‘Felt a sense of danger telling story of sex traffickers’: Filmmaker Miriam Chandy

TNM caught up with filmmaker Miriam Chandy to talk about her documentary on survivors of child sex trafficking ‘From the Shadows’, the risks involved, the influences on her work, and more.
Still from Miriam Chandy's documentary From the Shadows
Still from Miriam Chandy's documentary From the Shadows
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In the week after a film festival organised on the theme of gender justice in Chennai, TNM caught up with one of the participants, Miriam Chandy Menacherry,who directed the grim documentary From the Shadows. Miriam’s film is about the survivors of a powerful criminal racket that trafficks minor girls for sex work. In the film, Miriam takes you through the grim statistics of sex trafficking, the dreadful ways in which children as young as seven years are ‘sold’ and abused, the work of organisations such as Impulse NGO Network, the labyrinth of legal battles for repatriation, and the painstaking effort that girls who finally manage to get away are forced to put in to rebuild their lives. 

From the Shadows also features activists such as Leena Kejriwal and Hasina Kharbhih who have years of experience in rescuing trafficked girls and women, and helping them fight legal battles. Leena is known for her public artwork initiative across many cities — graffiti of a silhouette of a girl child, spray painted alongside the hashtag #missingirls. 

Miriam’s documentary was screened on April 23 at the SamaBhav film festival in Chennai, themed ‘Celebrating Gender, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’.

You’ve previously mentioned at the SamaBhav panel discussion that Leena Kejriwal’s graffiti drew you to the issue of child sex trafficking — it almost sounds as if this film may have never happened without it. How indispensable was Leena’s art towards the making of this film?

‘Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comforted.’ This quote is often attributed to a Harvard University professor (named Cesar A Cruz) but it’s a good summary of my response to Leena’s shadow forms that kept eerily appearing on walls and public spaces with that specific hashtag (#missingirls).

It provoked me out of my daily cocoon to embark on a six-year-long journey to discover this narrative of girls who disappear every eight minutes.

To me, Leena represents a Banksy-like figure who uses her art not in the confines of studios, but on the streets to draw the average bystander into one of the biggest issues of our times.

Was there a process of unlearning that you went through while making the film? Things you found that shifted your perspective?

Yes, for sure. I began to learn very soon that survivors who seek justice through the legal system have an arduous battle that will test them relentlessly — physically, financially and emotionally. In this battle they realise, like I did, that they can trust practically no one. Sex trafficking is a multibillion dollar business, and as money changes hands, people can switch sides at any time.

Only the most courageous survivors can continue to fight, especially since they have no protection from daily threats, despite bribing people in power.

You have a journalistic background. Would you agree that all documentary filmmakers need to approach their work with journalistic rigour? In what ways would you say the two processes are dissimilar, apart from surface-level differences?

I do believe that the documentary genre is very rigorous when one embraces an observational or vérité style. One has to build access and wait for events to unfold in front of the camera, so one can take the viewer on a journey of discovery. This is quite different from news journalism or video interview formats, where one is looking for the ‘sound byte’ that can happen in an instant and becomes representative of the entire issue.

I think the relationship with the audience too is different in documentaries. The audience no longer wants to be ‘told’, they want to be ‘shown’. This means investing very long timelines and taking many risks to tell a rigorously researched story.

In journalism, we were taught to gather different points of view to build a wide perspective on an issue, whereas in documentary films, one can choose a single character or point of view and delve deep. It’s almost like storytelling.

I like to think of my documentaries as an intersection of journalism, storytelling and the visual language of film.

There are documentaries today where form overwhelms substance and vice versa, but to get the right balance so both stay true to each other is important and rare. It is something I consciously strive for with each film.

There is a line in the where an adolescent activist recalls a proverb in her village: ‘A 15-year-old girl is too old, a 20-year-old woman is a hag.’ You then draw the statistical correlation between child marriages and trafficking. Even without that correlation, would you agree that the sexualisation of young girls, particularly after they start menstruating, is the bedrock of misogyny and violence against women?

Yes, sex traffickers prey on the vulnerability of adolescents. The teenage years are tumultuous and stormy, a tenuous bridge into adulthood. Hormones are fluctuating, affecting teenagers physically and emotionally. When the practice of early marriages or financial pressures are added to this, they reach a boiling point that drives them to run away from home, and sometimes into the hands of traffickers who are always profiling their next victim. This is true not just in India, but across the world.

Trafficking has now entered the digital space and social media in such a way that lonely teenagers can be befriended, profiled and groomed so they walk into the trap of traffickers. A negative body image, low self-esteem, and hypersexualisation of young girls are all part of the teenage psyche across social strata, making trafficking a ubiquitous problem.

Can you talk about the reason for focusing a fairly large portion of the film’s runtime on one particular survivor — Samina?

The conviction rate in trafficking cases is very low, even among the rare cases that make it to court. When Samina decides to fight a legal battle, with every twist and turn in the case, the viewer begins to understand why the conviction rate is so low. Viewers can connect the dots and understand the bigger picture, and the extent to which institutionalised trafficking has permeated our system so that a trafficker could be one’s neighbour, a policeman, a lawyer or even an NGO worker.

Samina’s gruelling journey brings to light the daily risks and life-threatening circumstances a survivor faces at every stage of the case, which is typically drawn out and delayed.

All of this must be seen in the context of the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill remaining stuck in Parliament, which means there is no protection for a survivor who is up against powerful players.

This is also the reason I juxtaposed Samina’s case with the case of another survivor, Ella, who did secure a conviction against her traffickers despite death threats and bribes from the accused to officials.

In the documentary, we hear a little about how activists like Leena and Hasina have faced death threats and attempts at coercion. Can you tell us more about the kind of pushback and structural failures they are working against?

As a filmmaking team, we felt a sense of danger and risk to tell this story. We could do it only because women like Hasina and Leena lead the way with courage and conviction. They stand on the side of the survivors at great personal and professional risk to themselves and their organisations.

A former judge of the Madras High Court who attended one of my screenings told me that it is high time that the judicial system weighed in on the side of survivors, so that they have a stronger and surer chance of justice.

That is my hope too. I also want the social sector and anti-trafficking stakeholders to find more ways to collaborate effectively to break up the trafficking rackets. Finally, I feel that society, which includes each one of us, needs to see survivors as ‘changemakers’ and not as victims. This is why they share their stories with the world.

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