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Film captures desperate lives of trafficked girls, anguish of parents and the difficulties of police trying to distinguish between victims and criminals
Americans may have a growing awareness of sex trafficking, but not so much when it comes to their own country and particularly not when it concerns the risk to their underage girls.
"The Long Night", a new documentary about the sex trafficking of minor girls in the U.S., brings the reality of the problem home.
A film that literally is dark, shot mostly at night on the cold winter streets of Seattle, "The Long Night," is funded by the Alexia Foundation, which supports photographers as agents of change. It captures the desperate lives of trafficked girls, the anguish of their parents and the difficulties of police trying to distinguish between victims and criminals.
When the documentary's director Tim Matsui talks to people about young girls ensnared in prostitution, he said, their question and his response tend to follow the same pattern:
"Are these all these Asian girls being brought over? I say, 'No, it's little Janie down the street.'"
Natalie, one of the main characters in the documentary, which is available online, is one such "little Janie."
She is also one of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children, primarily girls, who are at risk of being trafficked in the U.S. every year.
About one-third of runaway girls will be approached by a sex trafficker or lured into prostitution in the first 48 hours after they leave home, according to the Center against Rape and Domestic Violence.
A bright, wholesome-looking girl from a working class family in suburban Seattle, Natalie decided to run away from home at the age of 15. She left for Seattle, she said in the film, for no other reason than "I just wanted to go find myself and see what the world had to offer me."
Within days of leaving home, she found out. It included losing her virginity to a john, selling her body every night on the streets to earn money and getting raped.
"It was just insane how quickly it happened," she said.
Natalie came home after 10 days, but she felt uncomfortable and quickly left again. This time she was seduced by a pimp who had her earning $1,500 a night within a week of their meeting. She thought she was in love with him until he began beating her.
They were both arrested 108 days after she left home for the second time.
Natalie's mother, Nacole, visited her in juvenile detention centre. While her daughter was angry and defiant, Nacole said, "You felt like you were punishing her for something that wasn't her fault."
The police officers in the film come to feel much the same way when they start asking questions of the girls they arrested repeatedly.
"I learned the story of prostitution," said Sheriff's Deputy Andy Conner. "The girls aren't there because they want to be there."
After he found no local programme to help the girls leave prostitution, he set up a drop-in centre called the Genesis Project. There, they can get a shower, a meal and guidance in how to get a high-school equivalency degree and other tools to restart their lives off the streets.
Natalie eventually returned home and reclaimed her life.
Lisa, a 19-year-old girl in the film who had been working on the streets since she was trafficked at 13, was not as fortunate.
After being arrested, Lisa entered a drug rehabilitation programme through the Genesis Project for her heroin addiction, but only stayed an hour. Days later, she was arrested again for prostitution and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
"It doesn't matter how clean I try get, how many showers I take," she said. "It just doesn't go away, you know?"
Matsui, the director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he really wanted to show in the film how difficult it is to get out of the life and survive problems like drug addiction.
He is using unused footage shot for the film for a project called Leaving the Life. It is designed to help law enforcement officials and service providers understand the lives and problems of sex trafficked children and encourage them to consider such children as victims rather than criminals.
Lisa attended the premiere of the film in a local Seattle cinema on Sunday, but she's still struggling with addiction, Matsui said.
"I think she's a survivor and she stands a chance to leave the life."
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