Social Cause Filmmaker on What It’s Like Creating a Human Trafficking Documentary

Several weeks ago, we heard from Sarai Smith-Mazariegos, co-founder of MISSSEY and CEO and founder of S.H.A.D.E., about how she uses her own experience to relate to child trafficking survivors. In advance of our Feb. 21 film screening and panel, we talked with inspired filmmaker Sian Taylor Gowan, founder and filmmaker of Red Scarf Films and producer of Surviving International Boulevard, featuring Sarai. We talked with Sian about how what inspired her to create the film and how she captured the human trafficking from the perspective of two women.


How did you become interested in storytelling about human trafficking?

In 2010, I became aware of the global human trafficking epidemic while working on my Masters in Human Rights Education. A few years later I was surprised to learn from various local news outlets that Bay Area residents were being trafficked in their own states, their own counties, even their own neighborhoods. I had never considered that human trafficking was happening to residents in the Bay Area I grew up in — much less to Bay Area children. So, I started researching and the project naturally started developing.

How did you approach portraying such a heavy social topic using media?

One of my main concerns was to be respectful of people’s privacy, whether it was the main people in the film or random people on the street. In the b-roll, our online editor, Derek Sajbel, painstakingly concealed every frame of a person’s facial features or identifiable tattoos. In addition, before shooting the scenes with “Pamela” and Sarai, I gave a stretch of time between when they agreed to be in the film and when we actually shot the footage. I wanted to be sure everyone was comfortable sharing their story and generally satisfied with the film’s edited content, thus revealing a rough cut to Sarai, Regina, and “Pamela” before post-producing the audio and color for final cut. Legally, everyone has signed a personal release, but when dealing with sensitive stories I think documentary producers have a responsibility to evaluate a “moral release” and do what they can to avoid re-traumatizing participants who have given their stories to the public.

What was the main message you wanted to capture with Surviving International Boulevard?

I want people to truly understand the definition of the word “trafficking” to mean “being forced or coerced emotionally, physically and/or mentally to create an economic gain for another.” I want people to realize that when they see a young scantily clad person shifting around on the sidewalk appearing to seek a sex customer, that young person is the victim of a pimp, not an opportunistic prostitute. I want people to consider how fragile and malleable a young person can be, especially once they are in an abusive relationship.

I want people to appreciate the power of love, acceptance and belonging and how it can enslave or free someone depending on how those feelings are directed.

I want people to be incensed that there aren’t enough social services, such as youth safe houses, for these vulnerable young people — often foster kids, homeless kids, runaways — who have become entangled in a situation they can’t handle. Local kids and teens are the responsibility of our community and we need to demand that the necessary social services are funded. Honestly, I wish there was a single “main message” with the topic of child sex trafficking, but it is extremely complex and requires an open mind to truly appreciate the unspeakable abuse victims are going through. Ultimately, I hope people are moved to get involved with their local anti-trafficking organizations who are trained to understand the dynamics and be present when a victim is ready to reach out for help. Please review our local resource list at the film’s website to assess how you can #ChooseToHelp.

What inspired you to feature a mother of a sex trafficking survivor as one of the main characters?

If you are truly documenting what is happening around you, you don’t get to choose who is your main character. It happens organically over time as you do research, develop working relationships or even friendships, and absorb the knowledge that each situation brings. There are two main stories in the film: Sarai Smith Mazariegos sharing her personal story and professional expertise, and the mother sharing her experience searching for her daughter. By highlighting both stories, the film shows there are various ways in which a person can be sexually exploited, traumatized and/or sex trafficked.

What was the most shocking or eye-opening thing you learned while producing the documentary?

I feel the most profound aspect of this crime deals with the intensity and power of trauma bonding. Although physical violence is certainly a major part of the abuse, this is largely a psychological crime, often bonding victims to their traffickers through the power of what is perceived to be love, acceptance and belonging. In some cases, it is a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome.

I am in awe of child advocates, social workers and others who work with the girls (and boys or LGBT) to help them leave their trafficker and cross over into self-love and self-empowerment. It is a long journey and these kind loyal tough souls are the true heroes who stick with the girls until they are strong enough to stand on their own. Victims tend to leave and return to their trafficker approximately eight to nine times before building up the strength to leave permanently, if indeed, they do ultimately find the strength to leave.

Do you have any advice for other filmmakers interested in documenting social issues?

Before embarking on a social cause film, be honest with yourself about whether you should create a documentary social cause film or a narrative social cause film.

Documentaries deal with people’s real stories, and potentially heart-wrenching personal trauma, which requires patience, building trust and following the ups and downs of life which may put a wrench in your filmmaking plans.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, nor the interest in putting your subjects’ stories above your own professional interests, then you may be more successful writing a script, hiring actors and completing the project in just a few months. If indeed you do feel you are the type of person who is meant to document people’s stories, be clear about your project’s mission statement before getting too deep into the film. Every decision made in producing this short film must be in line with “helping the kid on the corner at the first minute of the film and kids like her,” which has helped me avoid ego-driven opportunities that would’ve derailed the pure intention.


Join us Feb. 21 to watch the full Surviving International Boulevard film and hear from a diverse group of panelists. Buy tickets here.