Sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry. You can sell a drug only once. But you can sell a body multiple times a day. What many Americans don’t realize is that sex trafficking happens in the United States.
Danielle Rose, 25, took it upon herself to expose the ugly truth that it happens in her native Brooklyn. Her first documentary, “In Our Backyard,” depicts the unspoken world of sex trafficking through the emotional stories of recent survivors and the work of advocates fighting to end this form of modern-day slavery.
A senior at Sarah Lawrence College, having never used a camera before, Rose set out to make a documentary film about it. She invested all her savings into the film and enlisted her friends and family to help her. After finishing filming “In Our Backyard,” she attended Columbia Journalism School and worked on the postproduction of the documentary.
“In Our Backyard” provides an intimate portrait of sex trafficking survivors and their struggles to escape and continue their lives, their way. It shows the work that aid groups, advocacy agencies and politicians are doing and what still needs to be done.
“In Our Backyard” will have its Brooklyn premiere Saturday at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival at Saint Francis College.
At a coffee shop on the Upper West Side, Rose talked to Salon about her experience as a first-time documentarian, the misconceptions surrounding sex trafficking, her admiration for the survivors and her hopes of raising awareness and moving people to action with her film. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You were only 20, a senior in college, when you started working on a documentary about sex trafficking. What motivated you?
I was never involved in film. Never had any interest. My concentrations in college were all the fine arts, anthropology and psychology. But my mom, who was a caterer, was friends with someone at the Brooklyn DA’s office and they got in touch with her to donate food for an anti-trafficking event. She told them that I was an artist and I helped them make an event poster. At the event, they talked about sex trafficking in Brooklyn. I was about 20 at the time and my reaction was the same as the reaction I get now when I tell people what I’m doing: What? Sex trafficking happens in Brooklyn?
Back at Sarah Lawrence in my senior year, I took a documentary class. I knew nothing about using a camera but I started going out and filming, hoping the Record button was on.
Tell me about the film.
The subjects it touches upon are sex buyers, pimp culture, the music we listen to, and Backpage.com, which is still up and running. The Village Voice sold it but it’s still out there. The hotels. And most importantly the intimate stories of the survivors, what happened to them and where they are now. Things are a lot more hidden than before. It's baffling that someone can buy men and women online. But a lot is still happening on the street, too.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are the stories women tell about their experiences. Was it hard to find survivors willing to talk?
I met Iryna, Ashley and Shandra at different times. It happened very organically. We started talking about my film. They saw the trailer or a rough cut. Ashley actually asked to be in the film. It’s funny to think back about meeting them because now we’re like family. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.
How did you get them to trust you and open up to you with their stories?
This is another self-taught aspect of my work—how to deal with trauma. I had the luxury of time and I didn’t want to push anything and I told them that. We talked a lot about how they wanted to tell their stories and how to do it in the best way. Often people ask questions that are rough and inconsiderate. Like, “How many men did you sleep with in a day?” No. Let them tell you their story. If they are going to share information, it’s going be on their terms. Especially when they have been through so much trauma. When I met Iryna, she had just started talking about her experience. I watched her grasping her own story before she could tell it. We didn’t start filming her for four or five months. Instead, we got to know each other and I learned her story. Ashley hadn’t spoken publicly about it to anybody. None of them had told their stories on camera before.
You interviewed experts, politicians and activists in their offices but chose to film the survivors outdoors. Why?
We went and showed where they were trafficked in Brooklyn. So you’re not only seeing an interview outside with them but you’re seeing where it all happened. I wanted to be out in Brooklyn where everything had happened and is still happening. You’re also seeing where they are now as survivors. I wanted to end the film with a feeling of hope. I knew Iryna loved to walk and so we walked across the Brooklyn bridge and she talked about how walking for her was like freedom. Shandra has a family and an organization, Mentari, so we went to her house and filmed her with her son. At one point, she dances with him. Still, when I see the film, even though I’ve seen it a million times, that one part, I cry every time. Ashley was done after we did the interview. She ended it with: I’m telling my story and I’m letting it go. I think it’s been therapeutic for her. For all of them.
It sounds like it was emotional for you, too.
There were definitely times during interviews when I had to hold back tears (or not.) Making the film was an emotional experience and it has been emotional ending it too. I told Iryna that I was sad the film was done. She looked at me and said, “No, it’s a new beginning. Now you have another job. Now your job is to take the film and do something with it. And make a difference. And bring awareness.”
Is that what you hope to achieve with the film?
The goal is to bring awareness to the public, especially to the youth. In my mind, this has always been an educational film. I went into it thinking if I could help one girl or boy out there, I would be happy. It then changed into: What if someone who sees it can also help somebody? It ties into Iryna’s story. It was her neighbor who came up to her and said, “What’s happening in your life is not right!” Now I have the further dream that if each person that sees the film can help someone, we can help a ton of victims.
Also, I hope the film will bring awareness to the fact that there are organizations out there, there are people to go to, there are survivors to reach out to. The survivors community is very powerful and can help victims who are stuck or trying to get out or don’t know who to talk to.
I always say, if this much is happening in Brooklyn, you can imagine how much is happening in the country and in the world.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about sex trafficking?
The question that people ask me a lot that drives me crazy and I try to hound in the film is: Why don’t they just leave? They can’t just leave. Shandra was literally locked up, held at gunpoint and escaped. Iryna lived at home with her mom getting her degree in art history. Her trafficker had a gun and knew where she lived. He knew everything about her and had a full control over her. Iryna was locked up in a different sense. She was locked up mentally. She was told that the only way of getting out was by committing suicide. Ashley was constantly abused by pimps and Johns. Actually we don’t like to use the word ‘Johns’ anymore. We talk about ‘sex-buyers’ instead. Calling them ‘Johns’ gives them invisibility and they already have so much invisibility.
The other misconception is that it’s all international. But Ashley was from here. Iryna moved here when she was very young. They are both domestic cases. Shandra is the only one who was trafficked internationally.
How old are these girls?
Iryna was in college. Shandra was 25. Ashley was around 18 or younger. But girls are being trafficked from 10 and up. I’ve met survivors—who are not in the film—who are 16 and have been trafficked since they were 12.
Were you ever scared working on the film?
If you had talked to me a week ago, I probably would have said, ‘No.’ But last weekend, I went to the street where Ashley was trafficked and I got some footage of victims and their pimps walking around. A few nights later, I went to the Oasis Motel. Every survivor I know, except for Shandra, was trafficked in that hotel.
I went driving around there at about 2 am. The parking lot was jammed. There were pimps outside with girls they were trafficking. I was trying to get footage with my camera and, at one point, I locked eyes with a pimp who saw the camera. I got around the block, came back and was just shooting the parking lot at that point when rocks and ice were thrown at the camera through the window. I dropped the camera and was like, “Go go go! We have to get out of here.”
I was so scared just from my camera being hit. I was sitting there in a car filming, watching girls escorted into the hotel where they were sold by traffickers. It really hit me, if I was so scared, how scared were they? How scared was Ashley? Iryna? Shandra? When they were being trafficked. My fear was so inconsequential compared to what they went through.
Do the police know about that hotel?
I went to the police that night. Not because of what happened to me but because I wanted to find a way to go back and film safely. So I walk into the police station at 2:30 am in East New York and they are looking at me like I am nuts. They told me to stay away from there. One of the cops said to me, “It’s their territory. They’re going to protect it.” I explained that I want to go and film and expose what’s happening, “since you guys obviously know what’s happening and aren’t doing anything about it.” The cop again told me to stay away from the Oasis. I looked at him and said, “You know what? You do your job and I’ll do mine.”
Where is the Oasis Motel? In Brooklyn?
It’s in Canarsie, on Flatlands. I would love for that place to be shutdown.
Working on the film, you come face to face with sex trafficking? What angers you the most?
There is no way to protect survivors or move forward with prosecution years after they have been trafficked. For example, not that long ago, Iryna saw her pimp on the subway (he did not see her). I looked into getting a restraining order on this guy for her. I was told that it was too long after she was trafficked. Unless he actually does something to her now, there is nothing to be done.
I’ve seen the survivors’ progression, from acceptance of what happened and moving on to fighting against trafficking and doing advocacy work. I refer to them as ‘survivor advocates’ because they’ve taken on that role. But they are not going to get out of being trafficked and immediately want to do something about it. There is trauma that lasts different amounts of time for each of them. They are dealing with trauma, with starting the next chapter of their lives.
Are they scared of the police? Is there legal protection for trafficking victims or can they be charged with prostitution?
There is a clip in the film with a survivor who goes by the name of Kenya who had over 20 convictions of prostitution. All of them were eventually dropped, but she was fighting them for years.
The police declined to be in my film. I had two detectives who do really good work and know a lot of these survivors and wanted to be in the film. They were advocating for me with the police department to let them talk about the work that they do on camera, but the police department denied it.
The police officers weren’t allowed to speak to you on camera?
No. You have police officers like them who want to and are doing something about the problem. Then you have police like those who told me “it’s their territory and to stay away” and then you have police who literally have no idea this is happening.
There is a lack of trust on the part of survivors. Everyone knows that the police won’t do anything. It’s not even part of the dialogue.
You started working on the project in college. Did you think, off the bat, I’m going to make a documentary feature film?
It was my senior year and I had reached a point where I felt like I have all these resources in school, I have all these teachers, some of whom I’m still great friends with. And something clicked in my head. It’s based on a feeling I have in general that the worst that someone can say is ‘no.’ I’ve lived by it all across the board in my life. But especially with the film, there was this bell that went off. Why can’t I make a film? All these other people started somehow somewhere. Every time I interviewed someone, I asked who else I could interview. I kept pushing. I think people my age, we don’t give ourselves credit for how much we can do.
Did your age help or hinder your work?
Some people are excited to help you because you’re young; some might not take you seriously. I remember one politician whom I called four times before she finally arranged to see me. When I walked into her office for the interview, she said, “It got to the point where I had to do it because you were so persistent.” Afterwards, she thanked me and we did two interviews.
I did everything one-on-one. There is something very powerful about that—aside from lugging all the equipment by yourself. But it’s worth every second of intimacy with the person—be it a politician, an advocate, a survivor. There is something about you and them talking that brings out the intimacy. You can see when someone relaxes into it and starts talking and feels comfortable.
Did you ever doubt yourself?
There were definitely times when I would think: What am I doing? Is this actually going to go anywhere? When you’re so involved in something, you can lose perspective. That was why I brought in an editor, Lennon Nersesian. I call him my editing husband because we would sit together for ten hours straight and edit. We’d barely eat. It’s hard to find someone you can collaborate with like that.
What’s next for you?
I think I’ll keep doing documentaries. Maybe short, long. I would love to travel. I have a whole list of topics that I’m passionate about and would like to cover. I would use what I learned at Columbia Journalism School but also what I learned making this film.
What do you hope your audiences will take away from your film?
That sex trafficking happens here in the United States and in Brooklyn. I also hope that people will be able to recognize it when they see it. Actually, one of the politicians in the film says, “If you see something, say something.” I think that applies to sex trafficking too. If people could walk away from the film having a spark of courage to step in and help someone they recognize as a victim that would be amazing.
I also think a lot more can be done to educate youth. We have health classes. Why not also incorporate sex trafficking? One of the things that almost every advocate mentioned in terms of how people become victims is the word "vulnerability." We need to empower girls and boys when they are young so that they can be on the look out for warning signs. For themselves, but also for their friends. So that they know that there are places to go to for help.
You have learned so much about the problem in the five years you worked on the film. What was your biggest realization?
This can happen to anyone. If I were young and someone had approached me on the street, or subway, making promises—a term often used is ‘boy friending’—maybe it could have happened me.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I’m young and I made this film, but it takes a team. I had my parents and close friends who were quite involved. My mother drove me around in all the car scenes and was out with me at the Oasis Motel at 2 a.m. The survivors opened up and told me their stories and pushed me. I have so much admiration for them. What they have been through, what they are doing now. I feel really honored that we can have the relationship that we have now. I think they’re heroines. The first people I called when I found out the film had gotten into the film festival were Iryna and Shandra. I said, “We did it!”