Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walking Merchandise: Child Smuggling and the Snakehead Trade

Last Spring, Rob Nguyen and Ethan Downing decided that they wanted to raise awareness about a lesser-known division of human trafficking. In the following year they tracked down lawyers, journalists, social workers, and trafficked individuals in order to create an informative and startling documentary about Chinese human traffickers known as snakeheads. The film, Walking Merchandise: Child Smuggling and the Snakehead Trade, examines the intricacies of this specific trafficking method from China to the United States.

“We got involved with the topic because last Spring, Ethan Downing, the director of the film, was completing a Master's in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, at Columbia University,” said Rob Nguyen, the producer of Walking Merchandise. “He had been aware of Lauren A. Burke's work at The Door, a youth services center here in New York. She had been working with young Chinese persons who had been smuggled and trafficked into the U.S. and often working in restaurants around the U.S.”

Snakeheads solicit individuals to travel from China into the United States, using illegal means to transport them across borders and charging fees as high as $80,000, according to Walking Merchandise. Many of these individuals are children being sent by their own families. These individuals are subjected to cruelty, and extortion during their journey to America. After arriving they are forced into labor, and their well-being, as well as their families’, are threatened should they not pay back the impossible debt.

The interviews between the filmmakers and victims are an enlightening glimpse into one specific subclass of human trafficking, which as a whole, has become an estimated $31.6 billion industry, according to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.

Finding professionals who had knowledge of human trafficking, and more specifically, the Snakehead Trade proved easy. However, finding young individuals to tell their stories was much more difficult. “Many of them still owe money to either the snakeheads who brought them here, or persons from whom they borrowed money to pay the snakeheads,” said Nguyen.

Current involvement in the industry posed challenges for the filmmakers. Many of these individuals would be traveling to New York City only to find their next job on the restaurant circuit. This offered the individuals a chance to tell their story to, but the filmmakers extremely short notice to meet with them.

“During that brief window of time is when we'd meet with them, so this would be often last minute, with just a day or two's notice,” said Nguyen. “We just tried to be as flexible as possible in order to make ourselves available to meet with them.”

Another important part of production was maintaining anonymity of the trafficked individuals’ identities. “So as you may see in the trailer for the film we've either obscured the young persons' faces through silhouette lighting and post-processing, or otherwise simply not including their faces in the shot when we filmed the interview,” said Nguyen.

Many of the interviews they conducted were through a professional referral, and “They would take great pains to make sure that the young person was choosing to be interviewed of their own free will, and that's something that we would ask them again once we sat down and met with them,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen was surprised to find that while most of the young victims spoke with a “matter-of-fact perspective” about their ordeal, others were particularly eager to share. These few were able to realize the scope of the film, and a larger purpose in telling what had happened to them.

“They felt that they themselves had not been told the full story when their parents sent them to the U.S., and they really wanted other kids to know about it,” Nguyen said. “This was really impressive, as was their ability to articulate their experiences and their hopes for other young persons considering making the same journey.”

The film, which is currently in post-production, is expected to be finished in May of this year. The filmmakers hope that they will be able to screen the film at festivals, as well as for non-profits and NGO’s who specialize in human trafficking, through May of 2012.

“After that, we'll release the film online for free streaming and download,” said Nguyen. “We'll also try to complement that with a number of smaller online videos, similar to those on our website presently, so that the site, as well as the film itself, can be a resource for people wanting to learn more about this issue.”

Funding for the documentary was provided through a graduate fellowship from Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity that Downing had been awarded. Later, additional capital was raised through a fundraiser for the film, known as the Kickstarter Campaign.

Nguyen, Downing and the rest of the team who worked on the film, including Vincent DeLuca, Director of Photography, Drew Downing, Production Assistant, Annie Sheng, Translator, and Michael Nguyen, Publicity Coordinator, are extremely grateful for the additional encouragement that pushed them to finish the film.

“As with many small films, we are also heavily indebted to countless family and friends for their support and help with the film,” said Nguyen.

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