By Jennifer Huang
Hello patient readers! Long overdue, I am finally sharing a few days from my shoot in February and March --far from comprehensive, but a snapshot of a few days. I am sorry it took me so long, most of my energy has been going to editing, grant proposals, and working with Sarah, our summer intern (more on that soon!). Truth is, I have learned in this age of social media that I am not so good at putting myself out there. So six months later, here you go!
The sun is sparkling over the blue ocean on the horizon, birds chirp cheerfully in competing tunes, and the Girl Scouts are discussing domestic and sexual violence on the pavilion.
It’s just a typical Wednesday at the compound of My Refuge House. The gardener has planted tomatoes in the beds that surround the pavilion -- the heart of the shelter where meals are eaten, Zumba is danced, meetings are held and visitors are welcomed. Most of the girls are up the hill at the original house (above left), which has been transformed into classrooms. Some of the older girls, wearing their girl scout uniforms, are doing a training with one of the ispeak advocates. iSpeak is My Refuge House's outreach and violence prevention program, providing free training on abuse and trafficking prevention for any corporation, school or organization that requests it.
All of the girls I am following in The Long Rescue documentary have graduated to senior high school or college, or have been "reintegrated" back into their communities. One of the young women is actually working for iSpeak as an intern. Three others are starting families. A few of the girls that decided not to be in the film are actually going to graduate from college next year, an MRH first.
It's a few days later and I am sitting in a karenderia -- a simple canteen restaurant where customers can sit down quickly with premade food and piles of white rice. Although karenderia are everything they warn travelers not to eat -- food that is precooked and then sits at room temp all day, I have found them to be better than fast food in terms of offering vegetables, and it's usually pretty salty so that's gotta have some antibacterial effect, right?
I had planned to meet one of the reintegrated girls this morning here in the port on the island of Bohol and head together to her tiny island about 30 minutes offshore. But last night at 11:30 she texted to say she actually wasn't on the island but would leave early in the morning to meet me. When I asked where and when i should meet her, she replied, "just text me." Then, radio silence.
So I woke up at 4 am, got onto a boat that left at 6:30, and now here I wait. In past years I might be freaking out. Is she going to show up? When? Will she be able to find me? Should I just go back to Cebu? Should I hire a boat to cross to her island?
But I guess I have learned something from my years working on this film, because I am oddly calm. Whatever happens happens.
It's my fifth trip shooting trip and I have seen the girls of My Refuge House grow up. Things change fast in the years between 16 and 20. I have seen some very questionable decisions and some regrets, and I have also seen hope and optimism in spite of setbacks.
I've had more scheduling snafus like this than I can count or even remember, and I often think about something I realized back when working on Standing on Sacred Ground -- the cost of every minute of this film is not counted just in dollars or pesos, but in frantic sprints through airport terminals, mosquito bites and sunglasses dropped out the bus, physical therapist visits and plates of pinakbet, and most of all, tense shoulders, stomach acid, tears shed and held back as I learn more and more about the struggles these girls continue to face. That all of it could be reduced to 52 minutes seems impossible.
4 hours later, at 10:15 and no answered calls, I took matters into my own hands and hired a boat. Somehow I ended up on the ricketiest boat on the pier -- and that's saying something. I thought about backing out but it seemed so rude, to be like, um actually your boat doesn't look seaworthy, bye. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, though I know I should have.
My fear was born out when the boat couldn't manage a crawl and the driver kept bailing buckets of water from his feet. And it was really confirmed when, on the return trip, as we pulled away, the engine suddenly cut and a lot of yelling followed. Apparently his propeller fell off. I was told that because he had waited for me for the return trip, I should now wait as he went diving for his propeller and made his repair. But I had to catch the last ferry out on the other side. So I threw money at the problem, paid the guy half of the return fare ($2) and we took off on another boat.
But I’m burying the lead. I managed to find Abigail! Her phone had broke, and though we were at the pier at the same time, somehow we missed each other. Once I made to her island, I was able to see her and the new home she and her partner rent for 20 cents a day. Like other homes on the island, it’s built out over the water. Unlike other homes, the walkway to it has mostly washed away, leaving only narrow strips of wood poking at seemingly random angles to act as a makeshift bridge. I did gymnastics in high school, but these planks were less than half the width and thickness of a balance beam. Abigail crosses these many times a day, though she is pregnant. So I wasn’t about to miss seeing her home, and teetered precariously across with my camera and gear --probably not my most successful shooting (and that’s saying something) but a rather proud moment of balance accomplishment.
Abigail was always considered one of the most musically talented girls when she lived at MRH, and I am hoping to use some of her original songs in the film. So I commissioned her to compose some music, and this time we went to a real recording studio, where she got to sing in front of a microphone with headphones on. She said this had been a dream since childhood that was actually coming true.
Other highlights from the trip: I got bit by a dog (one of MRH’s dogs so it was rabies-free), filmed two of the staff to make make short films about them (more on this later), climbed a coconut tree, and did a drone shoot (with a drone pilot). It was also the first time my husband Doug came out to join me, and I was glad he finally got to meet all of the people I’ve been talking about for almost 4 years now.
By Claire Dugan
I’m sure we have all noticed the issue of consent blowing up our headlines these days. Even before the recent Weinstein, Spacey, Louie CK, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken scandals, the issue has been gaining traction for a long time. As I grew up, I learned about rape, I learned about cat-calling, I adhered to the dress code that my school imposed on girls, saw depictions of prostitutes on TV, fantasized about bondage, was fascinated by what might make me attractive to boys, and accepted the simple fact that my actions – conscious or not -- determined boys behavior. These were all separate issues for my friends and me, all part of a wide-flung web of adult knowledge that we were desperate to grasp.
As part of a mindful millennial generation, we are starting to make sense of this web, tying each type of incident to the next to form an outline of respectful consent. So let’s break it down; consent is simply making sure you’re on the same page as every other party involved in your actions. It’s not only about sex, but also giving the basic respect to those around you to consider how what you want might not be what they want, and proceeding to check with them on that.
It seems like what has happened as we start placing issues under the singular concept of consent, is that we begin to see all the odd adult mysteries interweave with each other; stringent gender roles beget rape culture, anti-LGBT theology begets violence, demonization of sex work begets ignorance of sex trafficking.
Holding Each Other Accountable
At college campuses, more reported incidents of misconduct are getting the follow up they deserve. The recent infamous Brock Turner case is a great example of this.
The details surrounding this case touched on issues of class, racial inequality, misogyny, and college campus security. But especially brought to light was the prevalence of rape culture, and just how much we have to educate and learn about consent. In the video, an analogy is made between consent and a $5 bill. The analogy was attributed to twitter user Nafisa Ahmed, who said:
“if you ask me for $5 and I’m too drunk to say yes or no, it’s not ok to then go take $5 out of my purse just because I didn’t say “No.” Just because I gave you $5 in the past, doesn’t mean I have to give you $5 in the future.”
It’s a great, simple illustration of a framework for consent. But the analogy surprised me because it showed me how unable I was to define my own vision of consent until I heard it compared to something more tangible.
Where can we start to educate?
It comes down to the little things, like the notion that “boys will be boys.” Boys are taught that their very nature eludes consequence. Females, in contrast, learn passivity and acceptance of harassment. Growing up with this type of notion has the potential to snowball in some personalities into abusive behavior. But boys must be held accountable for their actions, and girls have the right not to be held accountable for the actions of males.
The recent Harvey Weinstein case is a great example of this. So many people were victim to his sexual whims. There are a plethora of videos of women and men sharing their Harvey Weinstein incidents. One story I particularly remember was about a woman who said she told everyone about Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior with her, only to be told “Oh yeah, that’s Harvey” in response.
In essence, his abuse was able to go on for so long because he was just a boy being a boy. Just a boy breaking into someone’s room and masturbating in front of them. Just a boy grabbing a stranger’s ass at a party. Just another boy committing rape. Just a boy using his power of people’s careers to blackmail their consent.
I have high hopes and expectations that this newish concept of consent will become common knowledge in the near future. I’m sometimes shocked, but also proud of the young people I know in high school and middle school who can have real discussions on these issues, and who know more than I did about each other’s worth. They have what would have been called in the year 2000 ‘an attitude’ about how they deserve to be treated. And even with all of the pitfalls of social media, they can curate their own reference points, newsfeeds and communities that open up so many realms of thought and perspective on self care and advocacy that they can bring to their peer groups and to their own identities. In middle school, I believed the slut-shaming I got from teachers, family members, or peers for wearing shorts or a v-neck. The generation in middle school now knows a little better than that.
We all pass the roadside billboards that say "End Human Trafficking" and "Not For Sale," but a deeper explanation of the issue of sex trafficking is hard to come by. In fact, there is only a rickety bridge of information between the billboard messages, and the dense online research articles; no scannable, marketing-style resources that can make their way more easily into the general consciousness. Sex trafficking information comes in either a light tap or a heavy downpour.
So far, this blog has served to give you valuable updates on the progress of our documentary project. But we also want to add infrastructure to the bridge of information, and allow this to be a resource for those learning about what sex trafficking is, and a guide for possible steps the average person can take to help affect change on this issue. We will continue to provide updates on the ever-evolving documentary project, and on My Refuge House, and provide insights and news into the world of trafficking.
So what is human trafficking exactly? Trafficking is a global slavery epidemic. It happens everywhere, in every country, every city, right under our noses. Its clutches and snares grow out of the economic issues, and gender roles of each and every culture it inhabits. But it is also very hard to define because there are so many forms of it.
Where Did the Term Originate?
In researching this term, it is hard to find out it's origins, as it refers to most forms of modern slavery. The broadness of the name has deterred understanding, coverage, and the political actions necessary to prevent it.
The more specific term ‘sex trafficking’ may have been born of the feminist movement of the 90s as a means to help narrow down the difference between voluntary and forced prostitution. Putting a name on the coercion of women and young girls into prostitution lead to legal classifications of trafficking, which made the creation of protective laws possible.
What is Sex Trafficking?
Sex trafficking is a sub-category of human trafficking. It involves forced prostitution and sexual acts, mainly of women and girls, though boys are exploited too. The demand for sex workers worldwide is insatiable, and those profiting off of these crimes see an increase in demand anywhere that tourism and business grow.
Though its name suggests otherwise, sex trafficking does not need to involve the transportation of it's victims to be considered trafficking. In other words, the issue of this form of human slavery is not the fact that the enslaved were moved from one place to another. The issue is their forced participation in sexual labor. Some girls have even been ‘trafficked’ and forced into prostitution while still living at home. Their silence and coercion is held in place by threats of violence against them and their families by their ‘trafficker.’
There are several ways that victims can fall into human trafficking that usually involve deception of some kind. False ads for employment are used against people in economically strained areas. Many children are deceived by close community or family members who manipulate their trust to fool them into captivity.
Blake Lively recently spoke about the horrors of child sexual exploitation in a PSA/acceptance speech for Variety's Power of Women New York honoree award.
Lively lays out a few ways to prevent the spread of child pornography, an issue closely related to and often stemming from trafficking. The advertising of a minor child for the purpose of a commercial sex act, as explained in Lively’s speech, is considered an act of trafficking. The preventative measures laid out can help prevent child sex trafficking, as well as helping adult victims.
Along with providing escape for victims, education is the main way we can start combating these crimes. The more advocacy on the realities of trafficking from public figures, the more knowledge will spread on the issue. Educated politicians will instate laws that don’t criminalize sex workers. Educated communities and their targets will be less likely mislead by scams that would trap them in slavery. Educated citizens can start to mobilize against this issue.
Here are some great resources for getting informed on sex trafficking:
Not For Sale Campaign
FBI Data & Action
Do you have any questions about trafficking? Let us know in the comments below.
By Jennifer Huang
My niece, who is 14, just told me that she wants to be an entrepreneur. Why?
"Because they're their own bosses!" She said. "And I want to do it all."
"You don't want to do it all," I told her.
"Yes I do!"
I can understand her sentiment --the desire to try it all, learn it all, control it all. But I have learned very well that this is no way to run a business, or a film. The first rule of filmmaking: Get Help. Shooting and editing are just the beginning. Documentary filmmakers need to fundraise, form partnerships, network, bookkeep, maintain a web presence, develop branding, strategize distribution, write grants and scripts, communicate with their subjects, and do dozens of other large and small tasks. It's too much for one person, though many, like me, try to manage on their own.
You may have noticed that one thing I need help with is blogging...! And so I am thrilled to let you know that Treeclimber Media has a new contributing blogger! Claire Dugan is a writer, an artist, and a dancer who has a passion for women's issues. I danced next to her for a year before a mutual friend pointed out that we have a shared interest and might be able to work together. (Thanks, Joyce!) She'll be posting on a variety of topics covering trafficking, women's and girls issues, and whatever she is learning about while she becomes more acquainted with the themes and issues of The Long Rescue. Her first post will bring us back to a basic question that I have neglected to address: what exactly is trafficking, anyway?
I'll let you learn more about Claire in her own words.
Q&A with Claire Dugan
Q: Where are you from?
CD: I was born in SF and raised in the East Bay. Aside from a stint in NYC, I have lived here my whole life.
Q: What's your favorite sandwich?
CD: My favorite sandwich happened one night about ten years ago after a long shift of work. I got home late, and my mom surprised me with a sandwich from Andronico's (RIP). I was so beat and so hungry and it was some mystical combination of mustard, turkey, cheese, and veggies on wheat. Best sandwich I've ever had.
Q: What are your passions in life? What inspires you?
CD: My passions always revolve around creativity. I think the non-verbal communication of art helps us reveal things that can't be shared in conversation. I'm inspired by social progress, and the learning and growth that has taken place in our society, particularly as oppressed groups now have the space to speak up and be heard. I'm inspired to help integrate these changes into a better society, and into myself.
Q: Why are you interested in working on The Long Rescue?
CD: Trafficking is a women's rights violation, and a human rights violation. I'm happy to lend support to the effort of this documentary to educate and spread awareness about what is going on, and how this crime affects it's victims. I'm interested in learning about this issue and excited to be able to share that learning process with others through writing about it.
Q: What books, films, or art have influenced your outlook or how you do your work?
CD: I studied art in college, and was very inspired by the styles surrounding the Impressionist Movement. Now I'm getting into the simplicity of graphic design and the idea of saying a lot in a simple straightforward representation. I'm not as easily inspired by books or movies - anything that makes me laugh or cry is good.
Q: What is the most shocking thing you've learned so far in your first weeks of research?
CD: I'm shocked about what a pulse this issue has all over the world. It's such an underground problem that unfurls into so many different surface issues and symptoms: prostitution, forced labor, child pornography, etc. These scattered issues grow from trafficking, but also obscure it as their root issue.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
CD: I'm currently working on a few certificates at UC Berkeley Extension, completing courses in editing and in graphic design.
Q: What do you do to relax?
CD: Endorphins are always a great way to relax. I love getting a good workout in a dance class. Spending time outdoors being in nature is always centering, too.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
CD: I hope to be working in a more creative capacity to bring about positive progress in the world. How that will manifest, I have no idea, but being involved in projects like The Long Rescue is a great start!
Q: What's your favorite quote or words to live by?
CD: Lately it's been "I am not here for you." It's a reminder to myself to disengage from anyone who uses me or others to fuel their ego. It's something I am still learning.
By Jennifer Huang
Wednesday morning I woke up and my voice was gone.
I had spent the evening before at the premiere of a film I worked on (about Chef Jacques Pepin, check it out on PBS on May 26) and in the reception and after party, giddy with the excitement of seeing the film on the huge screen of the Castro -- but more, seeing it with the man himself in the house, I shouted over the party din until my voice shrank to a thin croak. I should have known better, as I was nursing a sore throat and cough, but if you know me, you know I find it hard to resist gabbing.
But now the voice was gone completely. And instantly my mind went there, tritely, perhaps, to thoughts of people like the girls in my film who at one point had no voice -- whose own thoughts and feelings might be shouted out to the world, but utterly disregarded.
After about 30 minutes I was cranky and irritable, finding fault with Doug for not paying sufficient attention to me because I couldn't communicate my typical logorrhea. I started pounding on the counter, sending kitchen implements flying and rather disturbing him, I'm afraid. After an hour I was depressed and non-communicative, giving up on most of what I wanted to say. If I was handling this so poorly in the first hour, what would it be like to be born into a world that no one listened to you? How hard would it be to come back from that?
Of course the analogy falls apart, or maybe it doesn't, because I am fortunate enough to have a husband that adapts. He cracked a joke that made me laugh and it reminded me that I am still myself, even if reduced to a whisper. He learned to look at me carefully when I was talking and lean in so I could whisper in his ear. And that gives me hope that for the girls in my film, for voiceless people throughout the world, that when they find someone who can listen, can meet them on their terms, it can let them fully realize themselves and recognize that their expression is in fact, important.
And as I am hoping to do with this film, Doug transmitted my thoughts and messages to the world. Tonight we had an extended family dinner, and I needed him to explain to people why I wasn't talking to them, to relay the messages I whispered into his ear, and to be my spokesperson. Of course I want to let the girls speak for themselves in my film, but I hope to be the conduit that makes it possible for them to be heard on a wider stage.
I am now on my flight back to the Philippines, where I will be shooting for 6 weeks. I had hoped to have woken up this morning, 3 days later, miraculously restored, but that was not to be. Would it have been wise to use my travel insurance to delay the flight? Yes probably. But then I might not have gotten on the Gudetama plane.
To be honest, i am pretty freaked out; this is something of a worst case scenario: I'm exhausted from coughing all night, feeling quite sick, unable to communicate, traveling alone with 150 pounds of gear. But really even writing that down makes me feel like a whiny punk. Most people have gone through far worse -- all of the girls in my film have, most of the country if the Philippines probably has. So I have to prove my claim -- that I'm a tough girl.
Who knows, maybe I will wake up tomorrow and I will get my miracle. I have emergency chocolate in my bag, and every medicine Doug could imagine I might need. So even here, alone and voiceless in the clouds, I feel well cared for, and luckier, for certain, than most.
Update: since arriving in Cebu, my voice is starting to come back --but I have come down with pinkeye. Since I was a child I've been very good a feeling sorry for myself, but as frustrated I am that I can't take a pill to make it go away instantly, I realize that I am really lucky to have something that will go away on it's own. Most illnesses and problems are not self-solving. So I am continuing what seems to be a lifelong lesson of learning to count my blessings.
As a small reward for those of you who have made it to the end of this blog post, I am sharing with you one of the most humiliating photos of myself from recent years. If you click on the "before" pic above you can see is what I looked like on my transpacific flight --eye shade, neck pillow, and the real fashion statement, the face mask I got last year at a Taipei night market. It's a hot look that I'm sure the Kardashians will be picking up soon.
Around 3 am this morning, I was awoken by the padding of small paws on my chest. It was only the second time I have had a mammal crawling on me as I slept (the first time being a rat in Laos, ask me if you want to hear a very long story of that adventure). This time I am proud that I did not leap up and scream to wake the neighbors. I knew exactly who it was this time: the maybe-rabid kitten.
Last night the girls had a special evening program –a film about rabies, complete with graphic video of actual patients frothing at the mouth, screaming against their restraints, and acting, well, rabid. The staff here at My Refuge House felt it was necessary to get real about the disease, because the stray kitten that has been wandering the compound lately entered one of the dorms and bit two girls.
I have been told by earnest nurses at the travel clinic that I must always be within 24 hours of a rabies vaccination… any more delay and a bite would mean certain death. So I was very concerned when I found out that the girls, bitten on Thursday night, wouldn’t get treatment until Monday. That’s when the local clinic dispenses shots. (The private hospital charges $200 per shot, prohibitive for most people here.) The neighboring town refused to treat our girls, since they weren’t city residents. So we waited until Monday for shots that are subsidized by the government, ie, free.
It turns out that there’s a lot I didn’t know about rabies. You can wait for longer than 24 hours, especially if the bite or scratch is lower in the body (takes longer to work its way up to your brain). But of course the sooner the better. Shockingly, the virus sometimes can lay dormant in your body for years, apparently one poor man had it surface 30 years after exposure as a child. There are two kinds of rabies, "furious" (which is the kind of rabies we usually imagine, with agitated behavior, hydrophobia, and death after a few days, and "paralytic," in which the person’s muscles slowly start to become paralyzed, the person falls into a coma, and then eventually dies.
So on Monday I went with the girls and MRH’s nurse to the clinic. At least 40 people were in the waiting room by 9 am… Remember, this is a clinic exclusively for animal bites. Apparently, children are the most likely to be infected by rabies, and 55,000 people die every year from it, mostly in Africa and Asia.
The MRH nurse had to wait to get a number, and then wait two hours to get the shots. One girl got a tetanus shot thrown in as well. They have to go back Thursday and next Monday for more injections, and we have to watch the kitten to see if it dies. If it’s still alive by April 27 we are in the clear.
So my 3 am visitor was most unwelcome. She had jumped up through the open window to land in my bunk – and I knew I had to get her out if I wanted to sleep again. But I didn’t dare go near her, and she was clearly craving company, mewling and then stretching out and making herself at home next to the bed.
And I don’t have to point it out: she’s a cute kitten. I could see why the girls were saying “no, this kitten is not dangerous!” and still wanting to play with it. She is diminutive, with orange stripes, and wants to rub up against you. I’m sure she just wanted to snuggle (ya, maybe with a few rabid nips thrown in.) So I had to rely on that most versatile of production gear, my monopod, and chase her out.
Rabies is a disease that has been an afterthought for me, and I imagine, for most Americans. We don’t have stray dogs roaming the streets. Our pets have Halloween costumes and spa treatments. Pet owners are moralistic about spaying and neutering, and most of us are more concerned about infection from a bat. So it’s been yet another wake up call for me to see how disruptive this affliction is for so many people, and to think that people actually still die from this totally preventable disease.
The sad postscript to this story is that now the girls also are forbidden from playing with the puppies. Of course they can’t risk any more girls being exposed – staff time and school time all wasted in line at the clinic –but the puppies are so adorable.
The good news is that most of the puppies are already spoken for (the light brown one, George, is fought over by the girls and staffers alike) and will go to welcoming homes. Hopefully the same will be true for the questionable kitten.
I’m about 12 hours in to my 13 hour flight to Taiwan, sitting in 53K on Eva Air flight 017. Dicaprio’s Gatsby plays silently on the screen in front of me, the breakfast dishes have been cleared, and I managed to fitfully semi-sleep through much of the duration, woken once when I thought I heard our dog, Mochi, barking. Haha! Wrong.
From Taipei I will head straight to Cebu for seven weeks (with a week’s break in Taipei to meet Doug and zero out my visa.) This will be shoot #3, and the longest time I’ve spent in Cebu. It will also be the second round of participatory video training, this time to include editing. Editing is where your piles of footage becomes a movie and the girls truly get to become digital storytellers, so I have been looking forward to this for a long time.
I have also started reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, and it bolsters my commitment to telling the stories of these girls. They estimate that worldwide, 2 million girls “disappear” because of sexual discrimination –be it through neglect, gender-selective abortion, delayed medical care, dowry killings, spousal homicide –basically, the devaluation of girls and women. The unequal treatment of women has always angered me, but the more I learn of the outrageous exploitation, the violence, the shocking inhumanity of forced child “brides,” of sex and labor traffickers, and of men against who act with such brutality toward their own wives and children, the more flabbergasted I am. How can people knowingly inflict such pain on other human beings? (To be clear, traffickers and abusers are also, sadly, women, who participate in violence against other women and girls for survival, status, profit, or out of their own emotional dysfunction). While Kristof has his critics, his reporting is extensive and and his storytelling is compelling, and I recommend his book. (I even bought a copy for the college girls, who are avid, serious readers).
The stories of the girls at My Refuge House traverse not only this unbelievable dehumanization, but also the positive proposition of Half the Sky --that educating girls will transform not only their lives, but their children’s and communities as well. I have now seen five of these girls graduate from high school and start college, tutoring and encouraging younger girls in the home. I’ve seen them be a great influence in their own families, encouraging younger siblings, connecting them to resources, and becoming positive role models. It’s not easy, and it’s not inevitable – a reality underscored by a few girls who have dropped out of the program and face a far tougher road ahead.
But Hope, Mandy, and Maggie are all studying social work, and plan to work toward helping children thrown into unfortunate circumstances, like themselves. Sara is working toward her criminology degree to become a police officer, and has developed a passion for penal reform. (Names are pseudonyms but aspirations are real.) In cold economic terms, the investment made in these young women will pay out across hundreds or thousands of lives in the next decades. On a personal level, they have gone from being treated as commodities, without rights or agency, to bright leaders who aspire to be agents of change.
Since starting this blog post, I have landed landed in Cebu, stocked up on construction paper and glitter glue (part of the video training) and managed to chip my tooth while flossing. (Ya, flossing. Weird.) I’ll be going to the house in a couple days to be catch up on the last few months and plan out the 7 weeks I will be here. Wifi is a bit slow there, so apologies if I don’t keep in touch as much as I should. But rest assured that the tenacity and humor of these girls will continue to inspire me throughout my time here, and I hope to bring back that energy and share it with all of you.
We are standing in the dirt on the side of the highway and the sun is starting to sink in a yellow-orange haze of exhaust and dust. “How will we know which one is our bus?” I ask, peering out into the darkening roadway. Large trucks, jeepneys, and buses seemed indistinguishable.
“The buses have a sign in front that is lit,” Eva* patiently explains. She is a community development worker (com dev) at My Refuge House, coordinating home visits, making referrals and procuring resources for the families of the girls in the center. Today, she also has had to explain all sorts of basic daily operational information to me, the clueless foreigner. Still, I find myself hailing every vehicle that could possibly be our ride back to Cebu city –looming shapes that turn out to be semi-trucks, utility vans, and sadly, buses that are going our way but don’t stop. “They are full,” she shrugs. There is no officially marked bus stop; the drivers just pull over when someone waves. Except when they don’t, like tonight.
I am feeling slightly desperate. It’s nearing 7 pm and our day started before 6 am, when I took a cab to the bus terminal to meet Eva. Unhungry but girding myself for the day, I had bought a hard-boiled egg and a siopao –a steamed bun stuffed with reddened bits of pork and fat – at a kiosk where men stared at me as they ate piles of rice. Eva arrived and together we boarded a bus –an aircon bus, which I found out later is not a comfort that she usually indulges in. At $1.20 US it costs three times more than the non-aircon -- a vehicle that leaves one vulnerable not just to the heat, but to the relentless fumes of the road. This time, we made the hourlong journey in relative comfort, calling out our stop at a seemingly random street corner on the side of the highway, with a bakery and a sari-sari (convenience) store crammed with single-use packs of shampoo and jujube-hued glass bottles of soda.
Without designated bus stops, one simply tells the driver where you want to get off, but I am always anxious I will somehow miss my corner and hurtle unknowingly into the far reaches of the island. But the driver knows the name of this and every street corner on his two-hour route, and of course Eva has made the trip countless times. We alight and are instantly set upon by scrawny men with world-wariness in their eyes offering us motorbike rides. In spite of my better judgment and the lack of helmets I have almost gotten used to jumping on the back of these sputtering habal-habal, all my camera gear strapped to my back with a monopod poking skyward, grabbing onto this stranger’s waist just in time as he takes off up the hill.
This time, the motorbikes wait for Eva to buy her breakfast at the bakery, an assortment of white bread rolls. Whole grains are almost never on offer, but bread is baked daily into soft and fluffy pan de sal, bumpy “corn” bread that is shaped like cobs but contains no cornmeal, and sweetened rolls with melted cheese on top. The low-carb craze has yet to hit Cebu’s shores, and I can’t imagine it being very popular here.
Rolls bought, I gingerly straddle the back of habal-habal. This time, the driver is shirtless, and I don’t know where I should hold on, uncomfortable with his bare torso under my hands. I grab the waistband of his jeans, hardly better, but he has already started up the hill, making the hot, steep, 20 minute walk into a 5-minute, panicky adventure ride. My husband has told me the death and injury statistics of the motorbikes, but once again, with very little reflection or trepidation, convenience has trumped prudence.
We make it unscathed and ready for the next phase of our day, a two-hour trip in the back of a truck. Most shooting days are long, and usually I know only the barest outline of what is planned for the day. Though I usually plan shoots down to the hour in the US, things in Cebu almost never unfold as expected for me anyway, so I have tried to adopt a looser, follow-the-current sort of attitude on this trip. It's a stretch for me, no lie, but I'm learning. maybe.
One of the biggest events for me to film is when the girls go home to visit their families. It usually happens once a quarter for the younger girls and it is awaited with great anticipation and longing. The girls bring gifts for their family members, they wear their best clothes, they bring the video cameras to document the occasion.
Today is Cindy's* big day. Her family visit is complicated -- her visit is not to the mother who raised her, whom she refers to as her stepmother. (Her stepmother was actually an ersatz foster mother, who physically and emotionally abused her.) The “auntie” she now visits is her stepmother’s sister-in-law, who took Cindy in for brief periods over the years.
As our truck leaves the industrial flatlands and heads into verdant foothills, Cindy turns all smiles. "I love this place. The air smells clean, it’s so beautiful.” It is true. Green rice paddies stretch between stands of tropical overgrowth, and for the first time in weeks I am breathing air that smells not of exhaust but of fresh greenness and the sea. We stop in a small town to pick up a rotisserie chicken for lunch.
Cindy's aunt literally lives on the beach. Faded fishing boats line the rocky shore, and a small community of wood and concrete structures lies just above the high tide line. Her aunt’s home has not just electricity but karaoke(!) in a small but sturdy cinderblock-and-stucco home.
Cindy plays it casual when she greets her aunt, but she’s wearing her best outfit –fluorescent orange circle skirt, royal blue top, and a huge bow tied on her head, creating a Minnie-Mouse effect. She makes a circuit through the nearby homes, holding babies, greeting mothers and grandmothers, exclaiming at the new acquisition of a grunting piglet. She introduces me to cousins -- everyone seems to be a cousin, or an in-law, or an auntie.
Cindy presents the gifts she has brought for her auntie – a flowery blouse and a t-shirt. The auntie sends
Cindy to retrieve her gift – a pair of wedge sandals. Cindy tries on one, they fit perfectly.
Another treasure brought from My Refuge House -- a guitar. The instrument is just a loaner for the day, but Cindy has been practicing diligently. She brings it down to the beach with her 17-year-old cousin. followed by a crowd of curious children. The cousin plays Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” through the speaker on his flip phone, while Cindy strums and sings along, practicing cords. She hands the video camera off to one of the younger cousinlings and directs him to film her, which he does steadily and seriously. When she finishes the song, she immediately takes the camera and reviews her performance, laughing and commenting. Then she does it again, same song. And again.
The next hours are spent leisurely. A walk down the hot, rocky beach, Cindy with the video camera in hand. A stint of karaoke with her cousin. A simple lunch in the sari-sari store of the chicken we picked up, stewed dried fish made by auntie, and the requisite mountains of rice. A delicious dip in the ocean with the cousins and Eva, who has finished her monthly report and is celebrating with the splashing children.
We buy airplane-sized bags of peanuts from auntie’s sari-sari store, 5 pesos each, and Cindy has a bottle of Coke. And then it’s time to go. Cindy gathers her gifts, I double-check for charging batteries. Goodbyes are sweet but tinged with melancholy. And then we are back in the truck.
When we arrive back to the center at 5 pm, I am a bit surprised – we are actually on schedule. But there’s a catch –the rest of the house, girls, house parents – are still on their outing to a swimming pool in the city. We can’t leave Cindy by herself, so we settle in. Cindy chases the dogs around the yard as Eva sends in her report. I try to catch the sunset on camera without showing the ocean – I have been told the house could be located if we reveal the shoreline, so I can’t share the beautiful vista the girls enjoy from their front doors every day.
The van, stuffed to bursting with the exhausted swimmers, finally arrives. It’s a flurry of hugs and goodbyes – it’s my last day at the house, so I won’t see the girls again until my trip in the spring. This seems soon enough that dramatic farewells are thankfully unnecessary.
And then the sun has gone down, and yet another bus has passed us by. A “tricycle” pulls up –a motorized, three-wheeled, open-air vehicle, too slow for the long trip back to the city. But suddenly Eva exclaims, “shall we take a tricycle to another place where we can catch a bus?”
“Sure!” I say. We try to squeeze into the back seat together, but the seat is really just big enough for 1.5 people, which means 2 Filipinos or 1 American. My massive gear bag makes me 2 Americans. “I’ll take a different one!” Eva says, and bolts to another tricycle that has happened to stop. It’s all happening so fast and as my driver starts moving I realize I have no idea where to tell the driver to stop.
“Where are we going?” I shout to Eva’s shrinking figure. She doesn’t hear me and disappears behind the vehicle. “Where are we going?” I yell again, starting to panic. Suddenly she reappears and is waving back at me. “STOP! I shriek to the driver.” Eva shouts the name of a bus terminal. I shout it to the driver. He nods casually, but my heart is pounding. Where would I have ended up if Eva hadn't heard me? Note to self: learn the neighborhood, and some Cebuano while you're at it.
In less than ten minutes the driver has deposited me on yet another random street corner. Eva rounds the bend a few minutes later, thank God. We somehow manage to board a bus that is just pulling out of dirt lot that I would never have known was a bus terminal.
The bus is taking a different route today, because the International Eucharistic Congress is taking place and has closed a bunch of roads in the city center. It’s a huge Catholic convention with multiple processions that the college girls have had to attend – for school credit – and which has thrown the city’s usually snarled traffic into even greater disarray. Eva has a long talk with the bus attendant about how I might get back to my hotel. They finally agree I should just go to the end of the line, SM Mall, and catch a cab from there.
Poor Eva is exhausted, I can see it in her face. But she patiently helps me find the queue for the taxi. I balk at its length; it could be hours to get a cab. So she patiently helps me find a jeepney, one that will take me to Ayala Mall, a 4 minute walk to my hotel and my nerve center for this trip. (It has a cheap and tasty food court, Gold’s Gym, and Metro Supermarket, my essential hangouts this trip). Fortunately Ayala is the end of the line, because I won’t know how to get off anywhere else. Eva loads me in and says goodbye. I work on keeping my monopod from stabbing anyone in the eye as more and impossibly more people board. I am sitting directly behind the driver and 10 minutes in, I realize I have an important duty I am neglecting – handing payment up from other passengers to the fare collector. The woman next to me has foreseen my incompetence and is passing cash over me. But I can fulfill my role. After I scrounge up my 7 pesos, I pass the coins back and forth as well.
Safely back at Ayala mall, I find my way back to the food court – it’s on the third floor, near the movie theaters. You can get yourself a nice piece of grilled fish, a vinegary salad of seaweed shaped like tiny grape clusters, or a big eggplant stuffed with pork and deep fried with egg. I get it with a half order of garlic rice, possibly my single favorite Filipino dish, and have a small feast for less than four dollars.
When I stumble home finally, 16 hours after I left, I still have files to download, emails to write, batteries to charge, gear to clean, laundry to wash, a husband to call.
The experts tell you to stay active on social media: blog, tweet, instagram, facebook, all of that. This is my lengthy way of explaining why I was not able to keep in touch during this last trip --because while no day is typical on a shoot, most of the days were long, and many of them were far more stressful. So I am sorry I pretty am terrible at keeping you in the loop -- but until I have a big crew or a social media staffer, I can't promise next time will be any better. I will try to make up for it while I'm home.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality of the girls and staff.
A few months ago, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a man who died in 1925. Henry Johnson had single-handedly fought off a dozen of German soldiers in the dead of night on the battlefield of World War I, but no president before 2015 had thought it right to give the man a medal. Why? It's hard to know, but might have something to do with the fact that the man was black.
I learned the story of Henry Johnson and a whole regiment of African American soldiers from Harlem, back when I was working at JAK Doc, at Lucasfilm. We were producing almost 100 documentaries as special features to accompany the release of the Young Indy Series on DVD (remember what those were?) and one of them was about “black soldiers of WWI.” I had the privilege of producing and writing that episode, and was continually amazed and dismayed during my research.
Henry Johnson was a 20-year-old porter when he joined up in 1917. Less than a year later, he and a comrade, Needham Roberts, were sent to a remote listening post in no man's land, and it was attacked in the dead of night. It was an impossibly uneven fight, and Needham was severely wounded almost immediately. Somehow, almost unbelievably, Henry Johnson managed to fight off the attackers and scare the rest away. Needham survived. Their courage earned the regiment the nickname, Harlem's Hellfighters.
France awarded the 365th the Croix de Guerre, their highest honor. It took the US a bit longer to recognize their accomplishments... like, to this year. We went to space and the internet was born before we got around to honoring a man who died before the invention of penicillin.
One of the people who we interviewed for the film is Tara Johnson, Henry Johnson's granddaughter. Tara and her father before her fought tirelessly for Henry Johnson's recognition. (In an incredibly contrary turn of events, right when the award was finally given, the military decided that Tara isn't actually a blood relative of Henry Johnson's and she wasn't allowed to receive the award. I have no idea how they made that decision but 1) birth records back then simply weren't maintained, especially for the poor, especially for the people of color. So how could they know unless they actually disinterred him? And 2) I believe completely in the strength of adopted families. So if people can adopt children, why not grandparents? I hope when I get old some young person adopts me. But I digress greatly.)
The reason I am telling this whole story, other than the fact that it needs to be known by everyone, is that I got an incredible surprise in the mail the other day. This:
Tara Johnson had sent our production team commemorative medals. I have to admit, I got choked up. I had felt like a fan, definitely cheering from the sidelines when I heard the news--an amazing story from history that has a second chapter a century later. But now, in a small way, I feel like a part of that story.
For most of the shows and films I have worked on, I have not heard much about after production ends. But some ten years later, this gift has come to me. It's a reminder of the incredible privilege I have to be able to do this work. And maybe it's even evidence that these stories live on beyond our telling, and we cannot know the waves they'll make in the world.
Click to Listen to our interview
As a documentary filmmaker, I have a not-so-secret crush on radio. Especially with the advent of podcasting, I have become an avid listener to The Moth, Good Food, Snap Judgement, and any of the This American Life Graduate Academy (Startup, Planet Money, Mystery Show, Serial, etc). I highly recommend giving them a listen --they are both entertaining and perspective-changing, and given me more empathy and understanding. (Now that we have a dog I have even started listening to dog training podcasts (I know, ridiculous).
As a consumer, it's great to keep up with the news while cooking dinner or lose myself in great storytelling while going for a run. But I also fantasize about how much simpler production would be --no worrying about lighting, exposure, focus, tripods white balance, resolution, frame rate, shutter speed, lenses, etc etc. Far easier to protect confidentiality, which is a concern for The Long Rescue. And as Ira Glass says, there is an intimacy with the story when you experience it inside your head, rather than on a screen.
So that is why I was so excited to be interviewed on a radio show featuring all kinds of people who are working hard to end human trafficking, Abolition Radio. Hosted by Vanessa Scott and Benita Hopkins, the show has addressed issues as wide as Entrepreneurship and Human Trafficking Activism, Trauma Informed Care, and Labor Trafficking Policy & Law. The show is an incredible resource for the anti-trafficking community. I felt honored that The Long Rescue would be added to that list.
I was also nervous as heck. Public speaking terrifies me, (so of course I would go into filmmaking and modern dance) and I was afraid I would turn into a stuttery, tongue-tied, asking-for-retakes mess.
But guess what! In radio, or at least this show, there are no retakes. Vanessa and Benita talked to me, and we recorded the conversation. The End. Any flubs and stumbles just became part of the show. Unlike the documentary's 75 minutes that will take me years to produce, the radio show's 45 minutes took, wait for it, 45 minutes.
Vanessa and Benita are powerhouses. Vanessa founded Love Never Fails, a nonprofit that provides education, outreach, rescue and shelter services for people who have survived or are at risk of trafficking. In a region that has way more people in need than services, their organization provides invaluable resources to our community. And on top of that, they are really great on the radio.
So check out the podcast, including episode 36, featuring The Long Rescue! And check out Love Never Fails --it's a great way to get involved with local anti-trafficking efforts.