“I don't care what they're going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”
On my fourth day here at My Refuge House, I've gotten used to the near-constant singing of the girls –but that line especially made me smile. Several girls had complained that the weather had gotten sooo cold on our first day, when the temperature dipped down to a frigid 78 degrees. I doubt that any of them could imagine living in a house that was shot out of the hands of Princess Elsa (in case you've been living under a rock, I'm referring to the Disney film Frozen).
The girls also love to change the lyrics of songs, so it's common to hear the refrain “you make me so constipated,” or “you give me stress” at any given time. And the moment there's down time, someone jumps on the ukelele or guitar, or just spontaneously breaks into song. (Lest I think I might use a bit as a soundtrack, they break off the song just as abruptly. It's just kind of like breathing).
I really had no idea what to expect before I came, but the girls have totally exceeded my wildest hopes. They are enthusiastic, open, and super quick to laugh –you would never know that this is a house of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. Before I came, the staff had them think for a month before they made a decision about whether or not they wanted to be filmed. All of them agreed. (Two are too young, at age 11 and 13, to even be allowed to consent... But they love to perform just the same.) The staff and girls –or I should say young women, as a few have turned 18 or even 20 –formed a film committee who set up filming guidelines and are incredibly helpful. Already the girls have taken possession of the cameras –today we had a birthday party and they were there, filming selfies and cake.
Today during the participatory video practice, the girls created a “fixed frame drama” --where they set up the camera on a tripod and everyone stages a skit in front of it. Hilarity ensued (much of it from some repeated, unconscious butt scratching, but that's another story.) We've also done some simple line drawn animation, interviews, and learned about exposure control (ie, not shooting into the sun). They've really incorporated their learning and every day show off their new found skills.
They also told me that they feel totally natural when I'm filming, “just like you're not there,” which is kind of music to a documentary filmmaker's ears. But I want them to know what they're getting into. Tonight we watched the film Very Young Girls about the GEMS program in New York City that works with trafficked girls there, and whose director, Rachel Lloyd, is an advisor to The Long Rescue. (She also wrote the incredible book, Girls Like Us, which is a must-read.) I shared with the girls what Rachel had shared with me: the downside of starring in a successful Showtime documentary is that years later, people still recognize her and her girls. So the anonymity that My Refuge House so carefully protects would be out the window pretty much for the rest of their lives... and there are still people out there who will judge and stigmatize girls for a situation they had no control over.
So I've asked them to them to really think about that. It's going to be a constant conversation over the next year or so of shooting, and while I hope some have the courage to speak out, I want them to understand all of the ramifications of that.
I had been concerned about showing the girls and young women the film –the English is fast and very vernacular (and I had forgotten about the constant use of swear words) and I was afraid they wouldn't relate to the experience of Americans. But they watched in rapt attention, translated for each other when necessary, and laughed in recognition at unexpected moments. At one point, a new resident comes to the GEMs home, and the girls start chatting immediately about the tracks they worked and the pimps and girls they knew in common. “That's like us! Chica chica!” Hope, one of the girls said, pointing to a co-resident.
They were shocked to see that trafficking is common in the US, and by the violence they saw. “Our pimps weren't like that,” one young woman said. “They didn't beat us. If we wanted to go, we could go.”
Of course it's not so simple. The perfect storm of poverty, drug abuse, lack of education and (often) prior abuse had already imprisoned the girls before they stepped foot into a bar (or increasingly, cyber den), and it takes a lot to overcome that. At MRH, it takes a dedicated staff of social workers, educators, volunteers, house mamas, security guards, a driver/handyman, family and community coordinators, administrators and donors from around the world to get these girls to the feeling of safety and hope for the future that they now have. One wants to be an accountant, one a teacher, one a police officer who rescues other underage girls. Since the last time we visited in March 2013, I can already see their increased self-confidence, maturity and resourcefulness. I like to think of myself as a tough girl, but I am a marshmallow next to these survivors. Hopefully some of their resilience will rub off on me.