In April of 2008, an abandoned storage container containing 121 workers from Burma – 54 of them dead – was found in Thailand. This real-life incident served as inspiration for part of the backstory of She Has A Name, a new feature film about human trafficking.
Written and produced by Andrew Kooman, She Has A Name is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed stage play of the same name. In it, Jason, an American lawyer, poses as a john to build a legal case against a pimp trafficking girls to Bangkok.
The movie has been nominated for 5 Alberta film and television awards, including Best Picture, received the Audience Choice Award at the 2017 Central Alberta Film Fest, and just last week – the Silver Crown Award at the ICVM Crown Awards.
I watched a the film a couple months ago and was immediately drawn into the story, which is why I’m excited to introduce you to producer Andrew Kooman! Here’s what he had to say about the film and the journey to make it a reality.
What made you decide to take the play to the big screen?
When I write for the stage, I often have a film in mind. This was the case for She Has A Name. The story of human trafficking is so big, so global, so from the start it seemed well suited for film.
Theatre is all about working within very tight limitations in a very restricted space. I wrote the play with 10 characters who are played by 5 actors (each playing two roles) who jump in and out of time and place. The audience has to imagine it all on a simple set with a simple backdrop.
So I thought the challenge of adapting this very personal and intimate story of Jason and Number 18 to the big screen would be exciting, but also give audiences a glimpse of the global nature of the corruption and greed that feed the monster of human trafficking. And it allowed me to increase the scope of the story with more political context and backstory.
Another factor was that as the play toured Canada, critics and audiences agreed it would be a strong narrative feature film and encouraged me to explore the possibility. The challenge for this adaptation was to transplant the heart of the story, which on the stage is so urgent and intimate, and then to imagine it on a much bigger scale. I’m excited about how people who were impacted by the play can experience this story in a whole new way.
The core of the story is very much the same, but there are some surprising twists and turns, thrilling action sequences and new characters.
Visually it’s spectacular, because it showcases the exotic beauty of Thailand’s landscape, and in a unique way juxtaposes it with the seedy and clandestine world of organized crime.
I think this adds a whole new layer of meaning to the story.
The film touches on some things that we don’t usually think about when it comes to anti-trafficking work. What were some of the themes you intentionally explored in the film?
I think the psychological impact on both the victims of human trafficking and on the women and men in the trenches who investigate, prosecute, and provide care for trafficked individuals is part of the story that we may not always consider. For me, it was important to explore not only the motivations of the characters, but also to explore the human toll trafficking takes on them.
What I’ve discovered in my research and in meeting victims, survivors, and front-line workers is that there is a lot of collateral damage: physically, spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally.
One of the most impactful scenes for audiences in the play was the Skype conversation Jason has with his wife, Ali. Separated by oceans, Jason delicately talks with Ali about what he’s seeing as he poses as a john to meet with young women and girls forced to work in the commercial sex trade. He ultimately can’t hide his pain or avoid the trauma he’s experiencing second-hand through the stories he’s recording undercover.
It was important for me to preserve this scene in the film, and to highlight this greater emotional reality with the characters thematically on screen.
Giovanni Mocibob (Jason), Teresa Ting (Number 18) and Vanessa Toh (Mae) powerfully portray this in their roles as an investigator, a victim, and a rescued survivor – respectively – to give audiences an up-close look at the human toll. On the flip side, we see the toll of trafficking through the exceptional performances of Eugenia Yuan (Mamma), Will Yun Lee (Akkarat) and Charlie Ruedpokanon (Victor) in their portrayals of the woman who oversees the brothel, the ruthless pimp, and a cop with a conscience trying to do the right thing.
Addressing trafficking isn’t just a lofty concept, and it’s not an easy task. It requires dedicated and gruelling work from law enforcement and all the way through aftercare. There is so much at stake for everyone: investigators, victims, perpetrators. There’s billions of dollars to be made, so many lives that are lost, and a price paid by those who do the dangerous work to bring about justice.
From experience, I know that every project hits a wall at some point in the creation process. What was one of those moments for you while making this film, and how did you push through?
There were challenges all along the way!
One thing I’m so proud of with this film is that while it features an international cast and crew, all the money raised for the film was through my hometown (and the surrounding area) of Red Deer, Alberta.
It’s a truly Canadian film, produced in Canada, that was funded by Canadians who believed in the story and the importance of using creativity to address justice.
However, during the process of raising funds we hit a bit of a lull. We had been casting vision for the film with investors based only on what we’d hope to do. So we decided to shoot a portion of the film—the scenes between Jason and 18 in her bedroom—as a way to show potential investors the heart of the story and the incredible production value of the project. Having these key scenes was helpful in moving us into the next phase of raising more money for the film.
All along the way we had to take creative risks, push over or move around obstacles. And for me, personally, so much of that was accomplished through prayer and continuing to just believe it could be done.
Having a committed creative team was key, including our producers and executive producers. And I especially credit my brothers, Matthew and Daniel Kooman, who not only directed and produced the film, but edited it as we continued to raise the rest of the funds through post-production.
On the flip side, what was a moment of excitement or triumph on set or in the editing room?
For me, personally, a moment of triumph was on set in the Thai countryside as we were filming the movie’s final scene, beautifully brought to life by Giovanni Mocibob and Vanessa Toh. The storyline of She Has A Name was born out of a picture I had about a big dam of water breaking, and that image was the emotional centre of the narrative and writing process for me. A version of the scene was originally part of the stage play in an early draft, but it never made the final script.
Each day of filmmaking for me was busy on the production side, so I was rarely near the directors or cast as they worked their magic on set. But I was present for this scene. And it was a full circle moment to watch the monitor as the scene unfolded.
It brought me right back to that powerful original image I had when I was writing the earliest draft of the original play—a picture of a reservoir of tears that have been shed because of all the injustice ever done on this world and the surreal sense that as we add our own tears to it, eventually the dam of injustice will break.
I’ll never forget the richness of being in that moment in Thailand to see the scene unfold, or sitting on the basement floor of the house I was renting in Red Deer when I imagined it for the first time.
Did you learn anything new about human trafficking while making this movie?
I think that the urgency of doing something to stop it was refreshed for me as we filmed on location and as I had a chance, once again, to connect with survivors of human trafficking.
At a recent screening in Canada, a woman approached me after watching the film and whispered “I have a name.”
She had been trafficked in Canada and she thanked us for bringing the issue to light and for telling a story that she believed represented the stories of victims and of survivors in an authentic way.
Something I’ve learned in the process of researching, writing and bringing this story to film is that anything in the world of human trafficking can and does occur –around the world and in Canada.
Also, the cruel and de-humanizing nature of trafficking became very real again. The beauty of survivor stories and seeing people brought back to wholeness after such terrible experiences became newly apparent and meaningful to me as well.
Did you learn anything new about yourself while making this movie?
Despite its incredible challenges, I realized I enjoy the multifaceted challenge of producing film. I love writing for the screen. I also learned anew what an exceptional honour it is to work alongside my incredibly talented filmmaking brothers, Matthew and Daniel Kooman, on such big projects. Even though it’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done and has stretched us beyond what we could imagine, I had the time of my life working with them.
You clearly didn’t make this movie just for the sake of entertainment. What do you hope this film will accomplish?
I really do want audiences to be thrilled and entertained by the stories. As someone who loves movies, I hope they’ll appreciate the beauty of the cinematography, enjoy the incredible performances, and get swept up in the story.
Beyond that, I do hope, like me, when I first encountered the facts and realities of human trafficking, audiences will give themselves some time to respond to the story in a personal way. When I found out about trafficking, when I really looked, I had to respond. So I picked up my pen.
The UN reports that of the two million people exploited in the commercial sex trade every year, less than 1% are rescued.
I know such statistics are hard to comprehend. I can’t comprehend them. So I hope that by experiencing the story of one girl caught up in unthinkable circumstances, audiences will be able to connect with her humanity and imagine doing something meaningful to help even one person like Number 18.
I’m a firm believer in community screenings being a force for change, so I urge you to host a community screening of She Has a Name at your school, church, or organization. Check out the screening packages here! Or, if you want to get the Blueray/DVD for personal use, get it here!
And a big congrats to the Kooman brothers and the rest of the team for completing such a great finished product to share with the world! May it inspire action and change.