Right Here in River City
Coincident with the FBI Innocence Lost National Initiative crackdown, director-producer David Schisgal’s non-intrusive verité Very Young Girls records the nitty-gritty of child prostitution, not in the Third World of, for example, Cambodia’s Holly, but on America’s doorstep where “an estimated 300,000 children are at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses.”
Symptomatic of our failure of awareness, the film grew, unexpectedly, from an MTV project about youngsters in foreign war zones, to include a related episode on underage sex trafficking. Cambodia and Ukraine were initially considered, although Mexico, Colombia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Thailand, Syria and a long, long so on would have served equally well. Research, however, led to the discovery of similar sex trade in New York, itself one of sixteen urban areas swept in the recent federal, state and local raids.
That Americans are surprised is part of the problem. Accepting a Reebok Human Rights Award, Rachel Lloyd does not specifically mention success-story plotted Hustle & Flow but does excoriate the Oscar award to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and points to public unawareness of child prostitution only “two blocks from here.” In the same boat herself as a girl, she emerged to found and guide Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, GEMS, a voluntary residence, refuge, self-help and counseling center for such abused girls that is largely staffed by its “graduates.”
Much of the footage was shot by Nina Alvarez and Priya Swaminathan, who joined as co-directors and also produced, and is balanced by remarkable confiscated video material taken in or from their cruising car by thirty-something pimps Anthony and Chris Griffith, who expected to use it to launch TV celebrity careers but instead found it entered as evidence for their convictions and federal sentencing to ten years.
While some attention is given to the legal system and its inequalities and black holes, the filmmakers wisely keep their third-person selves absent in letting the thirteen- to sixteen-year-old subjects, some family members, and Lloyd and GEM workers do their own talking rather than responding to prompt questions. African-American and Hispanic, they are a young reality as far removed as possible from Jane Fonda’s or Julia Roberts’ screen-pretty call girls and Jodie Foster’s teen Iris, three American or British Academy Award- or Golden Globe-winners. The violence that menaces them is not from a client or Harvey Keitel pimp or unhinged De Niro cabbie, but, rather, that of a culture that has not prepared them and a milieu that offers little alternative.
Even with too many annoying bleeped names and obscenities, in their own ways and words, Shaneiqua, Nicole, Dominique, Kim, Staci, Carolina, Ebony, Martha and LaSharon honestly tell their backstories that are individual yet of a piece. The repeated pattern is chilling: not physical abuse or drugs, but a need for what these emotionally starved children are brainwashed into conceiving as “love.”
A few instances of forcible abduction are briefly mentioned. But here, indeed, “youth and maidenhood may be abus’d [by] charms” of sweet-talkers two and three times older who seduce them into bed, win their hearts for the short “honeymoon,” then cajole them into the Life as a way to give back on the financial end. Drugs are not brought in, but addiction is clear: desperate for the attentions of self-styled “Daddies,” these females who have lost, or never had, full childhoods are psychologically incapable of quitting or, if they do, are sorely tempted to go running back.
The girls at GEM recognize this in each other, and staff members realize it in all of them. Staci “can’t stop” Carolina, for whom “the only way it’ll really be over for me is if I die.” On vacation to see a Miami friend, Lloyd also visits Ebony, who has returned to her home there, and to her pimp, “dreams and stuff; something about him, I don’t know what it is.” Lloyd offers a JetBlue ticket back to New York and GEM, but entirely your choice, only “if you’re ready.”
Wise and calm survivor Lloyd is allowed her justifiable moment of indignation at societal and bureaucratic indifference and ignorance. She knows the odds, and the terrible price paid in wasted lives. A step at a time, there is prodigal-daughter rejoicing at each girl’s life salvaged to begin afresh, even though, serving some two hundred young women a year, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services is “only touching the tip of the iceberg.”
(Released by Swinging T Productions; not rated by MPAA.)