How a film about children sold into slavery reveals the plight of those working daily to restore broken lives.
“I realize what I’m doing is just a ripple in the larger scheme of things,” says filmmaker Jody Hassett Sanchez, who is traveling the world to promote her documentary Sold. The film is a horrific yet hopeful window into adults who sell and traffic children and the modern day abolitionists risking life and limb to end the $27 billion-a-year industry.
A ripple perhaps, but the small film is leaving audiences devastated in its wake at screenings across the globe, from formal showings to the British Parliament to warm meet and greets at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in San Rafael. It poses the question: Can one person make a difference when it comes to ending child slavery today? Three inspirational activists including a Hindu in India, a Christian in Africa and a Muslim in Pakistan are each doing their part to combat the buying and selling of humans, which has flourished under globalization. We see what they are up against in the harshest of settings where blood is not always thicker than water when faced with starvation.
Desperate parents must make a Sophie’s Choice of sorts in allowing a trader in their village to whisk away one of their children with the promise of a reunion in four years or so. The parents are reassured the children will be treated well, a delusional bargain at best.
In reality, boys as young as three have been ripped from their homes in Pakistan and sold to the UAE as camel jockeys for sport and entertainment. Fed water and crackers to stay underweight, the boys have suffered permanent genitalia damage when strapped on the camels and forced to ride 14 hours a day on desert racetracks.
But because of the political and diplomatic rescue efforts of attorney Ansar Burney in Karachi, the Saudis have enacted new laws to outlaw the brutal practice pledging to only use riders age 18 or over. Burney is one of three abolitionists starring as the main characters of the film and emerges a hero as he reunites the boys with their families and to repair their broken spirits.
“I’m not sure if they can be totally restored because of what they have been through and the idea of therapy is a western notion,” says Sanchez about what happens to these children once returned to schooling or household duties back home. “But there is a feeling of hopefulness and they do receive a great deal of love from the people around them.”
It seems no one is more loving than former Hindu nun Dr. Sunitha Krishman, a social activist and co-founder of Prajwala, an institution rescuing trafficked women and girls and helping them find shelter. She organizes brothel raids and oversees 17 schools for young girls she rescues from forced prostitution in India. The film has us cringing when describing how the youngest virgins reap the highest prices. Krishman evokes the image of Mother Teresa as she embraces the girls who are given new identities and a fresh start. The brave crusader admits she has been shot at several times and is deaf in one year from the violence inflicted by traffickers.
And in rural Togo, Symphorienne Kessouagni gently helps to re-socialize and educate former slave children. Most tell the story of their parents sending them away to live with distant relatives only to end up in the hands of brokers who smuggled them across the border to do heavy labor, doing work even strong adults would find grueling.
The film is clearly faith-based, relying on religion as a healer and unifier as witnessed in the first Abolition Movement and throughout history. What’s missing from the film is the exposure of the sinister elements, ambush interviews with brokers or underground footage of rich Saudis delighting in child jockeys. Sanchez, a former ABC News producer, explains she made the deliberate choice to omit the “other side to the story,” arguing it wouldn’t add a thing.
“This is not another movie about what is wrong in the world but one that focuses on those who are making a difference trying to solve the problems,” she says. “We want our audiences to be outraged that there is more slavery than ever before in history, but we also want them to move from anger to action.”