Behind Closed Doors: Voices From the Inside is a feature-length documentary on domestic minor sex-trafficking (DMST), produced by master’s-level graduate students enrolled in the summer 2011 Advanced Policy class in the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Each course in the UTSA Social Work Program has a master competency assignment; the competency assignment for the Advanced Policy course is to develop and implement a social welfare policy campaign that involves at least one community partner (in this case, a large and quasi-public community mental health services agency). Students choose the campaign topic (DMST), the type of campaign to be used (public awareness), the target group(s) addressed by the campaign (general community), and the methodology used to carry out the campaign (video documentary). DMST was selected as the topic for the campaign for the following reasons:
- the locale of Interstate I-10, which crosses Texas, is a major conduit for DMST, and runs through San Antonio;
- the need to dispel myths about DMST among members of the general community;
- the desire to contribute to the work of a San Antonio senior state senator who has worked tirelessly on passing legislation aimed at preventing and eradicating DMST;
- and the availability of a key informant with direct access to current and former victims of DMST.
Although members of the class enthusiastically undertook the documentary production, no one (including the course instructor) had any experience in creating such a product. The students tapped social networks to locate a videographer willing to work pro-bono with class members to produce the documentary. A young untested videographer with a limited portfolio, but a passion for social justice, lent his time and talent to help make the documentary. The informant provided access to current and former victims of DMST, all of whom were interviewed, but only some agreed to be included in the documentary.
Several nights a week (and occasionally on a weekend), students accompanied the informant into parts of the community where DMST could be found. The class instructor used his contacts to secure interviews with individuals and organizations in the community who were engaged in a variety of efforts to prevent and eradicate DMST. Approximately 100 hours of video footage were shot. Ensuring the privacy rights of the current and former victims of DMST who agreed to be in the documentary and protecting them from retaliation by their traffickers were just a couple of challenges associated with making the documentary.
The students also faced the daunting task of completing the project in such a short time. It was extremely difficult to hear the stories of teenage girls; some of whom were trafficked since as young as 8-years-old or their parents forced the girls into lives as a sex slaves (familial trafficking). Equally difficult were the stories of adult DMST survivors who bore long-lasting emotional scars of being trafficked and whose lives were filled with violent relationships, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. It is noteworthy that one interviewee agreed to appear in the documentary and was found dead in a motel room under suspicious circumstances before the film’s release, and this film is dedicated to her memory.
On several occasions, the students were confronted with the possibility of physical harm because they were outsiders in certain areas of the community, and they attempted to speak with people considered off-limits. It is important to note that student safety was of paramount importance, and students were never allowed to enter situations that clearly compromised their security. This work is relevant for social work instructors because it provides a transformational learning experience that the classroom lacks. Students set the learning agenda for the class, so the instructor ensures a safe space for enacting that agenda, and students are afforded the opportunity to gain knowledge about policy advocacy through a compelling real-life experience.
Join Us for a live Twitter Chat on August 22, 2013 at 8PM EST using the hashtag #SWunited with guest Robert Ambrosino to discuss his Sex Trafficking documentary nominated for the CSWE Virtual Film Festival.
Image courtesy of University of Texas at San Antonio.