Monday, July 22, 2013

Behind the Screen: Behind Closed Doors--Voices From the Inside.

Note: Moving Pictures is featuring the filmmakers from the CSWE 2013 Virtual Film Festival sharing the stories behind the making of their films. Here's how you can see the films and vote for the Virtual Ovation Award. The award consists of a $500 prize and will be presented to the top-ranked film in the Virtual Film Festival, as determined by the audience. 

Robert Ambrosino, one of the team members of Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside, discusses below the challenges involved in producing the film

Robert Ambrosino
Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside is a feature-length documentary on domestic minor sex-trafficking (DMST) produced by master's-level graduate students enrolled in the summer 2011 Advanced Policy class in the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Each of the courses in the UTSA Social Work Program has a master competency assignment; the competency assignment for the Advanced Policy course is to develop and implement a social welfare policy campaign that involves at least one community partner (in this case, a community mental health services agency that was large and quasi-public). Students choose the topic to be addressed by the campaign (DMST), the type of campaign to be used (public awareness), the target group(s) addressed by the campaign (general community), and the methodology used to carry out the campaign (video documentary).

DMST was selected as the topic for the campaign for the following reasons: 
  • the locale of Interstate I-10, which crosses Texas, is a major conduit for DMST, and runs through San Antonio;
  • the need to dispel myths about DMST among members of the general community;
  • the desire to build on the work of a senior state senator from San Antonio who has worked tirelessly on passing legislation aimed at preventing and eradicating DMST; and
  • the availability of a key informant who had direct access to current and former victims of DMST.
Although there was a high level of enthusiasm among members of the class to undertake the making of the documentary, no one (including the course instructor) had any experience in creating such a product. The students’ social networks were tapped to identify a videographer who was willing to work with class members on a pro-bono basis to produce the documentary. A young, untested videographer with a limited portfolio but a passion for social justice offered his time and talents to help make the documentary. The class had 10 weeks in which to produce the video. The informant provided access to current and former victims of DMST, all of whom were interviewed, but only some agreed to be included in the documentary. Several nights a week (and occasionally on a weekend), students accompanied the informant into parts of the community where DMST could be found. The class instructor used his contacts to secure interviews with individuals and organizations in the community who were engaged in a variety of efforts to prevent and eradicate DMST. Approximately 100 hours of video footage were shot.  

There were a number of challenges associated with making the documentary. First and foremost was ensuring the privacy rights of the current and former victims of DMST who agreed to be in the documentary. A related challenge was protecting victims of DMST who agreed to be in the documentary from retaliation by their traffickers. There also was the daunting task of completing the project in such a short time. It was extremely difficult to hear the stories of teenage girls, some of whom had been trafficked since they were as young as 8 years old or forced by their parents into life as a sex slave (familial trafficking). Equally difficult were the stories of adult DMST survivors who bore long-lasting emotional scars of being trafficked and had lives filled with violent relationships, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. It is noteworthy that one woman who had been interviewed and agreed to appear in the documentary was found dead in a motel room under suspicious circumstances before the film was released (the film is dedicated to her memory). On several occasions, the students were confronted with the possibility of physical harm as a result of being in parts of the community in which they clearly did not belong and attempting to speak with people with whom they were not supposed to speak. It is important to point out, however, that student safety was of paramount importance, and never were students allowed to enter a situation where their well-being was clearly compromised.

The main relevance of this work for social work instructors is that it provides a transformational learning experience that simply cannot be found in the classroom. Students set the learning agenda for the class. The instructor ensures a safe space for playing out that agenda. Students are afforded the opportunity to gain knowledge about policy advocacy through a compelling real-life experience.

Update. Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside has received the CSWE Virtual Ovation Award. The film will be shown at CSWE's Annual Program Meeting in Dallas on Saturday, November 2, at 5 p.m. in the Hilton Anatole's Metropolitan Ballroom, followed by a Q&A with Ambrosino.


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