GENESEE COUNTY, MICHIGAN – Human sex trafficking is a misunderstood concept. Like many others, I initially believed the Hollywood version of the problem: A victim is kidnapped off the street and whisked away to a faraway land and sold into slavery. While that world is indeed an unfortunate sector of this very lucrative business, it wasn’t until I began researching the domestic and local sex trade that I became truly aware of its reality, a far cry from Hollywood, but devastatingly more common and dangerous.
My community in Michigan is blessed with wonderful arts and cultural women’s organizations and I was fortunate to speak to a group of philanthropic ladies about independent filmmaking. After my talk I was approached by one woman, Patti Higgins, about writing and directing a film on human sex trafficking as I had recently completed a short film –“Pretty Funny Nicole”– a documentary about actress and comedian Nicole Madjili who was a victim of sexual abuse in Hollywood and beyond.
Initially, I wasn’t sure I was ready to embark on an even darker subject. However, after learning that our mission would be to educate society about the insidious, seductive and manipulative ways that perpetrators prey on our most vulnerable—our youth— it was a project I full-heartedly chose to embrace.
Meetings ensued with local police, the FBI, school administrators, and most compelling of all, victims. It was through these encounters that the full breadth and risk of trafficking became real for my co-writers and me. Perpetrators search out lonely, hurt, disaffected young people, actively searching the internet for potential victims and scouring Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites for signs of the vulnerable: a broken relationship, parents divorcing, the shunned, the bullied, the isolation of the homosexual student. How many teens are struggling with low self-esteem and would welcome an invitation from a good-looking, charismatic recruiter inviting them on a date? After all, these kids are growing up in the age of online dating and this trickle down normalcy permeates the thinking of even our middle school children.
My production company, NBW FILMS, has a team of writers that consists of two women and two men. The gender and race differences between us help to capture a diverse perspective in the dialogue and the plot. We wanted the film to be real and we wanted it to resonate with teens along with their parents.
One of the most fascinating components of putting this project together was the young people that we engaged to assure we were developing dialogue that was real and contemporary. A group of teens representing rural, city and suburban from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds became our lifeblood and our inspiration at the beginning. We had them name the characters and develop their personas. They commented on story development, which helped us be sure that our story concentrated on teens’ perceived understanding of love, acceptance, security and needs.
“Ring of Silence” is a story about April, a vulnerable teenage girl from a stable, suburban family who is searching for love and acceptance in a relationship. She meets an older man on social media, Sean, who lures her away from the safety and security of her family and friends, and betrays her into his seedy world of drugs and sex trafficking. She is robbed of her innocence from the very man she loved and trusted. She is manipulated, beaten, drugged and sold.
When casting for April, we needed an actress who could play the innocence of a virgin, with the maturity of a responsible young adult who took care of her father and younger brother. Ava Deluca-Verley, from the television series “Growing Up Fisher,” portrayed this role with incredible ease and depth, bringing nuances and aspects of this character to the set that continually surprised. I knew after my first initial FaceTime with Ava, that she had a natural essence about her that encapsulated the feeling of April.
Sean, the character that seduces April into trafficking, was played by Brian J. O’Donnell (who was in the film “Contagion”) who in real life is the perfect gentleman that every mother would like her daughter to date. He is kind, personable and a wonderful actor. The role he plays is dark and cunning, and at times Brian would have to take a moment to get rid of the grimy feeling of such a hideous role. In fact, at times, we all would need a mental break. There were numerous scenes the crew had a hard time watching.
The reality continually sank in as to the hell these victims face on a day-to-day basis. One scene filmed at Flint’s Hurley Hospital, where April is admitted after a night of being forced into countless sexual acts at a local motel, was particularly upsetting for all of us. Prior to filming, Hurley nurses explained in detail the process of admitting these vulnerable victims. The pain from the rape kit violation, the humiliation, the filthy hair and nails— it was hard to fathom. We attempted to capture this horrific experience in the opening of our film.
Sean’s boss, the character Luke, is played by Brandon Butler from the hit series “13 Reasons Why.” Brandon had a commanding presence on set and a powerful actor. According to my contact at the FBI, there are many hierarchies in the business of trafficking and often girls are sold into larger circuits and transported to main cities. We wanted this reality to be noted in the film. We also have one character named Jesse, a gay teen and April’s best friend, who is transported to Atlanta.
“Ring of Silence” explores love, manipulation, betrayal, and exploitation. It captures the essence of victims whether male or female, city or rural, race, sexual identity, economic wealth, and the seemingly uninformed adults that are supposed to protect them. It shows how this world happens right in front of our eyes, and how the signs are lost in everyday life. One scene takes place at a Christmas party, where people are enjoying the celebrations while trafficking is happening in other rooms. It is a metaphor for society: trafficking happens in our local schools, local sports events, local truck stops and yet most of us are unaware. Worst of all, our teens are unaware.
The stigma within our communities is something that keeps us back from understanding the truth and recognizing a victim. One police officer who spoke to me described the many years of busting in on local “whore houses” where women were arrested for prostitution. “Back then we didn’t realize these women were sex slave victims,” he said to me, shaking his head. “We assumed they were prostitutes who chose this lifestyle to support their drug habits.”
Through recent training, many police officers have begun to recognize that many of these women and girls that they thought became prostitutes out of choice are really women and children who are being held against their will, blackmailed and abused. According to the Polaris Project up to 100,000 – 300,000 children in America have been trafficked while globally the International Labour Organisation has estimated that over 4.5 million people have been forced into sexual exploitation.
No county in America is immune. Across the globe, sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, said to be second only to the drug trade in terms of illegal industries. One of the things that struck me the most was finding out that a telltale sign of a residence that sells young girls is the presence of McDonald’s bags. According to law enforcement officials, oftentimes a Big Mac is given as a reward for a night of imposed sexual favors. Our film will be debuting in Flint, Michigan in April (for cast and crew) and then we will start entering it into film festivals across the U.S., Europe and Canada.
Canadian by birth, Nicole Bowers Wallace resides in a small town in Michigan fulfilling her dream of film-making, directing, writing and producing and is the founder of NBW Films. This is her second career, having retired a number of years ago from working in health care administration.
All photos courtesy Ms. Bowers Wallace: 1st, 3rd and 4th still from “Ring of Silence.” 2nd photo, the women behind the film (Ms. Bowers Wallace is in the center with glasses)