Highlighting the global nature of sexual slavery, university professor turned screenwriter, Siddharth Kara, synthesized years of research and investigation into Trafficked, a narrative feature he hopes will serve as vehicle to reach a wider audience in the fight to eradicate the illicit business.
Exchanging the academic detail and numeric data that a non-fiction book provides for film’s emotional prowess, Kara centers his story on three young women from distinct backgrounds: a bright Indian girl from a wealthy family, a Nigerian woman who has been exploited for several years in different countries, and an orphan from California lured in with the fake promise of a high-paying job. Their lives intersect at a hidden brothel in Mexico run by a high-profile trafficker.
Ashley Judd, who was instrumental in the recent Harvey Weinstein exposé, plays a small villainous part here and was a champion of the production early on. Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite) is another familiar face who makes an appearance in Trafficked.
MovieMaker talked to Kara about dabbling into screenwriting for the first time, bringing Ashley Judd on board, and how the recently exposed sexual misconduct in Hollywood relates to the issue of violence against women at large.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why did you decide to translate your academic research into a screenplay for a feature film?
Siddharth Kara (SK): One of the primary goals of my activism on modern slavery is to raise awareness. Even as I was writing my first book, Sex Trafficking, I had a plan to turn it into a feature film one day because I knew many more people would see a film than would ever read my book. Film is the most powerful tool we have to communicate raise awareness of an issue, and I hope Trafficked manages to convey an authentic, global story on human trafficking that moves people to join our efforts to eradicate this horrendous crime.
MM: Can you describe the process of crafting the screenplay based on all knowledge on the subject, given that it was your first time writing a fictional narrative?
SK: The first challenge was to try to put as much knowledge as I have accrued about the functioning, complexity, nuance, and truth of human trafficking into a single film in a way that would still be riveting and engaging for the audience. This required cutting out a lot of what I wanted to include so as not to burden the story or make it too didactic. The next and most crucial challenge was to find the balance between being true to the horrors of the issue, but not so true that the film would become too difficult to watch. At the same time, the film must also not be so sanitized that it betrays the truth of the brutalities sex trafficking victims endure. Above all, I felt very strongly that there is nothing to be gained in actually showing the sexual exploitation of women and children, even briefly, as this amounts to little more than voyeurism and additional exploitation of the victim. I hope the film does a reasonable job of striking these balances, but it will of course be up to audiences to decide.
MM: To your knowledge, how crucial was having someone like Ashley Judd involved in terms of getting the film made?
SK: I reached out to Ashley from the very beginning to be a part of this film, because I knew her involvement would be important in many ways. Above all, Ashley has the utmost credibility on the issues of sex trafficking and gender-based violence. She is a fearless and articulate champion for these causes, and that is what this film needed above all. She has rolled up her sleeves and put herself at risk traveling into the heart of darkness, and more than any actor I know in Hollywood, she is a true advocate for the most downtrodden and exploited women and children in the world.
MM: How involved were you in the development and financing of the project beyond writing the screenplay?
SK: I was not very involved in raising the financing for the production, but I was certainly more heavily involved in every other stage of the process. I was active in pre-production, location scouting, casting, etc.; I was on the set every day of the shoot working with the actors and the director trying to ensure authenticity and dignity in the shoot; and I was involved in post-production as well, everything from the edit, to sound and score. Filmmaking takes a village of course, and we had a very collaborative spirit between with the cast and crew. Most everyone involved in the film really put their hearts into the project out of a genuine understanding of its potential to effect meaningful change on this issue, and above all to give voice to some of the millions of voiceless slaves in the world.
MM: The film world has been in an uproar because of revelations about sexual misconduct and assault not only involving Harvey Weinstein but also other film figures. While it might not seem directly linked to sexual slavery, both issues share roots like objectification, disregard for women’s autonomy and right to safety, sexism, and an overall male entitlement that spreads even to president of the U.S. Do you find links between the issue you focus on and the state of the world at large?
SK: Sex trafficking resides at the far extreme of a spectrum of abuses that are based on the coarse and boorish objectification of women and the sense of male entitlement over the bodies of women. Males across the world treat women’s bodies as transactional—something to be used, bought, and sold. Female bodies are also often treated as currency, be it as spoils of war, or in exchange for consideration of some other kind. One of the most shocking and disheartening revelations of my research for Sex Trafficking is that the farther I went into many corners of the developing world, I could not escape the truth that hundreds of millions of women lived in a world that utterly disdained them. Women were treated like sexual chattel, and they were met with intense violence, antipathy, and the destruction of their lives at every turn—and it was always a function of the stark imbalances between the rights and power of males versus females. But these imbalances exist in the developed world as well. They may not always be as stark, but women in the West are also treated as sexual chattel, and are met on a daily basis with violence, antipathy, and the destruction of their lives due to power imbalances with males. What Mr. Weinstein stands accused of is just a few steps away from the kind of issues portrayed in this film—the buying, selling, raping, and owning of female bodies by men with power and money. I can only hope that as a society, and a species, we will finally think long and hard about how we treat women and children in this world, and do whatever we must to achieve a world in which women have equal rights, dignity, opportunity, and income as males.
MM: Sexual slavery is a global issues and one that is complex in regards to who profits from it and who enables it, what are the strategies to fight it and how can a film like Trafficked help?
SK: We need to have a fully resourced and sustained campaign across society if we are going to eradicate sex trafficking from the world. First, we need to raise more awareness of the truths of the issue so that people will hopefully feel moved to get involved. Every advancement in human rights across history has occurred when a critical mass of people finally say, “No more.” I hope that Trafficked can be a part of these efforts. In addition, we need to prevent sex trafficking by enacting more protective measures for young girls across the world, be they in the foster care system in the United States or in villages in rural India. This means in particular ensuring girls get an education rather than being sold or married off at the age of fourteen. We must also punish traffickers more severely and effectively. Right now, sex trafficking is a high profit, low risk business venture, which is why it attracts so much criminal interest. Sex trafficking today is in fact the most profitable form of slavery the world has ever seen, generating over $100 billion in profits last year. Traffickers need to feel the pain of the law and begin to perceive that this is not a crime worth pursuing. Finally, we need to protect and re-empower survivors. The most appalling stories I have documented involve women and girls who have been re-trafficked two, three, or more times, always due to a lack of protection, care, and empowerment.
MM: What kind of conversations did you have with director Will Wallace in order to ensure that the truth and authenticity of your piece made it to the screen?
SK: We spoke about balance, ensuring dignity in what was portrayed, and I was on set every day to help advise on matters of authenticity in the performances.
MM: To your knowledge, what sort of work or rehearsal took place between the director and the actresses in order to help them their emotionally charged roles?
SK: I actually met prior to the shoot with the three young women who were going to play the roles of the three main characters in the film and talked to them about the responsibilities they had to all the sex trafficking survivors in this world in taking on these roles. I gave them some documentaries to watch and some literature to read, and I also arranged a conversation between them and a survivor. All three of the actors took their roles very seriously and poured their hearts into these challenging roles.
MM: What can the entertainment community do to help bring awareness to the issue and push for concrete action on the government’s part?
SK: Help us raise awareness and get people involved in the modern anti-slavery movement. The more that people demand action, the more effective we can be in persuading policy makers and other key stakeholders to take the kind of steps required, and allocate the level of resources required, to rid our world of slavery once and for all.
Trafficked will open in New York October 9 and in Los Angeles October 13, courtesy of Epic Pictures. Watch the film’s trailer below.