I recently saw a short film called SOLD that I wanted to share with Hope for the Sold readers. The story is told through the eyes of a young journalist named Maya, who has inadvertently gotten captured into a human trafficking ring while doing an investigative article on the treatment of illegal immigrants in America. It offers a glimpse into the fearful moments, arduous travels, and split-second decisions that sex trafficking victims experience in captivity. John Irwin – who wrote, directed, and produced this film – was willing to answer some questions for me about his work. Watch the short below, followed by my interview with John.
How did you get into writing and directing films?
I started in Computer Science at Virginia Tech despite my weakness in math. I had a dream of making video games some day, thinking I might be able to tell stories and carry out my ideas through them. I went to a church on campus and during the service, they played an announcement video that someone from the church had made. It was a spoof on Mission Impossible and Run Lola Run and had all kinds of special effects…digital muzzle flashes, explosions — Yes, all were cheesy but my mind was blown.
Up to that point, from what I had perceived, the video-making world was divided. In my world, video-making was reserved for parents shooting Christmas mornings with a rickety VHS camcorder. The other world was across the country, where a lucky few would be given millions to make huge hollywood blockbusters. I had no idea that I, a young guy with a few bucks, could go out and create action scenes with gun fights, explosions and light sabers. Immediately, I switched majors to Communication and Film Theory and started living out my new dream, making dozens of mini short films with a Digital 8 Camera I purchased at Best Buy.
My favorite part of being a filmmaker is that you are forced to question yourself, constantly figure out your opinions and your truth, then attempt to communicate it. I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my journey… maybe in a few years I’ll be ready with 5 snazzy words!
Why do you think film is a powerful way to tell a story?
To be able to (completely) fabricate worlds out of your imagination and then place characters in those worlds, then try to steer the audience’s journey- who they should love or hate, offering new and fresh perspectives on the world through your characters’ eyes… is pretty cool.
What inspired you to make “Sold?”
Four years ago, I was searching for a story that hadn’t been widely told. I stumbled upon the heart-wrenching topic of human trafficking. At that time, movies like “Trade” and “Taken” hadn’t come out yet and after doing a lot of research, I couldn’t believe that for the third most profitable organized crime in the world, there wasn’t much spoken about it. When I was trying to figure out what would interest me the most about a story taking place in this horrifying world, it seemed like the most effective and interesting point of view would be from the victim.
It seems like many movies about the topic are too quick to tell a version of the sex-trade story where the white male hero, saves the helpless girl from being kidnapped just before her virginity is taken from her (which in the land of movies, is apparently the end of the world). For me, I just thought it would be more interesting if the lead characters were strong and smart Latina women who only have their wits to help them survive in a situation where they don’t belong. I thought that would be enough to drive the story. I wrote a feature version and decided to write the short that could act as sort of a demo to build momentum for the feature.
What has been the biggest challenge about making this film?
For the short, it was a challenge to fit a complete dramatic story in 12 minutes without it feeling rushed, especially one that surrounds such a sensitive topic. I wanted to raise awareness with the short but I also just wanted to make a good thriller, I didn’t want people watching to feel like they’re being preached at. Production-wise, It was a whole lot of fun actually making it happen. The biggest stress was just trying to keep the budget as low as possible since about 85% of what we had to spend came out of my pocket.
What has been the most encouraging response you have received so far?
When people have come up to me after a screening to let me know that they didn’t have a clue that this type of thing was going on, gives me a lot of encouragement. Those same people are usually shocked to learn that it’s not just happening overseas, that it’s happening everywhere, including America.
Aside from the trafficking element, I just want to tell a story well, and it always makes me feel good to hear from people if they liked the film. Everything I direct is such a learning process for me and this one was a huge one. I can’t wait to tackle the feature with everything I’ve learned from making the short.
In the process of making this film, what have you learned about human trafficking that you did not know before?
As I was writing the feature script, I did a lot of research and reading about the sex trade to keep the story as realistic as possible. I’ve been fascinated and horrified to learn about all the methods traffickers use to lure and trick girls into captivity, and once there, the made up debts that are placed on the girls that only increase over time. The traffickers make threats for the safety of the girls’ families back home and use other forms of intimidation to keep the girls from trying to escape. What really makes the issue of human trafficking so overwhelming is just how many people across the globe are taken and sold every day.
Human trafficking is a growing billion dollar industry that is intensely difficult to fight because it is so lucrative and the risk of getting caught for traffickers these days is very low in most countries. Some quick facts that I’ve come across, that blow me away:
Over 100,000 U.S. children every year are forcefully engaged in prostitution or pornography. The UN estimates that nearly 4,000,000 individuals are trafficked each year, 50% of which are children.
When will the feature length film be released?
We’re still trying to raise support for the feature version of Sold. We’ve received a lot of wonderful feedback and interest for the project in general but it’s been a challenge finding people who want to support the project financially. If you’d like to be part of the project, or even get updates, feel free to go to the film’s website and click on the “Join Mailing List” link on the bottom of the page. You can also email me from my website.
John, thank you for making such a powerful short film and sharing it with us. It serves as a powerful reminder that sex trafficking is a horrendous form of organized crime that is happening all around the world, even on North American soil.
To those who just watched this short film, what did you think? What did you think of how it ended? What does a film like this tell us about what victims go through?