East of Eden: Megan Griffiths’ Harrowing Tale of Sex-trafficking and Survival

Eden, Megan Griffiths’ stunning new film, exists within the perverted—and unsettlingly pervasive—world of human sex trafficking. A lucrative global industry, the CIA estimates that 50,000 women and children in the U.S. alone are held captive within this insidious shadow economy. Business is good.

In Eden, we observe an underage girl (Jamie Chung) snatched from her family, transported into the sweltering Nevada desert, and dumped indecorously into a holding pen. From this cold, clandestine prison, the girl lives with other young hostages. She is now a commodity, to be delivered wherever demand dictates. Maybe a testosterone-fueled huddle of horny, chanting frat boys. Perhaps an S&M porn shoot. Or worse.

The film’s scenario sounds outrageously grim, but it’s based on a true story. In 1995, 19-year-old Korean-American Chong Kim was abducted by an elaborate ring of sex traffickers and shipped to Las Vegas. Before her escape two years later, Kim would sleep on grimy warehouse mattresses, be punished through immersion in ice-filled bathtubs, and watch the systematic degradation of girls much younger than herself. Eden provides a vicarious, dramatized tour of the living hell Kim endured.

This is volatile, button-pushing material. In the wrong hands, Eden could easily become a punishing endurance test, a sensationalized sleaze-fest, or a misguided action movie. Griffiths is well aware of this, orchestrating her film with a sublime sensitivity. Choosing exquisitely-rendered detail over noise, Eden is a lion’s roar weaved from whispers.

“Human trafficking is a loud enough subject that I didn’t want to amp it up,” confirms Griffiths. “I wanted the film to be about people, moral ambiguity, and complex relationships. We tried to keep it grounded and real, and make characters that were recognizable. The flawed people have good traits, just as much as the good people have flawed traits.”

A smiling, friendly brunette with impeccable tact, Griffiths has agreed to join me at Uptown Espresso, a comfy coffee café nestled in the rain-soaked streets of Seattle’s Queen Anne district. A few steps down the block, Eden has just screened at the Seattle International Film Festival (where it will later receive the Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision, the Seattle Reel NW Award, and the Golden Space Needle Best Actress Audience Award for Chung’s performance). Griffiths doesn’t appear the least bit haggard, even after participating in the lengthy Q & A that followed her film.

At the time of our interview, Eden has shown at only six screenings worldwide (prior to SIFF, it played March’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas). But already, Griffiths finds audiences praising her delicate treatment of such troubling subject matter. “Something that people keep bringing up,” she describes, “is that they’re happy it’s not exploitative, and shot with a certain amount of restraint. I was very conscious about making a film that people could watch without covering their eyes. I wanted them to face exactly what was happening in this kind of situation, without making them so overwhelmed that they left the theater.”

Griffiths explains a key reason she held back on the ugliness. She urgently wants Eden to be seen by young female viewers. By necessity, the film is profane and harsh. But its director hopes these disturbing aspects don’t make it off-limits to girls the same age as those depicted onscreen. “All of these girls in it are under 18,” she explains. “Many of the film’s actresses are coming to our screenings. They’re really responding to it, telling their families, friends, and schools. One girl told me that she was making trafficking her ‘pageant’ theme. I think that young girls talking about this is very important.”

Meanwhile, Griffiths confirms that Eden cuts even deeper with parents. “One mother I spoke to,” Griffiths recalls with a laugh, “said, ‘My inner cave-woman is going insane!’ She just wanted to go beat all of these guys up!”

Much of Eden was filmed in Ellensburg, Washington, an astonishing fact considering the story’s Southwest setting. “People forget that there’s a desert region here,” says Griffiths. “People who live here forget about it. People who don’t live in Washington don’t know about it. We showed it in Texas, and everyone was totally confused after finding out where it was filmed. A lot of reviews say it’s unbelievable that Eden was shot in Washington. For me, that’s awesome, because I’ve lived and worked here for so long, and believe we can shoot almost anything in Washington. We have such a diverse landscape.”

Photo by Barbara Kinney PROPERTY OF EDEN PRODUCTIONS, LLC. 323-574-6444To best simulate the film’s desert settings, Griffiths formed a pact with Sean Porter, her Director of Photography. Anything green was left unseen. No blooming trees, or living green plants. Meanwhile, her team was careful to honor the 90’s era in which Eden is set. Cars, telephones, and clothing styles were scrutinized to match the period—with one exception. “There are solar windmills in Eastern Washington,” she explains. “I researched it and found out there weren’t any in Nevada during that time period. But I knew they were in other parts of the southwest, so we decided we would use them. They’re really beautiful, in a weird way.”

As the visual architect behind Eden, Porter has carefully engineered how we view the film’s lead character. As Eden morphs through different moral mindsets, we travel with her—drifting from naïve sympathy to hardened pragmatism. “We wanted the audience to feel very much like they were experiencing what Eden was going through,” Griffiths explains. “There’s a bit of an arc to that. We start out in a very subjective sort of place, and sort of slowly go into a more objective point of view when she becomes part of the organization. Then she’s kind of snapped back into this subjective state, realizing what she’s fallen into and become.”

Most American films prefer chaos to characterization. In contrast, Eden understands the power of delayed gratification. Much of Chung’s mesmerizing performance is silent, her emotions transmitted through unspoken nuance. Griffiths and Porter understand the expressive power radiating off a human face. “We wanted audiences to share in what she was seeing. A lot of the camerawork came out of this decision. Some shots were taken over Jamie’s shoulder. There were also some very wide-angle close-ups of her face. We share the reaction to what she is seeing. People really get aligned with Eden as a character. Then she starts making morally ambiguous choices, where viewers have to really question themselves: ‘What would I do in this situation?’”

EdenCrew400Washington would seem an unlikely state for filming desert landscapes. And until recently, it hasn’t been known as a magnet for moviemakers. Twilight might be set in Forks, but it was filmed in Oregon. The reason? This Northwest neighbor proved to be a more cost-friendly alternative. But Washington is currently taking on the competition, implementing tax incentives which offer a 30-percent rebate off money spent in the state for film production. This means cheaper catering, slashed set costs, and low-rate lodging.

Frugal filmmaking means increased movie production, and recent years have seen a huge surge in regional releases. Currently, Eden is riding a zeitgeist wave of new, locally-shot titles. The Lynn Shelton comedy My Sister’s Sister, which Griffiths co-produced, opened this year’s SIFF and has received wide critical acclaim since its release last June.

Prior to Eden, Griffiths tackled a much smaller film. Set in the melancholy, graveyard-shift darkness of a Northwest truck stop, The Off Hours studies a dead-end subculture inhabited by hash-slinging waitresses and road-weary long-haulers. Premiering at SIFF 2011, The Off Hours is an undersized jewelry box containing delicate trinkets of truth. “If you were to chart a graph of the characters’ movements,” describes Griffiths, “it’s a small molehill compared to the alps of Eden.”

Exploring territory audience members may fear to tread, is Eden a tough sell? Perhaps. But compared to Griffith’s back catalogue, it’s as accessible as Harry Potter. Aside from her involvement on Eden, The Off Hours, and My Sister’s Sister, Griffiths produced The Catechism Cataclysm in 2011. The title alone would frighten off studio heads, but its catchphrase, “God Will Fuck You Up,” defiantly guarantees a selective viewership. Alongside a handful of other low-profile projects, Griffith also co-produced Robinson Devor’s Zoo (2007), which examines the widely reported 2005 incident of a man in Enumclaw who died after having sex with a horse. You just don’t get any more unconventional than this.

Edgy, yes. But her films share a visionary purity void of “film-by-committee” sterility that’s refreshing and rare. Compromise is an inevitable chapter in the filmmaking process, but Griffiths has minimized homogenization of her work by collaborating with other like-minded souls. When Eden Producer Colin Harper Plank initially pitched Griffiths the script, she was instantly drawn to its spellbinding story. However, the director envisioned a more character-driven variation. She went to town on revisions, handed Plank the new hybrid, and was relieved to receive his approval.

“As a filmmaker, all you have are your instincts,” she insists. “If you are being second-guessed at every turn, you start to doubt yourself. Self-doubt can really take down a movie. It’s so important to surround yourself with people who know what you’re trying to do, support you, and give you the chance to do it. I’ve been very lucky in this way.”
It’s getting late. Griffiths sips the final drops of her coffee, and shakes my hand. As she trades in Uptown Espresso’s cozy sanctuary for the drizzly streets outside, I’m struck with an epiphany. Polite and understated as Griffith appears, I sense a boldly assertive spirit leaving my table­—one who doesn’t take shit from anybody. Over the past hour, I’ve grown to see Griffith as a determined mother bear that would stop at nothing to defend her cine-cubs. Sometimes, it would seem, warriors speak loudest with whispers.

 

Watch the Eden trailer.

Eden is playing at the Film Forum in New York until April 2, and premieres at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles on March 29. On May 5 the film travels to the SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle for a two-week run.

For the rest of the country, Eden will be available on VOD April 20.

 

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