Movie examines the costly toll of human trafficking

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– Photos courtesy of Laura Swanson

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Filmmaker Laura E. Swanson’s award-winning documentary “Break the Chain” wasn’t created with the intent to been screened throughout the United States and overseas or be showcased in various film festivals.

Yet it is.

Screenings are scheduled in New Mills, England on Thursday, June 15, and Aberdeen, Scotland on Sunday, June 17. The documentary’s next screening in Michigan is in West Branch on Friday, Aug. 10.
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“The reception of this film is more than I could have ever hoped for or anticipated,” said Swanson, the co-director/producer. “I was primarily focused on the reception of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. I wanted the task force and its agencies to feel like this film truly represented the issue of human trafficking and could be used in training seminars and community awareness events throughout the state of Michigan to help aid the cause. Having film festivals and places throughout the U.S. hear about our film and request screenings has been a flattering outcome. This reception has only motivated me to spread the film’s message and mission as far as I possibly can.”

“Break the Chain” chronicles the stories of two survivors of human trafficking, providing a detailed look at how trafficking goes unnoticed within our own backyards. The first is Kwami, a child survivor of labor trafficking, who was enslaved for nearly 5 years with three other children in Ypsilanti before anyone noticed. The second is Debbie, a survivor of sex trafficking, who was sold for sex around the Detroit area between the ages of 13 and 18.

“Building relationships with the subjects, being trusted to represent their vulnerable truths, and watching them grow as their stories have more light shined on them is absolutely the best part of creating this film,” said Swanson. “I feel like I got to be a part of our subjects’ journey towards healing and empowerment.”

According to Swanson, human trafficking – also called modern-day slavery – is a crime involving the exploitation of an individual(s) for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, and/or coercion. Or in which the individual(s) induced to perform such acts is still a minor. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that an individual(s) cannot leave due to threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

There are two forms of human trafficking. The first is sex trafficking, which is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, patronizing, solicitation, or obtaining of an individual(s) for the purpose of a commercial sex act. It commonly occurs in a diverse set of venues and businesses, such as massage parlors, escort services, hotels, strip clubs, residential brothels, private homes, or city streets.

The second is labor trafficking, which is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of an individual(s) for labor through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. It commonly occurs in industries associated with domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing (especially garment and textiles), catering and restaurants, and entertainment.

“I think it’s important that we tell the story of human trafficking in Michigan. The biggest misconceptions about it is that it’s only sex trafficking and only happens in big cities. Neither are true and I appreciate how the film talks about labor trafficking, as well as showing the reality it can happen anywhere – whether it’s a small town or a big city. It just requires vulnerability and someone willing to exploit that vulnerability,” said Bridgette Carr, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and the founding director of the school’s Human Trafficking Clinic (the first clinical law program solely devoted to addressing this issue).

“Break the Chain” also explained the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling. The latter is defined as an individual(s) consenting to being smuggled – usually by the migrants’ request. Human smuggling is a crime committed against a country and its borders, involving the illegal transportation of an individual(s) across national borders.

A Michigan State University alumna, Swanson worked with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence at various counseling centers and shelters throughout the Lansing area. This inspired her to make her first documentary “Every Two Minutes,” which created a strong platform for the survivors of these crimes to tell their stories through the medium of film.

As she was promoting “Every Two Minutes,” Swanson kept reading articles about human trafficking in Michigan. This inspired “Break the Chain.”

“I was confused as to how we had human trafficking within Lansing when my understanding of the issue had been that this was something that occurred in different countries,” explained Swanson. “My initial interest led to some light research. I discovered that much the way that sexual assault has a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding it, human trafficking did as well. I felt like I immediately connected with it and understood the complexity of the crime and its survivors, and I wanted to share their stories and perspectives with the public right away.”

It took Swanson three years to complete “Break the Chain.” She researched the topic thoroughly during her final year at MSU. She interviewed experts and survivors, and attended numerous human trafficking conferences.

“There are also countless myths and misconceptions (about human trafficking), but the most common ones I encounter in training (seminars) are: Human trafficking means taking people to different places and selling them. Human trafficking is prostitution and only sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is when people are being kidnapped from malls and grocery stores,” explained Swanson.

In the last decade, there has been a heightened awareness surrounding human trafficking. Swanson stated countless factors as to why, but cited two important reasons.

“Our relationship with media continues to grow, and we’ve become more connected and more aware of issues that have been able to stay hidden,” she said. “We continue to learn about complexities of crimes and victims as more people speak out... As broader education and approaches change, victims become more visible and identifiable.”

Swanson stated that there is no single profile of a human trafficker because they can be individuals, significant others, families, corporations, and criminal networks.

“The most simple answer to this is that a trafficker is anyone that is willing to exploit an individual for financial gain,” she said.

The plot of the 2008 movie “Taken” has an ex-CIA operative (Liam Neeson) hunting down Albanian sex traffickers who kidnapped his daughter (Maggie Grace). Neeson’s character tells the villain in a famous scene: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

While the movie “Taken” may have shined a certain sort of light on the problem, the film barely begins to tell the full story, according to Swanson.

“I do not give credit to the movies that have only highlighted the sensationalized and most extreme versions of this crime as having raised awareness,” said Swanson. “I give credit to the people that work with survivors on a daily basis and have persistently raised their voices to speak out against these inadequate attempts at providing awareness. They are the people that have truly educated our public and provided a voice for survivors.”

 Within the next 10 years, Swanson would like to see more emphasis placed on addressing labor trafficking.

“This part of the human trafficking issue is so closely tied to our culture and economy, which I believe provides an abundance of opportunities for exploitation,” she said. “I hope that we can continue to bring labor trafficking into the limelight the same way we have with sex trafficking, so that someday we will collectively hold each other accountable for the exploitation within our supply chains.”

Swanson added: “There are so many things I always want people to take away from the film, but – mainly – I want people to have an understanding of what human trafficking actually is and to know that they do have the power to help eradicate this issue, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.”

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