In 2004, Adi Ezroni, a well-known Israeli actress and TV personality, learnt of the harsh realities of the underworld of child trafficking. In defence of the rights of children around the globe, Adi decided to get involved in the production of ‘Holly’ – a feature film opening this week in the US – which portrays the life and experiences of an underage girl who ends up in the hands of sexual exploiters.
What started as a narrative project has now turned into an international grassroots movement dedicated to raising awareness of child prostitution and putting an end to the inhumane industry. Here, ASW talks to Adi about the difficulties she faced while shooting the controversial film, and the importance of delivering a clear and urgent message to the international policy-making community.
Q. Tell us about Holly. Where did the idea come from? How did it start?
Adi Ezroni: While travelling on a sabbatical in 2002, my partner, Guy Jacobson, encountered a group of five to seven-year-old girls in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who aggressively tried to solicit him for prostitution. One of the girls, she was about six years old, said, "I yum very good. I no money today. Mama San boxing me.” (Meaning: the madam of the brothel will beat me up.) He gave them some money and walked away, but decided to do something about it.
While researching the subject, he was horrified to realize that each year around two million children (some younger than a year old) are kidnapped, sold into prostitution and sexually abused worldwide.
I met Guy in 2004, right after his trip. I was on vacation in New York when he told me of his idea to write a narrative film through the eyes of a girl. I was so passionate about making this happen that I suggested I’d be the water girl and decided to leave Israel and my career to pursue the dream of producing a film that would raise awareness on the issue.
The product of this decision was to create a combination of a three-film project which has now evolved into an international grassroots movement to decrease child prostitution, sexual exploitation and child trafficking. We were extremely fortunate to meet Amit Kort and Dr. Smadar Kort who decided to fund the whole project. And we had an incredible crew led by Holly’s director, Guy Moshe.
Q. I understand you had many problems while filming, including being held at gunpoint and even being held hostage for two weeks. Could you share your experiences?
AE: Producing this project has been an uphill battle, and sometimes seemed more like a war. When we arrived in Cambodia, Interpol cautioned us about threats to our lives. We were a group of international filmmakers who had decided to expose explosive subject matter in a corrupt country. Everything that could go wrong, did – the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese mafia were after us, our equipment was held up in the borders and we were extorted to get it back, we had over forty bodyguards with AK-47s guarding us on the set, we had to hide our film, we got stuck in remote rivers, and, finally, after the production team left, I was denied exit out of the country and basically held hostage for two weeks.
When I arrived in the airport to leave the country with a bag full of documentary tapes (for the second film), the officers stopped me and said “cannot” and gave me a warrant in Khmer with the names of the chief producers of the project in English. Since I was the only one there at that point, I realized that I was in danger and I couldn’t go back to the hotel I was staying in. I stayed in a different area in town under a fake name and after about five days, we found out that it was pure extortion. It took me another two weeks and a lot of money; had I not left, it would have become a diplomatic incident.
Q. Child prostitution is largely an undocumented issue. Was the problem larger than you imagined?
AE: Actually, I feel like when we started there wasn’t much awareness to the issue. It was ‘Dateline’ in 2005 that did the first big exposé, I think. And then they started with the series about sexual predators. I knew about the issue, but never ever imagined that it was so vast and so extreme. Three-year-olds? And not only in Asia — everywhere.
That is part of the problem of combating this epidemic – the lack of one geographical/racial/ethnic theme. For example, a brothel was just closed in Queens, NY,with ten-year-old girls.
Q. Tell us some of your favourite moments when filming Holly.
AE: My favorite moments when filming Holly had to do with casting locals for different roles, and especially finding the children that would play the street children in the film. I went to a number of different orphanages and auditioned little Cambodian children to see if they could handle the pressure of being on set, if they understood what we wanted from them, etc. I found a wonderful group of kids who are featured in the film, and an extraordinary boy that plays Holly’s street friend. It was sometimes very difficult because no “good” girl would play a prostitute in a film. We ended up finding real working girls for those scenes.
Also, Somaly Mam, the head of AFESIP (one of the largest organizations that treats these children) and the Somaly Mam Foundation is here in New York for our premier at the UN. After a number of years, hearing Khmer again really made me nostalgic. I loved touring around on a small motorcycle, walking around in the markets, eating exotic fruits.
Q. In your opinion, what is the main cause of human trafficking - aside from there being a great demand for it?
AE: I think that the demand is the key. If you reduce the demand, you’ll reduce the supply. I wouldn’t say poverty, because some of the poorest countries don’t have as much of a problem. It may have to do with a broken family structure/culture, usually as a result of war. But the most important thing to remember is that there wouldn’t be any child prostitution if there weren’t regular clients that look specifically for that, which is why it’s important to strengthen legislature and enforcement.
Q. The making of this film inspired the creation of an active humanitarian movement. Tell us about Redlight Children.
AE: The Redlight Children Campaign is a worldwide grassroots human rights initiative promoting awareness and practical action for reducing the number of children who are sexually exploited each year. The goal is to decrease the demand for child sexploitation by raising awareness through mass media, pressuring governments to enact, amend and enforce more effective legislation and creating a broad coalition of human rights organizations as well as academia and media to deal with the issue.
With an easily accessible website, readers will be able to read information/research about the subject, and send emails to their representatives about what they would like them to do. The emails/communications received are featured on the site for additional accountability and pressure.
Q. What do you think will be the future of human trafficking? What are the solutions being proposed by local and international authorities on the subject?
AE: The TIP (Trafficking in Persons) report that comes out every year ranks the different countries in terms of steps that are taken in enforcement, legislature, education and treatment. There is a strong push now for countries to be able to prosecute their nationals if they’ve found them participating in underage sex. It is already implemented by the US. I hope it will be implemented everywhere. We will be screening the film in DC to ambassadors of all countries, as well as senate and congress, and hope that this will push them in the right direction. If one knows that wherever they are in the world they will be held accountable under the laws of their own country, it makes a difference. Since some countries are still too corrupt to truly implement strong laws, this could definitely be a great step in the right direction.
Q. Given the fact that the issue is still extremely undercover in most countries around the world – especially in the West – what would you advise people to do to help fight child trafficking and sexual slavery in their own communities?
AE: It is not West versus East – this is very important to emphasize. Holly was shot in Cambodia, just like it could have been shot in London, Florida, Mexico, Israel or Croatia…
Go to http://www.redlightchildren.org/
In the coming week we will install an application that will allow you to send letters to your constituents and representatives demanding immediate action.
If you have a nonprofit, if you have a corporation, or are just as passionate as us about the issue – go to www.priorityfilms.com/join.php and see how we can arrange mutual screenings or other ways to spread the word. It is important to keep this film in the theaters, for a long time, so that it gets to the smaller cities, to the college towns and crosses over internationally.
Holly opens in theaters nationwide in the US on November 9. For tickets and more information visit www.priorityfilms.com
— Alonso Dominguez