The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, reported in 2004 that commercial sex exploitation in the private economy generates roughly $99 billion a year. Focusing on the guise of online dating and friendships, filmmaker and mother Nicole Bowers-Wallace, wanted to teach her children about the recruiting tactics used in an industry referred to as modern day slavery.
Friday, the independent, Michigan-based filmmaker will screen her latest project, “Ring of Silence,” at MSU. The screening is part of Wallace’s efforts to educate parents and teachers about the signs of sex trafficking. The project is designed to help parents and educators elaborate on the old saying “don’t talk to strangers” to acknowledge the multibillion-dollar global industry built on exploiting insecurities and trust.
In 2016, after completing several short films, Wallace planned to make the “dramedy” she had been mulling over since leaving the health care business over 10 years ago. That was until she met Patricia Higgins, member of the Genesee County Human Trafficking Taskforce.
Wallace said she wasn’t fully on board when Higgins first approached her about making a film that would dispel myths about sex slavery.
“I really didn’t know much about it,” Wallace said. “I saw that it was happening in other countries and I thought kids were being snatched off the side of the road, I mean that’s what I knew.”
She began a nine-month research excursion involving a meeting with the FBI and interviews with survivors.
“Ring of Silence” follows a 17-year old girl named April Sharpe, played by LA-based actress Ava Deluca-Verley, who is missing her late mother as she edges closer toward adulthood. April has a best friend, played by Michigan actor Jesse Katch, but often defaults to the Internet to purge her deepest feelings. A charming boy enters the picture and offers her empathy, causing the young girl to fall in love and lose herself to the underbelly of society.
Highlighting social media as a tool used by trafficking recruiters was an intentional choice made by the filmmaker. During her interviews with survivors, regardless of their background, many met their future boyfriends or “pimps” online.
“Essentially, we took all these stories from survivors and put them into one,” said Wallace, explaining the writing process. “When students, teens and college students watch it they can see themselves as April. We also included her gay male friend who is trafficked because I think that is another big part of society that people don’t realize,” Wallace said.
Wallace added that what ultimately encourages her to tackle social issues in her films is being a mother herself. After a screening of “Ring of Silence” at Emagine Theatre in Royal Oak, a woman came up to Wallace in tears after having recently realized that her 13-year old daughter was being sold for $50 a week. The woman wanted her daughter to see the film as well in the hope that it would bring light to her situation.
“Because sometimes there is a sense of ‘it’s just me and my boyfriend doing this weird kind of stuff.’ Especially with immaturity, they don’t see it,” Wallace said.
At a different screening, Wallace said a nurse from Hurley Hospital in Flint brought along a friend who suspected their daughter’s boyfriend was coercing her into commercial sex. The friend showed her daughter the film and told Wallace it helped her teenager understand the “bigger operation” behind what her boyfriend was doing.
A key component to modern-day slavery is female recruiters. When meeting with the FBI, Wallace heard the story of three high school girls in a trafficking ring whose job was to recruit middle schoolers. This cycle of betrayal is reflected in Wallace’s film and shows how female recruiters will present themselves as friends, or even victims, to gain trust.
In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received a record-breaking 2,144 calls. Of them, 309 were from Michigan, a 20 percent increase from the previous year. While there are signs of increasing awareness, families, teachers and medical professionals have yet to master the nuances of spotting the signs or how to offer comprehensive care, according to Wallace.
The independent filmmaker continues to work with local advocacy groups such as the Genesee County Human Trafficking Taskforce, which uses the film to supplement its presentations at schools, hospitals and churches across Michigan. She said the most frustrating thing for parents is understanding the various ways youth can get involved with sex slavery.
“By the end of the day,” Wallace said, “everybody’s attached to their phone and it’s coming through social media, so it’s just about education and understanding not everybody is who they say they are.”