Sold

When co-writer-director Jeffrey Brown says making the movie “Sold” in India changed his life, he doesn’t mean because of the leeches that sucked his blood or the near-death illness that leveled him while shooting.

He is talking about the 2,000 kids he met there who were trafficked as sex workers as young as 9.

“One girl had just been rescued in a raid on a Calcutta brothel half an hour before I got to the safe house,” Brown says. “She had been made to service 10-20 men a night. And when you see this kind of fear in a human, it’s like looking at an animal with its back against a wall.”

Most of those children, however, never get out of those places. “It’s essentially a death sentence. They are there, maybe five years, and then they get AIDS or they are killed. (For those) who are rescued, someone has to be with them for three months because they are in such a state of fear they will try to kill themselves.”

Brown says that young girls are in demand because virgins bring in higher prices.“Traffickers tell their customers if you have a virgin you’ll have a longer life. So they stitch them up 10 times to fake virginity.

“A lot of them are what they call ‘In the life,’ meaning they’ve been brainwashed and they’re in love with their abuser. They believetheirpimps actually love them,” he says. “Even if they escape or are rescued, there is the stigma of being trafficked and their families (who have sold them for $50 or $100) won’t take them back. They are alone.” So how have visits to numerous brothels half a world away and interacting with such gut-wrenching life stories changed a filmmaker’s life? “The courage I saw from these children, their resilience, their kindness and the compassion of those who have managed to come out of those prison brothels, taught me to continue doing what my heart calls me to do. Allowing the fear, but making your life what you want it to be in spite of it.”

With that in mind, Brown did not exactly envision getting mauled by leeches in a Nepal rice field or collapsing in the middle of shooting from an illness that had all the signs of the often-fatal dengue fever. “I had overcome malaria three times in Africa, but dengue can destroy your organs. By the sixth day I could hardly get up. By the ninth day I was so physically dehydrated I couldn’t even stand.I thought this was the end. It was finally diagnosed as dysentery. I got a shot from a doctor and the next day woke up and I was fine.”

When Brown read the Patricia McCormick book, on which his movie is based, he felt a calling. “I grew up in Uganda and my stepfather is Bengali, so I saw India firsthand when I was 10. It is a place of extremes. You can smell jasmine flowers and open human feces at the same time. You’re bombarded with incredible wealth and incredible poverty. It confronts every belief system you’ve ever had and blows it up so you end up knowing nothing.

“A woman comes out of cardboard box with three kids, dressed in all these colors and she’s happy and proud, and then in Marin people are living in these amazing houses and they are all stressed out.”

According to Ruchira Gupta, an Indian sex trafficking abolitionist, who won the Clinton Global Citizen Award and the Abolitionist Award from the UK’s House of Lords, one million new girls a year are forced into sex slavery in India alone, a total of 6.4 million between the ages of 9 and18. The average age is 13.

Brown knows of 50 safe houses, each with 200 to 500 kids, who are often there for two or three years because there is nowhere else to put them. He is partnering with numerous NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that offer vocational training, among themNest and Project Udaan.

There is a role for the arts in the effort to end human trafficking, he insists. The loquacious 59-year-old Mill Valley director, an Oscar-winner in 1986 for Best Live Action Short, showed the trailer from “Sold” to a United Nation’s commission on issues facing women, attended by activists from all over world. “There was excitement that the film was going to be available to them.” Brown says. “It was like we were giving a weapon to a mobilized army.”

The director raised his first funds, a nifty half mil, at — of all places— Burning Man. Ronald Lo, who became one of the executive producers on “Sold,” was impressed with Brown’s willingness to lead his team’s 30-foot dragon through a dust storm and to help deal with overflowed sewagein a Winnebago. Hear that, aspiring filmmakers? Cleana toilet with the right person and you raise $500,000 for your movie.

Brown pursued this project for nine years, trying to get as many women involved as he could. He sent it to 12 female directors, none of whom responded, though he did persuade Academy Award-winning actressEmma Thompson to attach her name to it and serve as an executive producer. International humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine of San Francisco, whose gallery decorates the plaza in Sonoma, visited the set and worked with Gillian Anderson for her role of a photographer trying to gather visual evidence.

While it is easy to say that all this is happening on the other side of the globe, there is more local action than you might think, including all over the Bay Area. “There are many brothels right here, women who are trafficked in from Mexico or South America,” Brown says, his voice choking with emotion. “I’d even been OK’d to go with cops on a bust, but I begged off. I can’t take it.I’ve seen too much already. I mean what kind world are we creating when we let this kind of tragic ending befalls so many kids?I want to direct my energy to changing that. I’m committed to making sure their struggle ends.”

– Mal Karman

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