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.
Last winter, a friend's daughter's friend got in touch with me. She had seen The Long Rescue's Indiegogo campaign and was interested in interning! Lucy was available during her summer break from, drumroll please: NYU film school.
Wow. Yes! It was too good to be true... but Lucy Brillhart did in fact come back for the summer, looking all New York chic. Not only has she been helping out with the film, but she has also filled me in on important topics. Like the fact that kids today don't use Facebook, email, or the phone, they communicate through Snapchat and Instagram. Talk about a visually attuned generation...
So to get to know her a little better, we asked her some probing questions. I love that she chose strong women as her inspiration, and that her favorite sandwich has gravy. I have to admit, the film that inspired her at the tender age of 14 is definitely not what I expected.
So... Heeeere's Lucy!
What's your favorite sandwich?
My favorite sandwich is probably the open face roast beef sandwich with gravy. There used to be a wonderful restaurant in downtown Livermore that had a cafeteria style set up where I could order this sandwich. I would love going there with family or friends.
If you could invite any three people to dinner, living or dead, who would they be and why?
The three people I would invite to dinner would be Frida Kahlo, as she is my artistic inspiration, Eleanor Roosevelt, as she was a great political source of influence during a time in which women's rights were changing, and my Great Aunt Elisabeth, as I was named after her.
Where are you from?
I was born in a suburb outside of Chicago, but moved to the Bay Area when I was around five years old. Now, I mostly reside in New York City as I am attending college at New York University.
How did you get interested in film?
As long as I can remember I have been inventing stories. When I was twelve years old I starting writing a book; however, frustrated with the limitations of that particular medium I switched to writing the story in script style. And since, all of my stories have been told in script form.
What are some of your favorite films or TV shows, and what inspires you?
The TV show Pushing Daisies sparked my interest in dark comedy, and Netflix's Orange is the New Black furthered my inspiration of Emmy award-winning drama. However, my biggest inspiration was Kill Bill:Vol. 1. When I was 14 years old my dad gave me a copy of the dvd to watch on my laptop once everyone else in the house was asleep. At the stroke of midnightI feel in love with Tarantino's twisted style of humor, and I knew that film was the artistic medium that I was searching for.
Why are you interested in working on The Long Rescue?
I feel a lot of compassion for the situation that the girls at My Refuge House are in, and by helping with this documentary I am in some small way be making a positive difference in their lives.
What have you been working on so far?
So far I have been editing the Thank You Videos for the donors, as well as setting as social media outlets for the documentary.
What other projects are you working on?
I am currently in the process of writing a script for a short film, as well as advising casting for a web series that will be shot in New York CIty later this year.
What is your dream film project?
My dream film project is any length feature film where I am the producer.
What do you do to relax?
I love to read books, sit on my front porch with friends, play cards with my family, or curl up and take a nap with my cat.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
I would like to happily employed, or attending grad school to obtain my masters.
Lately, when I've been running into friends or acquaintances, people ask, "what are you up to these days? Editing?" Which is a natural assumption. I have done some shooting, and now there's editing, right?
Yes and no.
There's a lot of footage, and the heavy lifting --which is both difficult and enjoyable-- is crafting a story from that footage. But there's also approximately 1.5 million other things that need to happen. There's all the stuff that has to happen before you can even start to edit --transcoding footage, transcription, and crucially, getting stuff in Cebuano translated. On top of that, I've been honing my skills at accounting, grant writing, budget making, crowdfunding fulfillment (it's coming soon, folks!), shooting recreations, social media (ya, I'm lagging at that), marketing, forming partnerships, research and strategization of all of the above, and possibly hardest of all, networking.
So it's so great when people offer to help out --and really amazing that some people actually have stepped up! So today we're going to learn a little more about Melanie Choy, an emerging filmmaker who I met taking a location sound class at Berkeley City College. When she found out about this project she instantly offered to volunteer... and then she actually showed up! What a rare and wondrous event... And so deeply appreciated.
So let's learn more about Treeclimber Media's first volunteer, Melanie Choy.
What made you interested in working on The Long Rescue?
I am interested in working on The Long Rescue, because I support anti-trafficking. Also, I have always dreamed of working on an overseas documentary and this is a fantastic opportunity to get hands-on and behind the scene.
What have you been doing for the production so far?
I have done mostly editing such as blurring the faces of My Refuge House residents and creating video sequences for translation. I also made my acting debut in this documentary to recreate a few scenes of Hope's dark and emotional past.
What's been the most interesting?
The most interesting part is when I was pretending to be sad and crying to reflect Hope's overwhelming feeling and experience. To help me be emotional in front of the camera, I thought about the sadness I will face when I lose loved ones.
Has anything surprised you or have you learned anything new?
I have learned that some youth and women are forced into prostitution by social forces and even by family members; they did not choose this profession.
What other projects are you working on now?
I am currently editing my friend's live jazz event performance and will later make a video about my church young adult ministry.
What are your career goals?
My career goal is to make films and short videos to advance social causes and make positive changes among communities.
What kinds of issues are you interested in working on?
Besides sex trafficking, I am interested in working on environmental injustice, less-privileged communities, special needs, overseas Christian communities, and Asian American identity.
What films have you seen that inspire you?
Many independent and foreign films have inspired me and if I have to choose one, then I would say The Drop Box. I chose this, because it is a heart-wrenching look at abandoned babies with special needs and how one Korean church pastor started adopting each one as his own. I cried throughout the film because the characters and story are that powerful.
What are your other hobbies or interests?
Besides watching movies at home and in theatre, I like to get crafty! That includes making stationary cards, vintage button stud earrings, and duct tape wallets!
There you have it folks --more evidence of crossover between documentary filmmaking and crafting!
More updates afoot soon...stay tuned!
When I tell people that I'm making a documentary about trafficking, people's faces get very serious. They nod and tell me that it's important work, but I can tell it's not something they want to think about. Of course not --no one wants to think about the horrible realities of this issue. I don't.
But I do want to hear about what people are doing to stop it. How people are overcoming it. How organizations and individuals are coming together to end trafficking and help its victims rebuild their lives.
And that's what the Freedom Summit is all about. It's an all-day event this Saturday, May 9th, 2015 at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara (where the 49ers play). There's going to be a really compelling lineup of speakers, including Larry Grant, an NFL linebacker, Mike Honda and Jackie Speier, our congresspeople, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, Brad Myles of Polaris, spoken word artist Regina Evans, and Brooke Axtell, a survivor advocate and singer. And musicians Robby & Bria and Jars of Clay will perform.
Events like these are so great in bringing the community together, helping people find intersections in their efforts to form partnerships, and to learn from each other. I am always inspired when I learn about other people's work, even when they are struggling --maybe especially when they are struggling --because it reminds me that I need to keep plugging away too.
So I'm really excited, not only to be attending, but to be volunteering at this event. There are tons of logistics that we're all juggling at the moment to put it together (which speakers needs rides, who is gluten-free, where will they park, etc, etc) and I am so thankful that there are people driven to organize an event like this and make it all happen.
The organizer of the summit is the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition (BAATC). I'm happy to be able to share more about Betty Ann Boeving, BAATC's cofounder.
What alerted you to the issue of human trafficking?
A: Since 2000, my travels to 85 countries have opened my eyes to shocking realities around the globe that involve both natural and man-made disasters. Specifically, I have been compelled to take a personal stand against human trafficking—where people are profiting from the control and exploitation of other people. The reality of this injustice occurring in our lifetime keeps me up at night. According to U.S. State Department statistics, the trafficking of persons is now the second largest criminal industry and the fastest growing criminal activity in the world. Worldwide two million children are taken into forced prostitution every year. Currently in the U.S., at least 18,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States and an estimated 400,000 American youth are at-risk of being trafficked because of economic, family system and psychological vulnerabilities.
Q: We understand that you raised $45K to fight against human trafficking through a climb you did of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. How did you end up deciding to do this? What was that experience like?
A: In 2006, while working for International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org), an organization dedicated to helping equip justice systems around the world to protect the poor, I climbed Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and funds to fight child trafficking in Africa. I had met a 12-year old girl named Mary in Kenya, whose parents had been tragically killed, and with the pressures that mounted against her to care for her three younger siblings, Mary was at extreme risk of being preyed upon by traffickers who frequently visited her village offering great paying (falsified) jobs in Nairobi. I was determined to see that Mary and her three siblings could receive care from a local organization that could provide shelter, access to healthcare and education for these children so that they would have vocational options and enough money to resist such tempting offers. (The promise of better jobs or an upfront sum of money to cover a family or medical emergency often propels such an individual into debt bondage, a form of human trafficking.)
When I returned from Africa, I started opening the newspapers to find local stories of human trafficking happening right here, with forced labor in restaurants, sexual exploitation in massage parlors and busts of undercover brothels, but there was so little dialogue about the problem here in the U.S. Both foreign nationals and American citizens have been taken up into this criminal activity because of their similar vulnerability to conditions of poverty, extreme medical expenses, lack of job skills, and more. I felt compelled to found the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition and bring the global dialogue about this issue here to the Bay Area in California.
Q: What is your advice for expats living here?
A: Some of the largest cases of human trafficking in Northern California have been brought to the attention of authorities by those in the expat community who are familiar with the vulnerabilities associated with embracing life in an unfamiliar country. Examples are: Thai workers brought in to help construct the new Bay bridge, and a Stanford visiting scholar who brought with her domestic help held in slave-like conditions, among others. Expats who are aware of this threat of trafficking to their affinity group can be an important bridge to help mobilized leaders in their community to provide trainings of awareness around the issue, and can help alert family members and friends in their home country of any links they identify between U.S. falsified jobs and promises of employment that are being promoted back home. Any suspicious activity or concerns can be anonymously called into the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-3888) or text HELP to BeFree (233733).
Q: What is the BAATC?
A: The BAATC equips communities to fight trafficking and at www.baatc.org provides a 12-month calendar of all anti-trafficking training and awareness events around the region so that individuals and community leaders can take their next step in fighting this horrific injustice to human freedom.
To learn more, the BAATC is hosting Freedom Summit 2015 on May 9th, 2015 in the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This is the largest community-based anti-trafficking training conference of its kind in the country. You are invited to register now at: www.freedom-summit.org.
*Betty Ann Boeving has been teaching and speaking on community-based solutions to fight human trafficking for over ten years. More training is available through her TEDx talk on trafficking at: https://vimeo.com/32157524.
When people ask me how the first shoot went, I honestly don't know how to answer. It was so many things in such a concentrated amount of time -- the fulfillment of months of planning and years of dreaming, the test of my skills as a director, facilitator, manager and human being, and on some levels, a mere struggle to manage the heat and cultural unfamiliarity and lots of new people.
In so many ways, it was better than I could've dared hope. And that's all because of the girls. They are so bright and open, so willing to learn and --I use this word advisedly --love. I was braced for the dour, disinterested attitude copped by US teens, but nothing could be further from the reality of this fun, smart, beautiful bunch.
But their stories are tragic, and heartbreaking. I will admit, I have not fully processed everything I've head and learned, and there are realities are really difficult to fathom. So it was a really overwhelming time, and while I want to share what happened, I've realized I will have to focus on one topic at a time. And since I just got off the phone with the bank, I'm going to talk right now about money.
In a lot of ways, money in Cebu is relatively easy to deal with. There are a lot of ATMs in the city center and at the airport, many stores in the malls take credit cards, and in theory, it's an easy conversion to dollars --100 pesos is about $2.30 USD. I didn't have to stuff my pants with $10K in brand-new dollars as may or may not have happened in other international production trips.
But I had some special issues (aren't everyone's issues, like their dysfunctions, special?)... I thought I would just withdraw money from ATMs, including paying my DP (director of photography, ie, camera person). But a lot of ATMs will only dispense a few hundred bucks per day... not, ahem, enough. And then my bank also had a daily limit. And then, a bunch of ATMs don't give out receipts.
I'll spare you the hairy details of running between ATMs, trying different cards, dropped Skype calls in Starbucks talking to my bank, lots of sweating. I did finally work it out, making multiple withdrawals and passing a tall stack of bills over to Nana, who immediately went back to her ATM to deposit it. Lots of cash =nervous making.
But the problem came with one gnarly ATM, at Persimmon, the condo we were staying at. One of those standalone machines, probably with an individual owner. I requested 20,000 php. I counted it twice. "Damn," I said to Nana, "it only gave me ten." No receipt.
But sure enough, when I get the records from Charles Schwab, they say I took out 20,000.
Doing the crowdfunding campaign has made me more conscious about money than ever. I have always been a pretty thrifty person (which you can see just by looking at my wardrobe and haircut) but more than ever, I really feel responsible for being a good steward of the funds that so many have generously donated. It was a really big deal to get a $50 or $20 donation, and every single one of them was a celebration.
So the fact that the bank is shorting me more than $200 is a serious matter. I called the bank immediately and I filed an "inquiry." Now, two months later, they sent the results of their investigation. The ATM says that it dispensed the money, and the case is closed.
What do you do when the machines lie?
"Do you have your receipt?" The Schwab representative asked. "Because that would be really helpful."
I have a mountain of receipts, slips of paper for every taxi ride, every meal. I scrawled notes when the taxi driver was out of printer paper. It took me a week to do the accounting when I returned. But no, I don't have a receipt from that machine. (For context: not even the Citibank ATM gave me a receipt, so it's not an unheard of phenomenon.)
(This is also my problem with electronic voting machines. Couldn't it be programmed to convert 20% of votes for candidate A to candidate B, but still dispense a receipt that you voted for A? You would never know. But I digress.)
I honestly don't know how I can prove my case. My word against the machine's.
For now, I've filed another inquiry with Schwab. Maybe I can ask that columnist at the New York Times to help me out. I'll keep you posted.
By Jennifer Huang
It's 7 am at the Cebu airport and I can't believe the trip is over --except for the 24 hours of travel home.
I'll be honest, this was the most difficult shoot, the most difficult three weeks, of my life. Hearing the girl's stories is an incredible privilege, and I feel a huge responsibility to protect them, tell their stories effectively, and uphold the trust they have given me.
After holding it together all day, sometimes I would just sob before I went to bed --for the girl who has no family to visit, for the girl abused by her father at age 11, for the girl pimped by her mom.
Life in the Philippines is really tough for a lot of people. There are the immediately obvious discomforts -- terrible traffic and pollution, crowds, and bare-boned poverty -- whole communities living in squatters villages, makeshift housing on the edges of town. Many others without homes at all, including small children.
But I was also struck by the incredible hardships experienced by those born into better circumstances. MRH staffers commute for an hour, two hours, or more at times. One tried to hail a cab for 2.5 hours on valentines day, trying to get to the airport. One told me that when she was a student, her school building collapsed around her. She was trapped for hours, her legs pinned by fallen bookshelves. (Substandard building codes.) Another staffer's brother was randomly shot and narrowly escaped death. His farm was in an area plagued with ongoing separatist violence; they finally fled their family home.
For the residents of My Refuge House, the wheels of justice turn very, very slowly. Two court hearings for the girls were scheduled during my stay, both were canceled --one, because the lawyer got sick, the other, because the judge failed to show up. Several of the girls have cases ongoing for three or four years; none have been resolved.
There was a beast within me that had an insatiable hunger for footage. Any time we weren't shooting I would kick myself for missing a joke, a sweet moment, or just ordinary houses or markets -- images that are anything but ordinary for us Americans. Of course that is just crazy making and leads to exhaustion, especially in the heat.
So I have resolved to improve next time -- sticking to a more reasonable schedule, bringing more help, clearing the legal issues that arose this time in advance.
I don't mean to sound like I am complaining though. I am so happy with the shooting we accomplished and the training we did. The girls are so ready to learn, they just sucked up the material and took possession of the cameras almost immediately. They are taking responsibility for them and excited to use them. They have already brought them on home visits and to a church youth event.
We were able to document the girl's everyday lives -- chores and school work, singing and dancing, home visits and church. It is rare that they allow a visitor such open access -- in fact I believe it's unprecedented.
My favorite memories are of just sitting around talking with the girls -- about their crushes, their crazy lives before they came to the house, or the very real changes they recognize in themselves in the months and years they lived there. They are so open, far beyond my most optimistic dreams in fact.
So I am being very cautious about what I share -- I want to make sure I don't expose a girl's identity or story before she is ready. This means it will be a while, quite a while, before the film will come out. In the long run I believe it will be worth the wait.
I am now at 22,000 feet, hoping they will serve breakfast. Someone near me keeps farting, and I just received a newspaper with the Oscar winners on it, which seems utterly bizarre (though I am happy to hear that citizenfour won for documentary.) I feel like I am too old to be utterly changed by an experience now, but this could very well be an exception.