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Reality horror film ‘I Am Still Here’ confronts sex trafficking of children at SF Black Film Fest

June 8, 2017

by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

“I Am Still Here” is terrifying because it’s so real. In the film, Rickey, played by Johnny Rey Diaz, hushes Layla, played by Aliyah Conley.

“I Am Still Here” is one of the most disturbing must-see films in the San Francisco Black Film Festival – a horror film about the sex trafficking of children. Although it is a work of cinematic fiction, it is based on real events, according to the filmmakers.

My daughters, nieces, sisters, cousins, sons, brothers and non-related family – everybody is susceptible to being kidnapped and trafficked, either for sex or for their organs. It’s a crazy, sick world we live in, with a lot of money behind these pedophile kidnapping murderers. Remember, this happens all over the world.

Honestly, it was very graphic and hard for me to watch, but we must be reminded of the world we live in sometimes and not just walk through life wearing rose-colored glasses. I interviewed Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell about their feature length film, “I am Still Here,” and here is what they had to say.

M.O.I. JR: When the film “I Am Still Here” first comes on, there is a fact that appears on the screen. What is that fact? And why is it significant?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: The statistic that we placed at the top of the movie comes from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, and it states that by 2020 sex trafficking will overtake drugs and weapons as society’s most pervasive crisis. This is significant because we learned from our research and outreach that most Americans are not aware that this is a problem in our country.

They believe it happens “over there,” meaning countries that have widely been known to grapple with this issue. But it is happening here, in our OWN country, in our own neighborhoods, and we must become cognizant of it so that we can work together as a responsible society to stop it.

M.O.I. JR: What inspired the making of “I Am Still Here”?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: During Mischa’s freshman year of college, a brothel housing child sex slaves was busted in a neighborhood close to her. Hearing this shook her to her core. “I was raised to believe I live in our ‘land of the free,’ but that day, I discovered slavery, even of children, is still a very real problem,” says Mischa.

“So I began to research the dark underworld of child sex trafficking here in the United States by interviewing sex trafficking survivors.” A year’s worth of research became a script in less than three months.

M.O.I. JR: How was it written in such a way that you could feel every second of the mostly disgusting yet creative dialogue? It seemed extremely painful and real.

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: Mischa’s goal was always for audiences to feel as if they were trapped alongside the girls. She wanted to portray child sex trafficking in a way that hasn’t been done before: through the eyes of an American child being trafficked here in America, not as an action film like “Taken,” nor as a documentary where the audiences are hearing about the horrors after the fact.

We wanted the audience to feel just as claustrophobic, involved and uncomfortable as the characters portraying what life is like for a sex trafficking victim.

M.O.I. JR: What do you hope audiences get out of this film?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: Our main objective with making “I Am Still Here” was two-fold – to raise awareness of this industry here in the United States and to start a dialogue so that our local and state governments as well as our federal government to the highest office will create more aggressive and sweeping legislation to stop and punish not just the perpetrators of child sex trafficking – but also those people who engage in its activities. Because, and this is what is the most terrifying to us, there is a huge market for it – and there should not be.

“I Am Still Here” describes the horrors of child sex trafficking through the eyes of Layla, an American child being trafficked in America.

M.O.I. JR: Why did you follow the Black little girl? And what was the significance of all of the little girls being of different races? As well as the human traffickers?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: Mischa felt it was important to illustrate that child sex trafficking does not discriminate based on race, age or sex. According to the FBI, African-American children comprise 52 percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests – more than any other racial group.

We wanted to portray the facts but also highlight that victims are of any race and often start as young as 8 or 9 years old. We were horrified to learn that those who participate in trafficking can be of different socio-economic backgrounds, races and ethnicities – they are white-collar professionals as well as blue-collar workers.

M.O.I. JR: Do you think little girls should see this film? Who is the target audience?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: This film will be rated “R” due to the subject matter and the language, so it is not appropriate for little girls to see, however we want their parents to see it. Our target audience is women and men starting in their 20s and older – those who have or know young children, young cousins, nieces or nephews, and even grandchildren – to make them aware of this dangerously fast-growing crisis in our country and in the world.

M.O.I. JR: Was the fact that the main character couldn’t sleep a normal phenomenon for people who have been trafficked?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: Most trafficking survivors come out with PTSD and so many do struggle with sleep because they relive their nightmares over and over again.

M.O.I. JR: How did you fund this film?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: We first tried to contact different organizations and production companies. No one wanted to touch this project because we were showing the children being the average ages of trafficking victims (ages 11-13).

Mischa was told to make the children in the film older so the audience would be more “comfortable,” but she refused to do so. We got lucky; child trafficking falls under a human rights issue and a group called “Human Rights Capital” helped us with funding. We also turned to IndieGoGo and private donations to raise additional funds.

M.O.I. JR: Where was this film made? How did you cast for it?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: The film was made in Los Angeles, but we wanted to give it the feel of “Anywhere USA” because sex trafficking is happening in every state in this country.

Mischa discovered these actors by casting the film with two of our co-producers, Katherine Botts and Christian Beabes. We auditioned over 300 actors over the course of two days and found some incredible talents.

Casting children who can handle difficult subject matter with authenticity was a challenge. Mischa wanted every parent to use their discretion regarding whether they divulged to their child what they were portraying.

Some of our actresses thought they were only portraying girls who were kidnapped. Our young lead, Layla (played by Aliyah Conley), didn’t truly know the whole story until she saw this finished film at our world premiere screening in Los Angeles.

It was important to us that everyone felt as comfortable as possible during rehearsals and the filming process. We are incredibly proud of all of them.

M.O.I. JR: Where are you taking this film next?

“I Am Still Here” filmmakers Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: We are continuing on the film festival circuit through the end of 2017. We are also currently seeking a distribution deal through our sales agency, Conduit (sales@conduitnow.com). We also intend to share the film with organizations whose goal is to combat sex trafficking, with local authorities, as well as with colleges and universities as a way of educating these communities about this crisis.

Ultimately, we are creating a non-profit organization to provide a safe haven for survivors to use and explore the arts as a way to heal from their tragic experiences. Whether through film, art, dance or literature, we believe the arts are an important and effective medium to use as a healing tool. We already have artists from all mediums reaching out to us to participate and help these survivors to heal and move on with their lives with a sense of hope.

M.O.I. JR: How do people stay online with your work?

Mischa Marcus and Stephanie Bell: People can follow us on all social media platforms such as Facebook (Facebook.com/iamstillheremovie), Twitter (@ImStillHereFilm), Instagram (@iamstillheremovie) as well as our website, www.iamstillheremovie.com.

We are currently updating the website and plan to have a page dedicated to organizations fighting sex trafficking as well as those that are helping trafficking survivors to heal from their ordeal.

One final note: We are dedicating this film to Jennifer Kempton, a survivor of sex trafficking who recently passed away. Jennifer was very brave and shared her experiences with us as a young girl who was sex trafficked.

With her permission, we used some of those experiences in our film. When she escaped, she created an organization called Survivors Ink. The organization would turn the survivor’s branding tattoos into beautiful works of art so that these women would not have to be reminded every day of their past. You can also learn more about her work at http://www.survivorsink.org.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportRadio.com.

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