of these women and girls that they thought became prostitutes out of choice are really women and children who are being held against their will, blackmailed and abused. According to the Polaris Project up to 100,000 – 300,000 children in America have been trafficked while globally the International Labour Organisationhas estimated that over 4.5 million people have been forced into sexual exploitation.
No county in America is immune. Across the globe, sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, said to be second only to the drug trade in terms of illegal industries. One of the things that struck me the most was finding out that a telltale sign of a residence that sells young girls is the presence of McDonald’s bags. According to law enforcement officials, oftentimes a Big Mac is given as a reward for a night of imposed sexual favors. Our film will be debuting in Flint, Michigan in April (for cast and crew) and then we will start entering it into film festivals across the U.S., Europe and Canada.