“Sex Trafficking in America” Filmmakers on How They Got the Story
When she was 16 years old, Kat was abducted and trafficked by men she met online — all in her home state of Arizona.
“I didn’t even know what sex trafficking was before I was taken,” Kat says in the FRONTLINE documentary Sex Trafficking in America. “I didn’t know that I would end up in this situation that I ended up in.”
Jezza Neumann and Lauren Mucciolo — the director and producer behind the film — found that, like Kat, many people were unaware of the American woman and girls being sexually exploited within the U.S.
“Most people thought it was an international thing,” Neumann said.
To capture that hidden reality, Neumann and Mucciolo followed a police unit in Phoenix, Arizona, combatting child sexual exploitation over the course of two and a half years. They talked to FRONTLINE about how they found the story, and what impact they hope the documentary has.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to do a documentary about sex trafficking?
Neumann: My first film was China’s stolen children, which is about the trafficking of kids under the one-child policy. So it’s an area I’d dealt with in the past. I spoke to a friend, Professor Kevin Bales, who has written various books on modern-day slavery. I started chatting to Kevin and he said, “Have you thought about domestic sex trafficking in America.” And I’m like, “No, why?” And he said, “Well, most people don’t realize that a vast majority of women trafficked in America are American.”
At that point we thought, okay, there’s a film to be made here, because we’re always looking to make films where we can give voice to a vulnerable community, or where we can highlight an issue that seems to be misrepresented or misunderstood.
Mucciolo: This opportunity, to be a part of this film, really spoke to me because sexual violence against women is such an important issue that has really been underserved in our conversation, our dialogue in this country.
Over the course of making this film, the #MeToo movement happened and we’re suddenly starting to have more of a dialogue about the systemic violence against women in our country. The timing [of the film] couldn’t have been more perfect. I was really glad to have the opportunity to be able to give a voice to women who’ve been part of this experience during a moment in history where there are actually people listening, and more of a space for that point of view to be heard.
Why did you decide to focus on Phoenix?
Neumann: Like all films, you really need strong characters. It’s all well and good to find an interesting issue, but issues don’t make films. In this instance we needed detectives who were prepared to go on camera and let us into their world, and who were dynamic and could carry a film.
It just so happened that there was a talk happening in upstate New York. And so Lauren went and met Christi [Decouflé], who’s one of the detectives in the film. She said, “Oh my god, you should come to Phoenix.”
The women that you see in the film, they became the voice. They were impassioned about this issue. Films have layers. On the forefront, you have a film about trafficking, but what you also have is this film about these amazingly empowered women. You have it through the detectives, and the work they’re doing and the sacrifices they give. They’re moms as well, so they’re trying to be parents and do this job that’s all consuming. And then you have the prosecutor, she’s a woman in a really strong position. And then you have Kat and Marriah and the other survivors — these young women have been through horrific, horrific situations. But they’re coming out of it with strength and not letting it defeat them, and using it to better themselves where they can.
Mucciolo: They have an incredibly proactive agency, so they have the resources and the person-power to do not just cases where you’re reacting. They’re constantly trying to think of,
“What’s another way we can come at this issue? What’s different?” They’re analyzing what the traffickers are doing, they’re doing social media operations where they’re going undercover. Not a lot of other agencies have the resources to do that or, frankly, the innovation.
And the other special thing about Phoenix is they have an incredibly healthy working relationship with all of the service providers, and all the other players in this world, so with the government, the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, with the faith-based community, churches throughout the community, advocates, citizens who are trying to do citizen-based work around this issue. All of those people talk to each other.
What we’ve found in other cities that we’ve been to is that law enforcement has a very bad reputation with the non-profit sector or the community sector. When we were starting to make this film four years ago, that was during the height of Black Lives Matter. So, to be able to find a unit that was incredibly good at working with the community, incredibly thoughtful about not just looking at the people they’re policing as suspects or people that don’t have a voice or perspective. This is a unit that talks to the people it sees on the ground, they’re not just making decisions for them. It’s a very different way of doing police work. When we traveled around the country, you got sort of bits and pieces, specks of light here and there. But in Phoenix, that level of integration with the community and sensitivity was something we hadn’t seen at that level anywhere else.
The women you met while filming who were survivors of trafficking. How did you get them to open up about the traumatic things they experienced?
Neumann: It’s a process of trust. If you meet anybody for the first time, they’re going to tell you so much about their life and they’ll withhold a lot. The more you get to know them, the more they’ll open up. It’s the same process with filmmaking for us. We don’t go into a place with cameras blazing, asking questions. We take time. We put the camera down. So, when we went to the Dream Center [which specializes in caring for survivors of sex trafficking], we just spent time there and everyone knew we were the journalists. We just hung out with them, we did a little bit of filming, we offered up the opportunity for them to talk to us. For us, what you do without the camera rolling is as important as what you do with the camera rolling.
The Dream Center is all women. They don’t allow men on that floor. The fact that we were ultimately given free access to spend time there was an amazing level of trust. Given the vulnerability of these young women and what they’ve been through, that was phenomenal. On one hand it’s fantastic, but on the other it’s a real responsibility. That brings the onus on us of how the film ends up, because we are still journalists so you’ve got to be unbiased, you’ve got to be honest to the whole world.
Mucciolo: To echo that, it’s time and trust, and empowerment and agency. Our ability to develop relationships with the people who ran the Dream Center — Konstance [Merideth] and Carla [Grace], the therapist — they were able to see that we didn’t come into those places and take stories away. We came in there and gave a platform for people to have a voice and to have agency and to have empowerment.
What was special about the Dream Center, and what was special about Carla was that she recognized that if we operate as gatekeepers to these girls, then we’re not giving them an opportunity to take back control of their lives, and that’s what was taken away from them when they were trafficked. One of the most important things that we can give these girls back through these support services is getting agency back, being empowered, getting your voice back, being able to be confident enough and strong enough to make choices for yourself and recognizing that you have choice.
When we were talking to Carla about the film, she really recognized that this film works best if people feel like they have control over how much they participate and what they share. And so really what the filmmaking exercise turned out to be for these girls was an opportunity to just have that catharsis and have that empowerment of saying, “I’m not going to be out of control of my life like I was with a trafficker. I’m going to be the author of my own story.”
What were some of the ethical decisions you faced while reporting on this topic?
Neumann: We had to be really sure with Kat that this was a good thing for her, to be a part of this film. This is going out on national television. She’s taking her story from her private space and telling the world. Are we doing the right thing? I fundamentally believe that every human being has the right to a voice. And that’s why I make so many films through the voices of children, both ones I’ve done with Lauren in America and other places in the world, because I think so often kids are heard but not listened to.
Just because you’ve been in a horrific situation like Kat shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a voice. But our duty of care towards Kat was to [weigh] what would be the positive effects versus the detrimental effects? Because there’s always going to be somebody who’s negative about this film.
The reason she’s doing this story, absolutely, 100 percent, the only reason she’s doing this story is so that she could possibly help one girl.
What do you hope the audience takes away from watching this documentary?
Neumann: What I hope is that people will look at this film and think about it, and think about how they look at this issue and see if in their minds maybe they need to reframe this issue.
Mucciolo: Kind of on a more brass-tacks level, it would be great if other cities could look at this film and say, “Wow, we need to have a unit in our department that specializes in this. We need to not just have a reactive unit if we already have one, we need to have a proactive unit. Maybe we need to have more female detectives because clearly having that ability for women to relate to these women has its advantages.”
It would be great if one of the takeaways from this film was the court system’s impact on victims, because there’s a second level of trauma that happens that I think we’re going to see in this film. These girls go through something horrific, and then it’s not over when they’re recovered. They have their own process of healing to do, number one, but if they participate in a case, that process in and of itself can be very traumatizing, because it can take years.
For legislatures in other states to say, “Okay, maybe we need to take another look at our laws to make sure that our police force has as many tools and resources available to them to get these guys.” I think those kinds of more policy-level or practical-level impacts would be wonderful to help really make a change on this issue.
Could you share what it was like filming while the police unit set up busts like the one at the bus station or the ones in the hotel? Those moments come across as very tense.
Neumann: I nearly got tasered. Because [the arrest at the bus station] was a combo operation between our unit and also FAID [Fugitive Apprehension Investigative Detail], the armed response unit, and one of the members of FAID wasn’t actually at the briefings and so didn’t know about us. So when she saw me running, following the action, she actually pulled her taser out. And the sergeant had to shout, “No! He’s with us.” For me, having been in all sorts of different circumstances, working undercover and being interrogated by secret police, being in Gaza, I’ve had a taste of being on the edge.
It was about getting into the action without being in the line of fire. But for me, it’s totally, “Am I getting the shots?” You’re focusing on the trafficker being pulled out of the car, but then I also know I need to get shots of the guys with the guns. So the whole thing was over for me in milliseconds, because I didn’t think about anything else other than getting the shot.
Mucciolo: You’re just so focused on those things that all the bigger stuff becomes less scary than it otherwise would have been. Just being a part of that action is truly exhilarating, but you don’t have a chance to feel the fear and anxiety of being in the mix of something that could go terribly wrong very quickly, because you’re just trying to get the shot. And we do very, very strict risk assessments before we go into any of these situations, so we’re not going in just hoping and praying that we’re not going to get into any kind of danger. We are very responsible about it.
Neumann: Fear is a perception, so if you don’t perceive it, you’re not scared.
Mucciolo: But then the shoot is over and you step away and then you go, “Holy smokes, these guys had assault rifles!”
Neumann: But I think that was one thing that was amazing for us was that the access that the Phoenix unit gave us was just phenomenal. And just to have that trust, that they knew that we would do what we were told to do. That’s the rapport you build. We just spent a lot of time bringing them British candies and hanging out with them and going for a beer. We got to know them. They let us into their homes.
I hope it has that feeling, that you really feel you’re living their world, rather than just another kind of cops show you’re just watching action for the sake of action.