On March 23, 2016, I had the honor of attending the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) panel, "The Role of the Arts in Helping to End Human Trafficking," which focused on how the arts can create awareness for important human rights issues. The panel centered on new film Sold (2016), the powerful tale of a young girl who is trafficked over the Nepal-India border and forced to work in a brothel to pay her parents' "debts." The film is a shocking window into the global epidemic of trafficking girls and women as sex workers, a deeply horrific practice that permeates every city in the world, including in our own backyards throughout the United States.
The UNODC panel featured Sold actress Gillian Anderson, in addition to an incredible lineup of accomplished women. Moderating the panel was Simone Monasebian, a prosecutor and the director of the UNODC, who expressed her passion for ending human trafficking, discussed how the UN negotiates this and other issues, and highlighted the role of art as advocacy. Monasbian emphasized that, as global citizens, we must deal with these crimes as a shared responsibility. A film like Sold has the ability to change the lens through which we view social issues and alter our perception. While written reports and testimony can only reach so many, film has the ability to reach millions.
Gillian Anderson at "The Role of the Arts in Helping to End Human Trafficking" Panel, March 23, 2016
Monasebian related the importance of the 4 P's: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnership. Partnering with the film industry led to the making of Sold, which took over 8 years to conceptualize, plan, film and publicize through its partnerships with numerous NGOs (non-governmental organizations). There was great emphasis from the panelists involved in making the movie – director Jeffrey D. Brown, producer Jane Charles and author Patricia McCormick (who wrote the book on which Sold is directly based) – on the partnerships they have forged in communities around the globe that are committed to making sure this film is seen and available for educational purposes in schools and at universities.
Brown discussed the presence of at-risk kids in the US, Nepal and India, as well as how he came to be involved with Sold. Charles discussed her work in Seattle with Stolen Youth, a nonprofit that assists in lifting women and children out of the sex trade and provides services such as education, counseling, legal assistance, healthcare, and employment resources to transition them into new, better lives. Seattle is a major hub for sex trafficking, and Stolen Youth's role in the community lends invaluable help to try to eradicate this epidemic.
Gillian Anderson spoke about her involvement in the movie – her character, Sophie, is a photojournalist who comes to Kolkata to shine a light on the stories of women in the sex trade – and how the role was not originally present in the film. Eventually, the part of Sophie was written in, based on humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine, whose work in illuminating human slavery around the globe (which encompasses sex trafficking) has put intensely beautiful and heartrending images to this issue, giving it a face and a voice. Gillian said that she'd never been part of a film that had become so meaningful to her, and it has given her the chance to lend her voice once again to an aspect of human slavery. She has previously worked with organizations in Uganda, South Africa, and other places to promote awareness. Gillian continues to use her fame and popularity to shine a light on this difficult but necessary discussion that needs to take place.
Gillian said she believes film can change the world, and Sold could help end trafficking by involving more organizations in the conversation on sex trafficking. She called for the world to wake up to the fact that sex trafficking is in our backyard, and that there are more slaves in the world today than in the history of the entire planet. It is 2016. This should not be the case, yet it is.
Her Excellency Sarah Mendelson, who was confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) in 2015, also spoke briefly, as did Her Excellency Katalin Bogyay, the ambassador and representative of Hungary. Both women stated that human trafficking barely had a name when they started to become involved with this issue, and it is something that only has begun to gain traction around the world in the past few years. Whereas priot to 2005, there had previously only been a few NGOs devoted to removing women and children from the sex trade, now there are many doing this difficult, important work. Bogyay stressed the role of art and poetry as a means to open minds toward a peaceful coexistence. They also discussed sustainable development, another term that has only become popular in the past 15 to 20 years. The eradication of sex trafficking and sustainable development go hand in hand, and studies have proven that when a society's women are empowered, the entire society flourishes.
Ruchira Gupta spoke about activists and storytellers. Gupta is responsible for making sex trafficking classified as a crime, in addition to a staggering number of accolades. Her book, Confronting the Demand for Human Trafficking, is seen as the premiere text on how to handle the sex trade and prostitution. While the protagonist of Sold, Lakshmi, manages to escape from the brothel and make it to the safehouse where Sophie (Gillian Anderson) works, Gupta stressed that in reality "no girl can rescue herself from a brothel" because the oppression is too great. Gupta also wrote River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction.
Two other artists who have dedicated their professional art and voices to issues surrounding human trafficking spoke, pianist Chloe Flower and artist Ross Bleckner, also spoke. Flower is one of the top female composers in the world, having recently scored Misty Copeland's biographical film and has received numerous awards for her work in promoting the arts as a way to keep children out of the trafficking industry. Flower stated that this is an industry that grows exponentially as long as there is demand, and reducing the supply of women and girls will reduce this downright evil industry as a whole.
Bleckner, a modern artist whose work can be found in the MOMA, the Guggenheim and the Whitney (among others), founded ACRIA, the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. Bleckner was awarded the title of Goodwill Ambassador to the UN in 2009 (the first artist to hold the title), and like Gillian Anderson he has also worked with at-risk youth in Uganda.
Gillian Anderson at the UN Panel
Covering this panel for ScreenPrism has left me feeling grateful and also wanting to do more to help create awareness. To think about how women in my own state and community are suffering in the sex trade is, as producer Jane Charles noted, life-changing. I will be working to bring Sold to my alma mater, Fairfield University, and to other universities and members of my community.
If you wish to donate, visit Sold's website, The UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking, or create awareness in your community by requesting a screening or bringing it to the attention of a school attended by you or your children. There is a 50-minute version of the movie that is suitable for viewing in high schools.
The author with Gillian Anderson at the UN Panel