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One of the fastest growing commodities for sale in the world are children. A recent report on trafficking in India, Zero Traffick, by a team of four foundations working in the area estimates that 16 million women in India have been trafficked into the sex slave trade. The report also estimates that 40% are under the age of 18. That’s 6.4 million girls in India who have been kidnapped and violently coerced into prostitution.
The opening film at last month’s Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (Iffla), Sold, directed by Jeffrey D. Brown, is the story of one such trafficked girl. Set in India and Nepal, Sold is about Lakshmi, an extraordinary 13-year-old, who lives in a poor village in the mountains of Nepal.
Lakshmi is taken from her parents with the promise of a job as a domestic worker in the city. She embarks on a journey from Nepal to India with Auntie Bimla and is sold to a brothel. Despite the cruelty, coercion and inhumanity she suffers, Lakshmi retains her honour and dignity. Lakshmi is played heart-wrenchingly by debutante Niyar Saikia, a 13-year-old child actor from Assam. Her expressive eyes and childlike manner make watching this film a devastating yet inspiring experience.
Brown, a director who has won both the Academy and Emmy awards, lives and works in Northern California, US. He has made commercials and short films and directed many episodes of popular TV shows such as The Wonder Years and LA Law.
In 2004 he watched Born Into Brothels by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005. He was deeply affected by the film. “I was deeply moved by how extraordinarily full of life the kids were, even though they were growing up in a brothel. They reminded me of my kids, of kids anywhere, their creativity, their bubbly laughter…and yet the girls were probably doomed into becoming prostitutes like their mothers,” he says. He was inspired by the foundational aspect of the film-makers’ work.
Brown’s father was a paediatric epidemiologist, who worked globally with CARE, Save the Children and other international organizations. Mainly, he worked in disaster zones with refugee children, so Brown always wanted to help children in need in some real way. By the time he saw Born Into Brothels, he had been directing commercials for 15 years, “I had done 200 commercials, mostly about toys, I’d worked with thousands of young performers, mostly kids, my expertise was getting great performances out of kids. But I just couldn’t do it any more, I literally looked up at the sky and said, give me an assignment that will change lives and help real people.”
Four months later, a writer friend sent him Sold, the award-winning book by Patricia McCormick. “I read the novel in one sitting and optioned it the very next day.” Brown and producer Jane Charles have been working on the film now for seven years, both driven by the hope that they can make a difference in the lives of the thousands of trafficked children they met during their research. “What started as a desire to do something meaningful in my life has turned into a life purpose,” he says.
Brown is also a drama therapist, having worked with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I’ve worked with veterans and gang kids, these survivors of the sex slave trade are also people that have PTSD. They have to do a lot of healing work to reclaim their dignity and pride in themselves,” he says.
He is currently raising funds to distribute the film in the US and Europe and wants to funnel funds to organizations that work with healing and rehabilitating survivors. His dream is to use the film as an educational tool for young people all over the world, to empower them as leaders to help stop trafficking and raise funds to care for survivors. “The average age globally of a trafficked child is 13 years. If other teenagers learn about this, they will be the best advocates to change things, to address ending trafficking. We hope to empower young people all over the world to become a part of the solution.”
Sold is likely to release in the US in August and then in Europe. Brown hopes to release the film in India sometime after that.
Anjalika Sharma is a National Award winning film-maker of Indian origin. She produces digital content under her banner Indie Nari Productions in California.