Jewish Journal

Sad encounter prompts sex trafficking docudrama

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Nov. 22, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Thuy Nguyen stars. Photo by Elkana Jacobson

Thuy Nguyen stars. Photo by Elkana Jacobson

The inspiration for "Holly," a docudrama about child sex-trafficking, came as Israeli-born producer Guy Jacobson inadvertently wandered into a notorious red light district in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh five years ago.

"It was a dusty street like any other, but suddenly, I was surrounded by 15 little girls -- 5, 6 and 7 years old -- who were aggressively soliciting me for sex," Jacobson said in a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment, now the headquarters of the Redlight Children Campaign he has co-founded to help fight child prostitution. "I was struggling to remove their hands, and most of them realized that I was not a potential client, but one of the littlest girls kept saying, 'I yum yum very good; I no money today, mama-san boxing me,' which meant the madam of her brothel would beat her up. I gave her $20 and walked away, but I knew I had to return and do something about this horrific problem."

In the summer of 2004, Jacobson did return to that dusty street and the adjacent brothels to film "Holly" -- accompanied by 40 bodyguards wielding M-16s to protect the cast and crew from gangsters.

The drama tells of Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old virgin, and Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American smuggler who becomes obsessed with saving her from the pervasive, government-backed industry. It proves to be a fool's errand, and while "Holly" has been lauded on the festival circuit (one reviewer called it "a work of serious, contemplative outrage"), it has also been criticized for "dousing its drama with the cold water of education," in the words of another.

Critics have also noted that it is among several recent films on sex trafficking, including "Trade" and the documentary, "Very Young Girls," which "is working its way into the popular culture since the U.S. Congress passed human trafficking legislation in 2000, said Carol Smolenski of ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA). An estimated 2 million child sex workers toil in what the United Nations deems the fastest growing criminal enterprise worldwide.

The hyper-realistic portrayal of such a child's life has made "Holly" a darling of human rights activists (the United Nations hosted a VIP screening with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-N.Y.] on the host committee); The New York Times published two stories on the movie, one also focusing on the Red Light campaign, before it opened in New York two weeks ago, earning a No. 2 slot for all-around box office receipts.

While the prostitution drama may well recoup its budget of several million dollars, the effort was not about the money, Jacobson insisted. "I don't mean to offend anybody, but for me, this is a global crime against humanity, similar to the Holocaust," he said. "And once you see the film, you can no longer say you didn't realize the scope of the problem, only that you don't care."

Jacobson, 44, said it is no coincidence that almost everyone involved in making the film grew up in Israel, including the writer-director, Guy Moshe, and New York financiers Smadar and Amit Kort, who were so moved by early drafts of the script that they vowed to give Jacobson whatever he needed to produce it. "We're used to operating under stress, and making this film was like a miniwar," he said.

Jacobson drew on his experience in Israeli intelligence during the Lebanon War to research "how a 12-year-old prostitute really feels" in Phnom Penh. While posing as a pedophile client, he chatted with the girls, their pimps and clients in cafes and "bought" a time upstairs with various girls in order to photograph their rooms, which were tiny, dirty, and decorated with magazine cutouts of puppies and kittens (he would ask them to take a shower so he could snap pictures and tell them he wasn't in the mood when they returned.)

It took 15 drafts (and Moshe's reworking of the script) to get the tone just right: "Go a bit too far and the film becomes unbearable, and if you don't go far enough, it won't raise awareness," Jacobson said. The filmmakers included neither sex nor nudity in order to avoid exploiting the subject matter.

Moshe said he also drew on his Israeli military service -- in an elite special forces unit in the Gaza Strip during the intifada -- to make the film. His job was to seek out and arrest terrorists, and while he declined to elaborate, he would say, "You're still a child mentally, but you're thrown into situations and experiences that many much older people never go through. It makes you identify more with people enduring the bleaker side of life."

Because of their wartime experiences, neither Moshe nor Jacobson were alarmed when they received a call from Interpol agents just before they were to begin production, reporting that contracts had been taken out on their lives. The filmmakers were advised to leave the country immediately.

"Then just three days before the shoot, we learned officials were going to shut down the movie unless we paid them an obscene amount of money," Moshe said. "We had to negotiate with them around the clock, and that debacle ended with me counting out $60,000 in cash -- with a bodyguard standing behind me -- to a delegate with his own bodyguard."

Moshe and Jacobson smuggled the scenes shot each day to secret locations outside of Cambodia ("That meant I didn't see dailies until 17 days into the shoot," Moshe recalled), and a co-producer was detained at the airport as she tried to leave the country with much of the equipment (she laid low for a week by hiding in seedy hotels under an assumed name).

The scene based on Jacobson's memories of being solicited by a 5-year-old posed a different set of challenges. Moshe obtained his child actors from an orphanage run by a social worker, who wanted to help eradicate the real-life problem. In order to protect the girls, who did not speak English, he taught them their lines phonetically so they did not know what they were saying. ( Two psychologists were on the set.) "For me, that sequence epitomized what the whole film is about, and how sacred this subject is in a certain way," he said. The film opens Nov. 23 at the Laemmle Theatres.

Sex and the City star Ron Livingston talks about his new film, HOLLY, which addresses the issue of child sexual exploitation and trafficking in Cambodia, on CNN's Showbiz Tonight show. The film also stars Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs), Virginie Ledoyen (8 Women,The Beach), Udo Kier (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Shadow of a Vampire), and newcomer Thuy Nguyen
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