by Mal Karman
Following a successful tour of international film festivals a powerful drama adapted from Patricia McCormick’s National Book Award nominee and Quill Award winning novel Sold is currently opening in cinemas across the United States.
Mal Karman interviews the movie’s Academy-Award winning director Jeffrey Brown.
Sold tells of a young girl, Lakshmi, who leaves her home in a quiet village in the Nepali Himalayas in the expectation of a job in big city India. However, upon her arrival in Kolkata, she soon realizes she has been trafficked into a prison brothel, where she must struggle daily to survive against impossible odds. A US photographer (Gillian Anderson) hears her cries for help and works with an NGO, to spearhead a dangerous mission to rescue her. Finally, Lakshmi must risk everything for freedom. Sold is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a clarion call to action.
For theaters and information about how you can become involved go to SOLD.
When co-writer-director Jeffrey Brown says making the movie Sold in India changed his life, he doesn’t mean because of the leeches that sucked his blood or the near-death illness that leveled him while shooting.
He is talking about the 2,000 kids he met there, as young as 9, who were trafficked and imprisoned as sex workers.
“One girl had just been rescued in a raid on a Calcutta brothel half an hour before I got to the safe house,” Brown says. “She had been made to service 10-20 men a night. And the look on her face, when you see this kind of fear in a human, it’s like looking at an animal with its back against a wall.”
Most of those children, however, never get out of those places. “It’s essentially a death sentence. They are there, maybe five years, and then they get AIDS or they are killed. (For those) who are rescued, someone has to be with them for three months because they are in such a state of fear they will try to kill themselves.”
Brown says that young girls are in demand because virgins bring in higher prices. “Traffickers tell their customers if you have a virgin you’ll have a longer life. So they stitch them up 10 times to fake virginity.
“A lot of them are what they call ‘In the life,’ meaning they’ve been brainwashed and they’re in love with their abuser. They believe their pimps actually love them,” he says. “Even if they escape or are rescued, there is the stigma of being trafficked and their families (who have sold them for $50 or $100) won’t take them back. They are alone.”
So how have visits to numerous brothels half a world away and interacting with such gut-wrenching life stories changed a filmmaker’s life?
“Going into this kind of darkness showed me a lot of light,” Brown says. “Once these children have been rehabilitated, they will risk their lives to save others. These kids have kind of died, but have made it back and they become liberators of others. They encouraged me to face my fears.”
When Brown read the Patricia McCormick book, on which his movie is based, he felt a calling. “I grew up in Uganda and my stepfather is Bengali, so I saw India firsthand when I was 10. It is a place of extremes. You can smell jasmine flowers and open human feces at the same time. You’re bombarded with incredible wealth and incredible poverty. It confronts every belief system you’ve ever had and blows it up so you end up knowing nothing.
“A woman comes out of cardboard box with three kids, dressed in all these colors and she’s happy and proud, and then (in California) people are living in these amazing houses and they are all stressed out.”
According to Ruchira Gupta, an Indian sex trafficking abolitionist, who won the Clinton Global Citizen Award and the Abolitionist Award from the UK’s House of Lords, one million new girls a year are forced into sex slavery in India alone, a total of 6.4 million between the ages of 9 and 18. The average age is 13.
There is a role for the arts in the effort to end human trafficking, insists the loquacious 59-year-old Mill Valley director, an Oscar-winner in 1986 for his live action short Molly’s Pilgrim. After showing the trailer from “Sold” to a United Nation’s commission on issues facing women, attended by activists from all over world, he exclaimed, “There was excitement that the film was going to be available to them. It was like we were giving a weapon to a mobilized army.”
Brown knows of 50 safe houses, each with 200 to 500 kids who are often sustained there for two or three years because there is nowhere else to put them. He is partnering with numerous NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that offer paths to recovery, among them Nest, which offers vocational training to survivors; iRest, utilizing Yoga Nidra to heal PTSD; and Project Udaan, a pilot project in the red light district of Calcutta to create a safe haven for girls, where they can lead an unthreatened childhood, away from the dangers of the flesh trade.
With some help from the film production company, the campaign to eradicate this global problem has raised millions, but Brown emphasizes, “It is paltry to the scale of the problem. The cartels are well organized and working together, while we’re trying to build a global network. We’ve built 20 schools (in Nepal) and we’ll build 200 more to educate these kids and give them a path to a normal life. We’re working with Childreach International, the 40K Foundation, Save the Children, Stolen Youth and others to insure that these kids are taught not trafficked.”
Yet another “Sold” partner, Art of Living’s Care for Children program, founded in 1981, provides holistic education up to the age of 15 and has grown to include 425 schools and has served over 51,000 children.
The director raised his first funds to get the film produced, a nifty half mil, at — of all places— Burning Man. Ronald Lo, who became one of the executive producers of “Sold,” was impressed with Brown’s willingness to lead his team’s 30-foot dragon through a dust storm and to help deal with overflowed sewage in a Winnebago. Hear that, aspiring filmmakers? Clean a toilet with the right person and you raise $500,000 for your movie.
Brown pursued this project for nine years, trying to get as many women involved as he could. He sent it to 12 female directors, including Debra (Winter’s Bone”) Granik, Niki (“Whale Rider”) Caro and Lynne (“Ratcatcher”) Ramsay, none of whom responded, though he did persuade Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson to attach her name to it and serve as an executive producer. International humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine of San Francisco, whose gallery decorates the plaza in Sonoma, visited the set and worked with Gillian Anderson for her role of a photographer trying to gather visual evidence.
In the end, Brown took on the role of director himself, though he did not envision getting mauled by leeches in a Nepal rice field or collapsing in the middle of shooting from an illness that had all the signs of the often-fatal dengue fever. “I had overcome malaria three times in Africa, but dengue can destroy your organs. I was sure I had it. By the sixth day I could hardly get up. By the ninth day I was so physically dehydrated I couldn’t even stand. I thought this was the end. It was finally diagnosed as dysentery. I got a shot from a doctor and the next day woke up and I was fine.”
While it is easy to think the inhumane treatment of children is limited to the other side of the globe, there is far more flesh peddling right under our noses in this country and any other you might name. “There brothels are right here, women who are trafficked in from Mexico or South America,” Brown says, referring to the San Francisco Bay Area, his voice choking with emotion. “I’d even been OK’d to go with cops on a bust, but I begged off. I can’t take it. I’ve seen too much already. I mean what kind world are we creating when we let this kind of disaster befall so many kids? I want to direct my energy to changing that. I’m committed to making sure their struggle ends.”
He is hoping that “Sold” will be continue to be a catalyst to help raise money for a global movement to end sex trafficking and is making the film available to anyone or any organization interested in a fund-raising screening.
“The courage I saw from these children, their resilience, their kindness and the compassion of those who have managed to come out of those prison brothels, taught me to continue doing what my heart calls me to do,” Brown says. “Allowing the fear, but making my life what I want it to be in spite of it.”
Mal Karman has been a screenwriter, novelist and film critic in the Bay Area since the Dark Ages. He received the top awards for creative writing at the 2013, 2014 and 2015 Marin County Fair, including two works deemed Best in Show, is a multi-award winner (including an Emmy) for the drug abuse prevention TV special Wasted: A True Story, and has three books to his credit: a novel, The Foxbat Spiral and the nonfiction The Poison River and Encounters with the Middle East, in which he chronicles some of his travels in Iran. His film reviews appear regularly at MoviesandMayhem. He is currently at work on a new novel.
Visit Mal’s website for more about his projects.
Explore the Sold website and learn how you can help.
Watch a trailer for Geoffrey Brown’s Academy-Winning short Molly’s Pilgrim.
Molly’s Pilgrim is available for home viewing.