Lemon Grove Filmmaker Jim Ellis Creates 33-Minute Documentary for Children, Parents to Watch Together
By Mark Gabrish Conlan
February 18, 2013 (Lemon Grove)--Nikki’s story is all too typical of the ones told in Lemon Grove filmmaker Jim Ellis’s new 33-minute documentary, Indoctrinated: The Grooming of Children Into Prostitution. At age 18, to raise the money to go to college, she took a job in a strip club. There she met an older man who helped her out financially, bought her nice clothes and accessories, and got her to fall in love with him and ultimately move in with him. Then he put the hammer down and told her that in order to keep her lifestyle — and his affections — she’d have to have sex with other men, for which he, not she, would be paid. Nikki’s story ends more happily than most such tales; she got out of “the life,” as prostitutes call it, and in her 20’s is trying to piece her life back together. She’s sufficiently self-assured that of all the present and former prostitutes Ellis interviewed, she was the only one who agreed to show her face on camera instead of having it electronically blurred.
Members of the Lemon Grove Soroptimists got to see Nikki’s story, and those of other teen prostitutes who have had even more bitter experiences, when Indoctrinated was screened at their regular meeting January 21 at the Lemon Grove Community Center. Among the attendees were Bianca L. Brown, president of the governing board of the Lemon Grove School District; and Jim Wieboldt, crime prevention specialist for the Lemon Grove station of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Their presence was symbolic of the extent to which, like teen drug use, teen prostitution is a multi-faceted problem that can only be dealt with if law enforcement officers, educators, community activists, parents and teens themselves come together and talk about it. Director Ellis introduced his film and said he intended it to spark just those kinds of conversations between parents and teens.
Some grim statistics from the film: According to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work, which released a study on “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children” in 2001, at least 300,000 American children per year are at risk of being sexually exploited, and 100,000 per year actually become victims. Pimps and other recruiters mostly target teen runaways, of whom there are about 2,500 in San Diego County on any one night. It’s estimated that within 48 hours of leaving home, a teen runaway will be accosted by a potential pimp and asked for sexual favors. But just because a teen is living at home with one or both parents, that doesn’t mean they can’t be recruited into “the life.” And San Diego is considered one of the three worst cities in the country for child sexual exploitation, along with San Francisco and New York.
Asked what prompted him to make Indoctrinated, Ellis told East County Magazine that it came out of his interest in a group called ACTION Network — “ACTION” standing for “Against Child Trafficking in Our Neighborhoods” — and its founder, Manolo Guillen. “In 2006 I was working on a documentary about agencies doing good work to end violence and abuse,” Ellis said, “and I did a six-minute promo video for ACTION Network. Then Manolo and I decided that what the community really needed was a documentary about what’s going on in our communities and our society. It took five years gathering information and doing interviews.” He said he wants teenagers and parents to watch the film simultaneously “so we can give them the information and they can act accordingly.”
Why is the movie called Indoctrinated? Ellis said it was Manolo Guillen who suggested the title. “We were thinking about how do we describe what’s happening, and why would anyone choose a lifestyle that will destroy them mentally and physically,” Ellis explained. “They’re slowly being indoctrinated and brainwashed into a life they truly do not want, even if they try to defend it. It’s sort of like the Stockholm syndrome: captives start to defend, relate to and show allegiance to their captors. It seemed to fit the process pimps use to capture and groom their slaves.”
Ellis’s interest in exposing teen prostitution and the strategies pimps use to recruit their victims was sparked by his perception that the problem is growing and spreading. Though prostitution has been around long enough it’s sometimes referred to as “the oldest profession,” Ellis said that the sexual exploitation his movie addresses is very different from the classical image of a prostitute as “a woman using their sex for money in a quasi-business situation, sometimes using a madam or pimp. What appears to be new is using children. This documentary is not about adults; it’s about children being used as sex slaves.”
Though Nikki was 18 when she got recruited into “the life,” most of the victims are younger than that — some as young as 12. “I think the central focus of the film is that, even though the people interviewed are now adults, they were juveniles when the activities were going on,” sheriff’s deputy Wieboldt told East County Magazine. The people who are in this activity were lured into this. We’re here to stop the activity and rescue the juvenile victims.” Wieboldt said “it’s hard to quantify” how big a problem the sexual exploitation of children is in Lemon Grove, but it’s significant enough his department has several investigations ongoing.
As an educator, Bianca Brown told East County Magazine, she sees teen prostitution as something she has to address not only in her role as president of the Lemon Grove school board but a member of the district’s Health and Wellness Council. “When I think of health and well-being, we need to look at the whole child,” Brown said. She admitted that when she first heard of this as an issue three years ago, her initial reaction was, “Not in my community.” She soon learned better. “I realized there is a pull on all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” Brown explained. “This issue does not discriminate. Our children just become targets for this.”
Asked if she had any personal connection to teen prostitution, Brown said yes: one of her neighbor’s children was recruited. “This child was presented with the life of glamour, because she was a beautiful girl, and someone presented themselves as very loving and caring,” she recalled. “It was quite natural for her to be pulled by this attractive young man, and it had nothing to do with love and everything to do with this man who wanted to make money selling her for sex. She was in it for three years, and this crippled her. She’s 19 now, and every hope people poured into her was just stripped from her.” Even if the victims of teen sexual exploitation get out of “the life” with their bodies intact, Brown added, it still devastates them psychologically and works against their ability to have a normal life afterwards.
Indoctrinated is an intense film whose moral orientation is largely shaped by Ellis’ own view that the rise in teen prostitution and teenagers’ increasing vulnerability to being recruited in “the life” is only part of a broader crisis facing the family as an institution. Asked why this is a bigger problem than it used to be, Ellis cited “the weird degradation, the slipping of family morals, families not remaining together, the rising divorce rate, children being left behind, being part of a divorce culture. It seems like society is slipping farther into degradation and darkness.” He also said that gangs, particularly Latino ones, are latching on to child sex trafficking as an alternative income source to drugs because “you can only sell a drug dose once; you can traffic a child many, many times.”
Ellis’ moralism shaped many of his decisions regarding the film, from telling parents to supervise their children very closely and not let them go to public places or surf the Internet without watching them to picking former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn as the film’s narrator. “I met [Gwinn] through Manolo’s connections,” Ellis recalled. “Gwinn has a lot of experience with these cases. It was because of his experience and his nationwide prominence” that Ellis chose him as narrator. Though Gwinn left office in San Diego under a cloud of suspicion — his political opponents said his born-again Christian beliefs had led him to go after adult businesses and made him unsympathetic to the LGBT community — Ellis said, “I’ve never heard that about him. I know him as a man of high purpose, and I don’t get a sense of that about him.”
One of the questions raised by Indoctrinated is just how much control parents can exert over their children, especially in their adolescence, without being so controlling that their children rebel against the limits and end up more likely, not less, to engage in self-destructive behavior like drugs and prostitution. “I would say, if a teen sees danger and a parent sees danger, I would hope the parent’s caring would come through,” Ellis said. “It’s a balancing act every parent has to take, and I support any parent who brings care and provides guidelines without control.”
Brown’s response to that question drew on her own experience as a parent of three children. They’re all grown now, but she remembers their adolescent struggles all too vividly. “Wherever our children are, are we supposed to be right next to them?” she said. “I raised my kids pretty strictly, but I also knew that if I didn’t allow them their independence, they would be waiting for this kind of predator to come along, because they’re very slick. Everything the parents would say no to, the predator would say yes. What do you want? Acrylic nails? A designer purse? At that age the only things teens care about are the outside image, and the predator offers them the trappings of that image.”
Where Ellis sees the rise in teen prostitution as a result of “divorce culture” and family breakups, Brown sees it as a result of teens’ interest in being fashionable and the dumbing-down of sex education in schools. “Sex ed happens in one week, and we don’t teach them how one thing leads to another,” she said. “We just talk about anatomy. We don’t want them to know how to take precautions, or that teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented. All we say is, ‘Just say no.’”
The ironic result, she added, is that teens who choose for their own reasons to “just say no” have to face enormous peer pressure to say yes. That happened to Brown’s son, who was “mocked and called so many names” by his schoolmates because he hadn’t had sex and didn’t consider himself ready to do so. “A child has to be given the tools to defend his or her sexual choices, even the choice of abstinence,” Brown said. “Instead, we just tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to.’ For how long? Until they get married? That’s laughable now.”
Brown and Ellis also discussed the Internet and how it’s changed the world of sex trafficking, both by making it easier for pimps to recruit victims under their parents’ radar and facilitating the sex-for-money transaction itself. “I don’t believe every single parent can make sure their kids don’t visit those sites, or that their friends don’t send them a link,” Brown said. “I have heard that: ‘I didn’t do that. My friend sent me this.’ But that is a reality, and it’s probably more common than we realize. We’re not going to stop that. How do we get a child to realize that’s not a place they should go? We need to tell them why not, just as we teach them everything else.”
“When we began filming in 2007-2008,” Ellis recalled, “we saw girls working on the streets in National City with cell phones. Now you don’t see that because the business is now in the shadows, in the dark, on Web sites and chat rooms.”
One aspect of Indoctrinated that might prove controversial is that it almost completely ignores the sex trafficking of boys. Ellis pointed out that there’s one reference to boys as victims, “because we wanted to note that, but what we have found in discussions with police is that the majority of the problem is with girls.”
When talking about the problem, Brown admitted, “First I would say girls, and then I would correct myself. It is youths, adolescents, teenagers. It does not discriminate on gender, and if we tackle it from a perspective that only one group is affected, we’ve left another 50 percent, our young boys, vulnerable.”
The makers of Indoctrinated and the film’s community supporters — including the Soroptimists, who at the end of their January 21 meeting were talking extensively about what they could do to make the film more widely available, not only locally but nationwide — agree that teen prostitution and sexual exploitation are problems no one agency or sector of society can handle alone. “We have a good school superintendent in Lemon Grove, good administrators and teachers, good kids,” said Deputy Wieboldt at the screening. “We’re doing a good job in law enforcement, but not good enough. We’re trying to stop it, but we can’t do it without your help. If you see suspicious activity, please call us.” The Sheriff Department’s non-emergency number is (858) 565-5200 and Wieboldt’s direct line is (619) 337-2039.
As for Ellis, he said his next step is “not to create another documentary, because there are other documentaries that are international and have underground footage. I’d like to create a full-length movie with a fictional story, because I think stories are what reach people’s hearts — and the potential change is much greater than if you reach their minds. The screenplay is being written now.”
Indoctrinated can be ordered by mail for $8 through a form downloadable from Jim Ellis’s Web site, www.legacyproductions.org. For more information on the issue, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in Washington, D.C. at 1-(888) 373-7888.