TIFF Report: An Interview With Priya Swaminathan

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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TIFF Report:  An Interview With Priya Swaminathan

Yep, it's still the middle of August and we're already ramping up our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. Our thanks go to Dave Cowen of V-A-L-I-S for offering up this interview with Very Young Girls producer and co-director Priya Swaminathan.

Last week I had the chance to electronically chat with friend and former co-worker Priya Swaminathan, who is a Producer/Co-Director of the upcoming documentary VERY YOUNG GIRLS (David Schisgall/Swinging T Productions). The film is an eye-opening survey of teenage prostitution in New York City that tells the stories of the remarkable girls who make it through activist Rachel Lloyd's Girls Education & Mentoring Services program (GEMS) and transition out of "The Life." The film will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will be on Showtime this fall.

The following is a transcript of our conversation:

VALIS : First off. A big congratulations is in order. VERY YOUNG GIRLS was chosen to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. You have to be proud of that?

PRIYA : It's great! So many people have given so much of themselves to this film, and it is nice to know that it is making an impact on people.

VALIS : Most of the film is about activist Rachel Lloyd and her non-profit GEMS that helps to get young, sexually exploited girls off the streets and transitioning to a new life. Was the film project started with Rachel and GEMS in mind?

PRIYA : I read about GEMS and went up to the office in Harlem to meet Rachel and talk to her about domestic sex trafficking, a term I hadn't even heard before. That day I also met Shaneiqua, one of the young women featured in the film. She and Rachel talked about a problem I never knew existed in the city I lived in. A few years later, I talked to David (Schisgall, the film's Executive Director/Producer) about what I'd heard, and we both knew there was a great documentary to be made about Rachel, GEMS, and the girls.

VALIS : What's interesting about this film is that it doesn't play into the set of stereotypes usually found in films about prostitution. In narratives, you have the glamorized call-girl like Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN or the hooker with the heart of gold like Giulietta Masina in Fellini's NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Then in documentaries, there is a range from gritty portrayals of junkies selling their body for product to mythologizing the sexually empowered sex worker--I'm thinking of Brent Owens' documentaries like HOOKERS AT THE POINT. Your film captures the vulnerable, complex humanity of these teenagers. Do you think this was because you focused the documentary on their transition through GEMS?

PRIYA : I think it is because we aren't portraying sex work, here, we're shining a light on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The girls in the movie break down the stereotypes that "documentaries" like Hookers at the Point have built because you see that there is nothing glamorous, nothing sexy about the world of prostitution. There is nothing empowering about an industry where children are beaten, raped, and psychologically manipulated by adult men. When you spend time with the girls in the film, you see that they're just kids.

VALIS : What was your relationship with the girls during the project? Did you have to remain an objective observer?

PRIYA : Both Nina (Alvarez, the film's other Co-Director) and I had to work hard to observe, rather than interfere, with the girls' lives. We both grew close to the girls in the film, but set clear boundaries when we began shooting to define our relationships.

VALIS : How did working on such an emotionally charged subject effect you psychologically?

PRIYA : There were some rough moments where the things I was hearing broke me down. There are nights when you can't fall asleep because you're worried or because you just can't deal with what you've seen and heard. Truthfully, I'm not as tough or resilient as some of the young women in the film who are able to process what they've been through, put it behind them, and barrel forward with life. They were really inspirational. Plus, I was working with an incredible team - David, Nina, Jane (Jo, the film's Editor), and, of course, Rachel - who were always ready to help me process things.

VALIS : One thing that shocks me is the anonymity of child prostitution in New York. I remember transcribing one interview (Full Disclosure I was a Production Assistant on VERY YOUNG GIRLS) where the woman listed "tracks" where prostitution takes place. One of these tracks was in Manhattan at 33rd and Madison. Now I used to work about 5 blocks from there. And I don't think one 9-5er in the whole 10 block radius had any idea or could care about what happens there after work. Is this film trying to educate New York City?

PRIYA : I hope so! Also, Dave you are a great guy, but I think there are 9-5ers in the area who know what's going on and partake in it. There is a scene in the film that takes you into a program for men who have been arrested for soliciting and, as you'll see, it is the most economically and ethnically diverse room of people you'll ever sit in.

For the full unedited interview please visit www.V-A-L-I-S.com

Interview by Dave Cowen

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