Sadhvi Siddhali Shree & Sadhvi Anubhuti on “Surviving Sex Trafficking”

Back when Sadhvi Siddhali Shree and Sadhvi Anubhuti had embarked on “Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking” in 2017, there wasn’t a lot of hope to take away from the dire situation they had spent time outlining, detailing the underground networks where young women are often lured or abducted into a life of sex work and often caught in an abusive relationship with the person they’ve come to depend on for their livelihood, feeling as if they have no option but to stay. As their follow-up “Surviving Sex Trafficking” notes as it begins, roughly only one percent of survivors are actually able to make a clean break and as small as that number is, it was a promising enough statistic for Siddhali Shree and Anubhuti, disciples of the Indian religion of Jainism, to pick up their cameras and scour the globe once again in search of a more optimistic outcome.

In fact, Siddhali Shree and Anubhuti find a collection of survivors both in America and beyond who have overcome a terrifying time in the trenches, all making clear how easy it is to fall into the clutches of traffickers who aim to groom their prey and the long road back psychologically, regardless of any other obstacles they encounter, to readjust to any kind of normal life. In Houston, the two find Angela, a 35-year-old who was first introduced into stripping at 17 before being forced into increasingly more and more extreme sexual activities by her pimp, and Rachel, who was taken in by the promises of a fake modeling agency before finding her way out to go to nursing school and ultimately try to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else, before traveling to Miami where they meet Kendra, who now looks as formidable as any MMA fighter given her training habits but once developed a crippling drug habit she turned to sex work to support.

As the filmmakers carry on their travels to India and Ethiopia, “Surviving Sex Trafficking” bears witness to a number of personal transformations, something that could be illuminated specifically by Siddhali Shree, who changed her life dramatically after returning from serving in the Iraq war and opens up about her own personal experience with the subject and dealing with trauma. With the film now arriving in theaters before being more widely available online on April 15th, the pair behind the camera spoke about how they changed their approach for a follow-up to their first documentary, sensitively working with survivors to share their stories and already being encouraged by the results.

Sadhvi, your background is quite diverse, and I know there was some times spent in communications, but how did filmmaking become your medium of choice?

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: I had video production experience in high school and connecting to that medium, there is so much potential to impact lives and reach a larger audience. That’s why we were drawn to filmmaking to raise awareness about human trafficking because the main goal was [finding] the most creative way [to convey this material] and something that was actually out of our comfort zone. Saddhvi Anubhuti and I did not have a filmmaking background. We didn’t go to film school, so we turned to Google and YouTube to guide us through the process and now here we are with our second film “Surviving Sex Trafficking.”

After the first film, was the second already in mind or did it coalesce afterwards?

Sadhvi Anubhuti: It was not a plan. It just happened that way. After the first film, a lot of people were wondering, “Okay, what happens to the victims after they manage to escape or get rescued?” We did have one survivor on the first film and everybody kept asking what happened to her and her children? And from there, the idea evolved to dive deeper into the stories of survivors and with this film, we took a different approach. The first film was more about sitting down with activists, experts, and ex-traffickers and it was more educational about what is sex trafficking? Let’s learn what this is and let’s give you the steps to help you get involved in the fight.

With the second film, we gained more experience in every single aspect. We had a little bit more of a budget to increase the quality of the film with equipment and production, so that allowed us to have more freedom and more creativity with the story. This is more about following the survivors over the course of two years and just seeing where they’re at and discovering different aspects of their healing journeys so people can learn, but also get inspired to want to do something about it.

In the end credits, there is a survivor advisory committee and obviously, this is such a sensitive subject matter. Was it difficult to figure out how to deal with this in a way that wouldn’t retraumatize the survivors?

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: It was important for us to have a survivor committee [because] we wanted to include survivor voices in this project and not everybody can make the film or is available to be part of the film, so we came up with the idea of having a survivor advisory committee. This way, we could turn to them to watch the film, to make sure we’re respectful of the stories and honoring the tough times, but respectfully displaying everything and of course leading off with hope. The committee was really affected by the film, and were like, “Wow, you touched on it so deeply in a raw way, but also a respectful way” and that’s very important because a lot of times, movies, documentaries, media can many times reexploit the survivor and that can trigger them or they sensationalize [the story], so we wanted to make sure our documentary did not do that.

It’s explained to a degree in the film as far as putting out a call on social media, but how did you decide on who you wanted to follow?

Sadhvi Anubhuti: In the beginning, we actually were afraid [to think] where are we going to find survivors? Who is going to want to share their story in such a big way? It was actually very easy once we posted [a query] on social media. Angela Williams was actually the very first person to reach out to us and to say that, “Hey, I watched your first film in New York and it was such an amazing and empowering film and I want to be part of your second,” and then it got all the way to Kendra, [who] found us on social media and also wanted to be a part of the film. She was ready to share her story after 10 years of not talking about it at all, and then we did a trip around the world where Rachel came with us as part of a Houston group to travel to different countries and met with many activists. Then within the trip, we found our two other survivors – one in Ethiopia and one in India who you will also meet in the film.

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: And the story evolved over time. The international trip was organized by an awesome nonprofit called Children at Risk, and we had no idea that the trip would actually allow us to scout for survivors. We wanted to document the trip and learn from survivors at the shelters, but we weren’t really on the lookout [for subjects]. It happened organically.

Sadhvi Anubhuti: We knew the film was about the survivors. It was now a matter of how to craft the story and how to thread it and as we continued the journey of filming, that’s when the stories began to take form and it was at the end that we decided that Sadhvi Siddhali Shree was going to be in the film and share her story [too] and become the thread in between all the stories to share that universal message of pain and compassion and hope, so it all came together that way.

Sadhvi Siddahli Shree: It was not planned. [laughs]

Was it a comfortable decision for you to have an on-camera role like that and share your story in that way?

Sadhvi Siddahli Shree: Well, it’s all about the survivors, but we knew, “Okay we have these powerful survivor stories, but it felt like there was a disconnect [of] how can they all connect? It took a little bit of time. I wrote about it, I meditated on it and suddenly this idea popped up like I have to be in the film and I humbly took that position to put myself on camera for the sake of the story, so that the viewers could connect through me to the survivors because sometimes [there’s a feeling] their stories are so far from me that through me, that leads to understand the survivors.

The idea of healing also appears to be central to the film. Was something like the visit to the Amen Clinics, where they actually explain the impact the trauma had on the brain and how it recovers, if at all, always a part of this?

Sadhvi Anubhuti: Once you interact with the survivors and the more time you spend with them, the more you realize that they’re working on their healing journey. They’re still finding ways to heal themselves, to overcome everything that they’ve gone through and actually no, Amen Clinics were not part of the story [originally], but through the interview we [did with] Angie, we realized had this really big concern about her brain because of all the trauma, the strangulation, and all the physical pain she went through, so I remember we were in the room and [Sadhvi] told her, “Hey, I know this doctor. Why don’t we go and see what’s going on with your brain?” It was amazing that as we were interviewing the survivors, we were building the story for the film and they were all still seeking ways to heal themselves.

In regards to Angie specifically, what was it like to take her back to where she was assaulted and discovered that the door was literally wide open so you could explore that apartment?

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: It was a difficult time because this was her first time going back to Las Vegas after leaving, so we already knew it was a sensitive time and she walked us down the street to show us the outside of where she used to live. For whatever reason, she tried the door and she opens it and it was just like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” As a filmmaker, it’s like we have to take advantage of this opportunity and then in the back of our minds, it’s like “Are we going to get in trouble?” Just going through that experience with her, she’s literally reliving everything in the moment and she’s communicating it in such an intense but powerful way, it’s like goosebumps. Even afterwards, we hugged her so tightly.

You revisit everyone a year later. Was that always built into your plans?

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: It just happened organically. COVID happened and we just had to figure out how are we going to revisit them and see where they’re at and of course be cautious with everything that was happening. We went to India and Ethiopia during our first trip and we planned for [another visit], but actually right before lockdown happened in the United States, we had already flown to India and as soon as we landed, they shut the borders. We continued with our trip very carefully, doing it of course for the sake of the story because no matter what this situation is always happening, COVID or not.

What’s it like to get out into the world now?

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree: It’s really exciting. What’s really special is recently we did a private screening in Houston hosted by the Houston 20 and the survivors – Rachel, Kendra and Angie – attended. They had watched the film on their own during an online film festival and when they were surrounded by so many people and everybody was coming up to them and even on stage, they were saying that this film has changed their life. For me, this is what it’s about. The film is intended to help survivors and immediately we’re helping the ones that are in our film.

“Surviving Sex Trafficking” will open on March 25th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center before expanding into theaters nationally. A full list is here.