Doc Blog

By my count there are three films in this year's Real to Reel that have their roots in my trip to Iraq after the invasion in 2003. At the time, I had basically given up trying to make feature docs and   was focussing on making socially positive doc episodes for television. I went to Iraq to make two shows for MTV:  True Life: I'm in Iraq, a verite and interview hour about American and Iraqi young people in the post-war period, and Gideon's Diary in Iraq, a half hour hosted by correspondent Gideon Yago. For Gideon's diary, we shot a profile of the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda, and later Gideon wrote a piece about them for Vice Magazine. These, I'm told, were the seeds of Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti's Heavy Metal in Baghdad . I haven't seen it -- I'm dying to -- but I'm told you can hear my voice in the film on some of the early footage of the band in Baghdad that I shot.

Muthana Mudher was a friend of the Acrassicauda's, and a young film student, whose story of trying to get a film education in the rubble of the city I told in the True Life.  Liev Shreiver saw the show on TV, and wanted to help Muthana with his film education by bringing him from Baghdad to intern on the set of his next film, and wanted me to make a doc about it.  It would be a film about a filmmaker reaching out to a filmmaker while making a film -- perfect material to direct for Nina Davenport, whose wonderful first person films are always, in my view, about a filmmaker, Nina herself, in a collision between the palliative dreams of story and the messy demands of the real world.    The result is Operation Filmmaker, in my view -- and I am biased as I produced -- it is Nina's best work to date.

MTV liked our Iraq shows, and a previous show I had done for them on Israel/Palestine, so they asked Gideon and me to create a series about young people in war zones.  We brought on Priya Swaminathan and Nina Alvarez to help make the pilot, about young people caught up in the civil war in Colombia.   The pilot wasn't picked up-- it was always a longshot for MTV to devote a half hour weekly to young people in war zones -- but in the course of researching more episodes for the series, we looked into international sex trafficking, and found that trafficking in young girls was going on not just in Cambodia, but just a few blocks north of our office in New York City, right under the eyes of the police, and the media, and the city. We found that if a woman is coerced into prostitution and brought to New York City from the Ukraine, and she is caught, the US will give her housing, and legal help, and help getting home.  But if she is trafficked to New York City from Yonkers, and she is caught, she will go to jail.  Likewise, if a forty year old man in Utah has sex with a fourteen year old girl and gets caught, he's going to jail and the girl is getting treatment.   But if the man has sex with the girl in the Bronx and gives the girl sixty dollars, and they are caught, then the girl is going to jail and the man is going free.  This is how we met Rachel Lloyd and began to make Very Young Girls.

Rachel survived sexual exploitation as a teenager, and as an adult  began working to help young girls find their way out of "the life." Rachel is a healer, and she brings out the amazing and immense potential of the beautiful, traumatized girls in her care.  She helps them through empathy and therapy to overcome their victimization, return to a normal life, and come to a place where they can talk about what happened to them in the bracingly brave, honest, and insightful way they do in the film. I had interviewed young people who had survived trauma in war zones around the world and I had never heard anyone with such powerful voices and stories as these young women of New York City. I modeled my working relationship with Rachel on how I observed, as a young assistant, my old boss Errol Morris work with physicist Stephen Hawking during the making of A Brief History of Time.  Both films would be a profile of a great innovator with an amazing human story, and an explanation of that leader's complex and counterintuitive insights.  So, like Stephen, Rachel would be a key creative collaborator in all phases of the work, from pre-production to score.  I did not worry about empowering Rachel, as she had the intelligence and wisdom to step into our medium armed with great authority and to make the choices that would lead to a powerful, honest, unsparing film that has the possibility of changing the way people see commercial sexual exploitation in our society today. It's remarkable to me, and sobering, that my journey to Baghdad, with all its horrors, would lead back to the more or less unnoticed, but equally terrible horrors on the streets of my own city.

Pictured: Rachel Lloyd tries to talk Ebony out of returning to "the life" in 
Very Young Girls.

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