Filming for Change
You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to join the circus. But you’ve got to be a lot-a-bit crazy to join a Mexican circus, travel from Juarez, Mexico, all the way down to Santiago, Chile, through some of the world’s most dangerous country overrun by drug cartels and notorious for guerrilla resistance, all in the name of exposing the sinister truth of child sex-trafficking in Latin America.
Brittany Lefebvre is a lot-a-bit crazy.
Lefebvre is a young filmmaker whose résumé includes training at a YWAM missions base, a stint at a film production company and now (thanks to the circus company that allowed her and her crew to travel with them for safety while making a film) she is a producer of a feature-length documentary called The Volviendo Pursuit.
Lefebvre is not alone. Many young enterprising Christians are combating sex trafficking, and a wide-angle lens and Macbook Pro are the weapons of choice for a new breed of abolitionists who want to bring the flesh trade to a grinding halt.
For a generation making its mark through volunteerism and activism, to be passionate is a prerequisite. Passion, after all, was one of the hallmark traits of another abolitionist who contended with slavery in his own day—William Wilberforce, a major force behind the abolition of slavery in Europe. Wilberforce once said, “If to be feeling alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, then I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever to be at large.”
Morgan Perry found the template for her film Sex + Money: A National Search for Human Worth in the Quaker revival that gave rise to William Wilberforce and other reformer movements. For Perry, any Christian effort to raise awareness should flow from the biblical narrative of God’s consistent pursuit of freedom that is fully displayed in Christ on the cross. Wilberforce was following what he felt was the logical response to the exact same conviction. Benjamin Nolot, the producer of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, saw in Wilberforce a direct parallel from a bygone age to inform the challenge before him. Nolot’s three action points for would-be abolitionists (prayer, awareness and giving) all reflect the lifestyle Wilberforce led in his pursuit of the end of slavery.
Faith has compelled these filmmakers to answer an injustice, but they also have been forced to develop a Christian ethic even in the way they address this important issue. For Nolot, a distinctly Christian awareness effort leads to prayer and sacrificial giving. Lefebvre has a deep conviction that Christian journalism must tell the stories of the victims in the way they wish to tell their story, or otherwise run risk of exploiting them again. Perry’s activism philosophy can be summarized as “intimacy [with God] unto advocacy,” by which she means keeping love for Jesus preeminent to any social activism. And across the board, they are all conscious of the fact that healing the brokenness that is endemic in each member of the human race must precede any call to action. All of these concerns shape the way they tell their stories.
Ben Stamper, the cinematic visionary behind Horse and Rider: Freedom for the Daughters of India, capitalizes on the power of telling a story to give audience access to sex trafficking at a deeper level. His initial response to the magnitude of the issue was just to ignore it. “I said, this is way too big for me to care. And I am a Christian, but I will not go here. I cannot give my heart to something that is futile.” But all of that changed when he heard of the organization Freedom Firm, an organization that focused on restoration of girls who were coming out of sex trafficking in India. While Nefarious and Sex + Money both feature interviews with an impressive list of experts, authors, officials and ex-victims, Stamper’s film focuses on just two survivors who have found healing through Freedom Firm. “The only way the issue is touchable is if it ceases to become an issue, and you see stories of individual lives, individual daughters,” Stamper says.
Most of the abolitionist-filmmakers have been affected in profoundly personal ways through the story of a victim. Nolot’s life got put on tilt when he heard of a 15-year-old girl abducted outside of her home and then sold repeatedly for sex. Perry (and other members of her team) was completely shocked when she read about a sex slave kept in a cage in her Phoenix, Ariz., after spending nine months as a photojournalist documenting injustice in 20 different countries. Rachel Carey, president of the Sold Project, was initiated into the complexities of sex trafficking through a single conversation with a prostituted woman in Mumbai. Stamper’s plan is to market Horse and Rider (slotted to be released by the end of January 2012) through a grassroots distribution method, which, in his estimation, has the greatest potential to give others access to the issue. “My goal is to create more storytellers, people who can tell this story well.”
Nolot and Perry are doing exactly that, and have adopted the strategy of hosting screenings across the country in churches and at universities.The Nefarious campaign is called the “Incurable Fanatics Tour,” after the Wilberforce quotation, and Perry is leading her team on a 50-state tour to raise money for an aftercare program. Carey has also organized screenings of her film around the country to raise money for preventative efforts in Thailand. “Prevention isn’t sexy,” she quips. “Cat [an at-risk girl featured in the film] has taught the world that she deserves freedom, and that her innocence can stay intact simply by offering her an opportunity.”
Whether traveling undercover by circus, waltzing into massage parlors (read: brothel) with hidden cameras or confronting a pedophile on the streets of Cambodia (as Nolot does in a scene in Nefarious), these filmmakers are not short on moxie. Which might explain why they stride right into the quagmire of a question at the heart of any effort to end sex trafficking: Is prostitution slavery?
The filmmakers take different approaches. Nefarious, by allowing a litany of experts in the field express their convictions, takes the stand that prostitution, especially when legalized, is simply a ruse for the vicious industry of sex trafficking. Sex + Money, a film that is as much about the journey of the filmmakers as it is the issue, allots for a degree of uncertainty. In what is the most incendiary scene in the film, an advocate of legalized prostitution goes toe-to-toe with a former prostitution victim during a street corner protest outside of the Craigslist corporate offices (Craigslist at the time was hosting an adult services section of its popular bartering site that had turned into a convenient shop front for pimps selling girls).
If there is one thing on which the new-abolitionists are a united front, it is this: the Church must do something. Lefebvre has been targeting the Church in Latin America exclusively. She sees the Church as the only entity in a society riddled with abuses that has a serious message of hope, and she would like to see local Christians get involved in a hands-on way. Perry sees the need for another repentance movement, like the one experienced by the Quakers when they freed their own slaves, that must begin in the Church. And Nolot calls for a wholehearted response that gives everything. “The crisis of modern-day sex slavery does not need interested observers,” he says. “It needs incurable fanatics.”
Bret Mavrich is a missionary and writer living with his wife in Kansas City, Missouri. Formerly the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry, he now leads a program at the International House of Prayer University designed to activate the next generation of leaders in Christ-centered social justice. You can visit his website at BretMavrich.com or follow him on Twitter @BretMavrich.