December 2nd through December 5th, Human Rights and Sex Trafficking: A Film Forum, is taking place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alicia Foley Winn, Executive Director of The Boston Initiative to Advance Human Rights (BITAHR), is spearheading the event. I spoke with her to learn more about the back-story and goals of the project.
In 2005, Winn was introduced to feminist legal theory and its application to women’s human rights violations by her law professor, Kate Nace Day. Deeply impacted, she founded BITAHR, which “has a particular interest in the right of women and children to be free from forced prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE).” As Winn’s work in human trafficking was grounded in Day’s teachings, she asked her former teacher to join the BITAHR Board of Directors.
Day’s philosophy was that utilizing the imagery and visceral impact of film could bring a real understanding of sex trafficking to the public. Basing that point of view on the premise that “film reaches people in a way that print journalism simply can’t,” the two women began to examine the “feasibility of organizing a film festival.”
A year and a half ago they traveled to New York City to meet with the co-founder of Equality Now, Jessica Neuwirth, and the organization’s Executive Director, Taina Bien-Aimé. Winn describes them as “two of the most generous and impactful feminist activists in the world.” The insights they garnered from their discussion were instrumental in helping to jump start their concept.
Co-sponsors of the festival include Amnesty International USA, Documentary Educational Resources, and the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Ms. Magazine, PeaceKeeper Causmetics, and The Body Shop signed on as donors. Others have offered support based on “long-standing personal, professional, and academic relationships.”
Winn explained that speakers were chosen based on their “immeasurable” insights and perspectives. Each panelist has been in the forefront of making vital contributions to the anti-sex trafficking movement. They come from diverse backgrounds—encompassing survivors, filmmakers, researchers, and activists.
The keynote presenter, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, met Winn when they crossed paths at The Protection Project in Washington, D.C. Hunt’s initiative, Demand Abolition, a program of Hunt Alternatives, has been a multi-dimensional sponsor of the gathering—giving funding, time, and participation.
During the four-day forum, there will be a performance by Sarah Jones, a speech delivered by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and an exclusive preview of Holy Ghetto, which “traces the narratives of marginalized women within Tel Aviv’s red light district.”
I asked Winn how she envisioned film as being instrumental in amplifying the issue of sex trafficking. She responded by e-mail:
“As a law professor, and a recent law school graduate, respectively, Kate and I had powerful experiences with documentary’s unique ability to capture the victim’s humanity. Film—as compared to case law, for example—was the driving force behind my decision to pursue human rights oriented work. So it is through personal experience that we started sharing film, and we actually saw some concrete outcomes. Policymakers have moved on the issue based on film. In the United States Congress, Congressman Jim McGovern (D – MA) opened hearings on domestic minor sex trafficking in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission as a direct result of seeing Playground, which is playing on Sunday. For every person who views a documentary, there is an exponential effect. They talk about it, they write about it, and sometimes they turn activist.”
The movies were chosen based on intensive research and extensive viewing. The deciding factors embraced the films being powerful, accessible, non-gratuitous, innovative, and geographically representative. There was a pointed focus on including narratives that examined the crisis in the America. As Foley pointed out, “It wasn’t until this year that the United States, which has been assessing every other country for nearly ten years on their efforts to combat human trafficking, actually published a self-assessment in its annual G-TIP Report. She added, “I think people are just starting to realize that we in the United States also have a major problem with trafficking.