NEW YORK CITY - Dominique ran away from her home in the Bronx at 13, fleeing domestic violence. She quickly fell under the sway of a man who soon had her circling the blocks of Hell’s Kitchen, looking for johns. She explained the pimp’s influence this way: “He used to get into bed with me and used to, like, hold me like I was his kid. … He took care of me.”
“Very Young Girls” is an 83-minute documentary film that opens on Friday at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. This is the film’s first commercial release; it received critical acclaim at its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. (See a review by Jeannette Catsoulis of The Times.)
The film offers a vivid and disturbing look at the sexual exploitation and trafficking of teenage girls in New York City. The average age of girls when they enter the sex industry is 13. The girls interviewed in the film — all identified by their real first names, except for one given the pseudonym Nicole — were participants in a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which was established in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a former prostitute, originally from England, who has dedicated her career to combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls. GEMS now works with about 200 girls a year.
The first part of the film intersperses interviews with the girls with scenes shot by two brothers, Anthony and Chris Griffith, who taped their exploits in the New York area as pimps for what they hoped could become a cable television series. (The brothers were ultimately convicted of trafficking minors across state lines and were sentenced to 10 years in federal prison; the videos were used as evidence.)
Among the girls interviewed are Shaneiqua, a former A student who craved affection and described her first time having sex with her pimp in this way: “I thought that was the best thing that ever happened to me — the best, best.” Soon the man, nearly 20 years her senior, told her, “I would love you a lot more if you brought in more money.” After the first time she had sex for money, she said, “My whole body just felt dead.”
Another girl, Shaquanna, 15, is shown on a hospital bed, ingesting liquid medication that had been injected into a cup of Jell-O for her. She had been found on the side of a road, unconscious; she could not remember who had attacked her. Yet even in her painful condition — bruised, bloodied, her front teeth missing and chipped — she expresses relief. “I was praying for a situation to happen so that I’d be able to go home.”
The filmmaker, David Schisgall, said he had been making films about young people in war zones for MTV’s “True Life” series. “International sex trafficking was on our list of topics,” he said in a phone interview. “In the course of our search we found that there was trafficking going on in the United States that nobody was talking about.”
Mr. Schisgall, 40, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, said the “audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.” He said the film would be broadcast on Showtime in December...
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