By Sewell Chan
“Very Young Girls” is an 83-minute documentary film that opens on Friday at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. This is the film’s first commercial release; it received critical acclaim at its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. (See a review by Jeannette Catsoulis of The Times.)
The film offers a vivid and disturbing look at the sexual exploitation and trafficking of teenage girls in New York City. The average age of girls when they enter the sex industry is 13. The girls interviewed in the film — all identified by their real first names, except for one given the pseudonym Nicole — were participants in a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which was established in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a former prostitute, originally from England, who has dedicated her career to combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls. GEMS now works with about 200 girls a year.
Among the girls interviewed are Shaneiqua, a former A student who craved affection and described her first time having sex with her pimp in this way: “I thought that was the best thing that ever happened to me — the best, best.” Soon the man, nearly 20 years her senior, told her, “I would love you a lot more if you brought in more money.” After the first time she had sex for money, she said, “My whole body just felt dead.”
Another girl, Shaquanna, 15, is shown on a hospital bed, ingesting liquid medication that had been injected into a cup of Jell-O for her. She had been found on the side of a road, unconscious; she could not remember who had attacked her. Yet even in her painful condition — bruised, bloodied, her front teeth missing and chipped — she expresses relief. “I was praying for a situation to happen so that I’d be able to go home.”
The filmmaker, David Schisgall, said he had been making films about young people in war zones for MTV’s “True Life” series. “International sex trafficking was on our list of topics,” he said in a phone interview. “In the course of our search we found that there was trafficking going on in the United States that nobody was talking about.”
Mr. Schisgall, 40, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, said the “audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.” He said the film would be broadcast on Showtime in December.
He said he believed that the criminal justice system treated child prostitutes as criminals, rather than as victims. “It struck me as a great scandal,” he said, “and also as a great story.”
The girls make clear why leaving the men who exploit them is not easy. As one girl, Kim, tried to pack her suitcases, she recalled, her pimp “told me the next time I leave, he’s going to put me in a suitcase.”
Another former prostitute, Martha, put it this way: “I am his investment. I am his way of getting money. At the end of the day, if you think about it, a pimp does nothing more but collect the money.”
But the emotional ties are even stronger, in some cases, than the threat of violence and the relationships of economic dependence.
Ms. Lloyd, who was an executive producer for the film, says in the film: “Our primary competition is pimps. They’re spending 110 percent of their time and energy on recruiting, on brainwashing, on making this girl feel loved and special, and pulling her back in every time that she almost leaves. This has been four years of her life, from 12 to 16. He’s 35. He basically raised her.”
Ms. Lloyd is shown winning a human rights award from Reebok, the athletic footwear company. In her acceptance speech, she says that many Americans recognize sexual exploitation in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Ukraine, but not in their own backyards. “When it’s happening two blocks away from this auditorium, when it’s happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant or Hunts Point or Queens Plaza, we look the other way.”
The film provides only a fleeting glimpse at the men who patronize prostitutes, showing a scene from the “Brooklyn John School,” a program in which men arrested for patronizing prostitutes complete an educational course and have their charges dismissed if they stay out of trouble for six months.
Several of the girls in the movie made it out of the sex trade. Mr. Schisgall said that Shaquanna, the girl who had been beaten and hospitalized, recently graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class in New York City.
Other girls had less certain futures. One, Ebony, became a prostitute at 15 and moved to Miami to be with a pimp. Despite Ms. Lloyd’s efforts to save her — including tracking her down during a vacation to Miami — Ebony ultimately returns to the street life, in part because she cannot stand the disapprobation and stares of her neighbors during a brief return to New York.
“I’d rather have him beat me than being over where people are looking at me sideways,” Ebony says, adding, “I have a home in Miami where I can go back to with no problem.”