Fight For Me: A Series of Unknowns
In January of 2020 I was operating a camera jib for Dream City Church at their annual Dream Conference. I remember I was excited because I had just finished a film reel of my Steadicam work from the previous month for our (also annual) Celebration of Christmas production. Back then most of my work was centered around building my career. I wasn’t all about myself, but as a single 29-year-old male I was all about moving forward. For the better part of 3 years, I had been stuck (different story) and this conference was just another time to step in and serve as I had been doing all through college and even before. The next thing I knew I was framing up a shot for a Q&A with the Phoenix Dream Center and what would be a life changing moment. I only wish I had known the truth about sex trafficking sooner.
They discussed a few things about the church and eventually moved into a time of speaking with the Director of the Phoenix Dream Center and the Phoenix Chief of Police. Sex Trafficking was something I had heard thrown around in different circles at this point, but how serious it was, was unknown to me. I was moved when they shared facts like “most women in sex trafficking start at the ages of 12-14 years old.” Or “Sex trafficking crimes go unreported and therefore unnoticed while traffickers are earning global profits of 150 billion dollars a year.” But what I heard next tore me apart. They mentioned a young girl who was trafficked and left in a dog kennel as the traffickers fled a SWAT team. They didn’t even notice this girl until they made a second sweep a few days later and realized she was abandoned. The cage was covered in old dirty clothes and shoved in a corner, they got her out and took her somewhere safe where she told them her story. In short, she was kept in that kennel so she couldn’t run away, and they only brought her out when they wanted to use her for paying customers. They’re not sure but authorities believe she could have been raped or molested well over 200 times.
In my anger I wanted to take to the streets like some vigilante. I know Krav Maga self defense and practiced Muay Thai Kick boxing for a year, so I figured, “Use it!” but I eventually calmed down and felt Father (God) speak to me: “I know this makes you angry, listen to that feeling, what am I trying to show you in this moment?” Time went on and the next evening I came in an hour early (as most camera operators do) and I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen from my church. The Where Hope Lives Choir practicing before their performance. This group, at the time, was comprised of young women who had come out of the life of sex trafficking and into the culture of the Phoenix Dream Center where they are restored and learn to thrive as productive members in society. The choir is a form of rehabilitation for these young women and their voices were powerful. The only word I could use to describe what I heard was freedom. Powerful. Raw. Freedom. I felt in that moment Father speak to me again: “I want you to use your skills to help the Phoenix Dream Center tell a story that raises awareness for what they are doing to prevent sex trafficking.” And I said “yes.”
I say survivors but really, they are heroes. If the majority of sex trafficking crimes go undetected then to come out of that scenario is to make a conscious choice to stand up against men who systematically and slowly break down the mind, to get a person to perform sexual acts on total strangers. A person against insurmountable odds saying no. That my dear reader… is a Hero. But how many more of these unknown survivors are heroes in the making? How many more would come out of “the life” if they are given a place to go? I believe the Phoenix Dream Center is an answer to that question. With passion in my heart, I chose to ask key people about my idea the very next day.
To no avail I ended up getting discouraged and dropped the project thinking I would come back to it later. I found some work and after a few months went by the worst thing that could happen to both of my industries hit the world, COVID-19. In a matter of days any large-scale event, any film shoot, or potential client dropped off the face of the earth. I lost about $30,000 – $40,000 that year. Looking back, I can say I have come out fine. I can also say it was perfect timing. Like Jonah and the big fish, God said do it, I said yes but my actions said no as I moved on. Only instead of getting swallowed by a fish I lost all my momentum to move on and potentially out to California. Like Jonah I felt poked and prodded. From April to May he pushed me to start the preproduction phase of this project. Finally, I budged and spoke with Brian Steele, the Director of the Phoenix Dream Center.
We had some great conversations, ultimately, the Phoenix Dream Center was too strapped down financially or physically capable of finding the time to do more than give me their blessing so that is what I ran with. MY resolve was clear, Father told me to do something. That means I do it. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – Edmund Burke. How I would fund the project in the middle of a pandemic was unknown, who would be my cast and crew early on was unknown, when would this production be over and done with was unknown (I thought by September of 2020 even though we started preproduction in June of 2020).
When I spoke with Brian I didn’t even have a screenplay. Just an idea that moved me strongly and centered around the real-life event of a girl stuck in a dog kennel (I hope to meet this woman someday, what an honor) and the documentary style influence of a film called The Heart of a Man. Literally the day I put words to a page the story came to me like a flood. I knew what I wanted to say and constructed the interview questions scene by scene as to make the story coincide with the visuals. Once I finished writing the story, I had to sit with it for a few days. This story had me in tears multiple times. A character in a screen play is a writers creation. I’m convinced I loved this character, and I was depressed having to watch what I put her through… and then tears of joy… watch the movie and you’ll find out why.
Once the story was finished, I had to find the cast and crew. This was a field I was well suited for, if anyone from the crew reads this, I want you to know I chose you for this film because I knew how much you would contribute to the project. A film like this is built with passion. A film like this needs a crew that has similar if not the same passions. Example: Sarah Nikkel (PA/ Makeup) worked with Feed My Starving Children, so she has a passion to fill the needs of people who come to nonprofits for help. Dennis Herzog (Cinematographer) Holds a job with Dream City Church and is well connected with all staff members of the church and the Phoenix Dream Center; he wants to make his own documentary on the original Dream Center founder someday. Siobhan Klos (Wardrobe/Casting/Crafty) Also works at the church and has this gift of communicating with anyone and everyone leaving a great first impression and getting answers quick. She and Dennis both have been producing for large scale events for over 10+ years. Siobhan has a heart to tell stories that heal people. And each and every other person with their craft and passions have shown the utmost consistency. For me that is huge, consistency. I believe a lot of jobs on a film set can be learned a week before production starts but strong moral character and passion for the subject matter can be hard to find, and those qualities make long hours feel like a breeze.
In the middle of selecting the crew I needed help with casting. I’ve learned from this production that I need to be pickier here. I asked one girl who I only knew from Facebook to be the lead if she liked the screenplay. She had a look that could work, I saw her actors reel and I hate auditions anyway. She never read it and never got back to me. To be honest I am glad because Siobhan stepped in with her database of stage actors from our Christmas musical and I was introduced to Dayna Weiland. At the time I would go off looks more than individual talent because I’m dealing with non-celebrities here and she 100% fit the look I was going for. After the audition tape I was absolutely sold. It was like the lead role was made for her. Filling the role of Dante took a little more time as this character was the ultimate antagonist and we found James Esquibel. I have to be honest I wasn’t sold on him as a lead but once I saw how expressive he was I knew he would fit perfectly. He did a marvelous job. If I went into every role this blog would be too long. Every actor brought their own set of skills that sold me. I am happy to have worked with them. I am glad everything turned out well for a first documentary because we had a lot of short comings.
In preproduction there were so many issues I was about to call it quits. It’s like every single day a new fire started. I’ve worked thoroughly with fires in my college films and personal projects in that time, but I’ve never had so many random off the cusp issues. One of our actors had a situation where his daughter went missing, much like the very subject matter of many sex trafficking survivor. I had two places where I needed permits and only got one for a single location. I just secretly filmed at the other one… We had to reshoot at the second location because the first time we really didn’t have enough extras to fill what would appear to be a shopping center/ local park so we (about 50 people), filmed there twice. I needed people to give me the okay to film in other locations and I would not hear back from them in 3 week increments which pushed back production dates. I had to come up with work to afford the budget which ended up being more or less $5,000 dollars. Renting lenses at $560 per rental fee happened at least 3 times. I thought we nailed down a time for interviews with different people but they canceled 2 weeks before we were filming and another situation where we needed permission from the city to get an interview with a police officer to speak about sex trafficking in the streets; everyone said no. We ended up asking our onset officer at the phoenix location to be our interviewee and he did very well. I needed a police car and I could not find one anywhere so I finally found a nice couple that let me turn their Resident Evil cop car into a “Desert Valley Police Car” (I created signage on a magnet and slapped it over the “S.T.A.A.R.S.” logo). One of my actors had to get heel surgery before we filmed again. At one location several people ended up getting the Corona Virus and we had to plan a different day to shoot the scene (which I had planned twice). I have plenty more I can share as the producer but when we got to production we had hick-ups that had to be solved on the spot or else the scene would have suffered if not failed.
There were times as a director where my heart was in my throat because we had such a large space to fill and only about 3 hours of sunlight to film it or else we would have to have a pickup day. On top of that I was also directing the extras and juggling the shot list with my cinematographer. Other times I had to put my foot down with our timeframe because we didn’t have a 1st Assistant Director, and most if not all of the crew saw my frustration. As the leader of a film set those emotions trickle down into the moral of my crew. I made sure to make an appearance with a smile when I could and tell everyone what a good job they were doing. Efficiency is king when it comes to filming a solid story. Sometimes we weren’t so efficient, myself included. Sometimes I thought I had 4 hours but due to external conflicts I would find out about the day of, I only had two hours and I ended up needing to collect the essential 5 shots to build the scene and then move on to the less important stuff. It drove a few people crazy but in their defense they didn’t know what I knew which made my method look questionable. As a director I had to sit with that. What does one do when the pressure is in the form of time, energy, resources and upset crew members? I kept moving forward. This is a filmset after all, we can put a band-aid on hurt feelings in between scenes. Or save it for the cast and crew party.
By the time we got to postproduction I was burnt out. The most exciting part was piecing the story together in my editing timeline. Near the end of all my work as the editor I found that I was now fixing small and frustrating quirks. It’s like one of those gags where you press a button and another one pops out. The goal is to have all buttons pressed in but the moment I press one, two more pop out; press those and the top falls off, etc.. Color Correction almost killed me; I said a lot of bad words but after (what I’d imagine passing a kidney stone felt like) all the buttons were finally pressed in. The film is complete, and I am satisfied with the results.
We are now in June of 2021. It has been a full year since I started pre-production and we are looking forward to the celebration and viewing of a finished documentary. I have been moved to tears watching it. I have seen others moved to tears watching it. I hope you, dear reader, are blessed and moved to tears watching it. The final piece to this epic year for me is a reminder of the truth. As followers of Christ I believe that there is a very real enemy lurking in the shadows claiming to not exist and wants to kill me at any and every turn. Those who don’t have Jesus fall prey to him worse than I would because I do have Jesus. When I set out to make this documentary, my takeaway on what I believe God told me to do was this: I have been asked to speak up for those who are in literal bondage. It is a film to set the captives free. Even if it’s not a perfect film it is a perfect message and I just lead a small group of filmmakers to wage war with this very real enemy. Now it’s time to show everyone what the Dream Center can do and why they need our help.