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Mansi Khandelwal

IWB Blogger

World’s First Sex Trafficking VR Documentary Made Us Live The Reality Of Survivor Ramadevi

  • IWB Post
  •  August 21, 2019

According to reports, a girl is sold into flesh trade in India every 10 minutes. Only 1% of girls who are trafficked are rescued. Even fewer are successfully rehabilitated, and a minuscule fraction of these girls/women return home to their families.

Sad, isn’t it?

What is even sadder is that most of the families have made this trade a part of their lifestyle without even knowing about its consequences. Daughters are being sold for land and money.

To bring to light this long-prevailing issue, My Choices Foundation (MCF), a Hyderabad-based organization in collaboration with Oculus VR For Good produced the documentary Notes to my Father.

Notes to my Father is the world’s first Virtual Reality (VR) documentary on sex trafficking that highlights the reality of the trade through the experience of actual survivors. To know what took the team to make this one of its kind VR documentaries, we spoke to Hannah Norling, My Choices Foundation’s Head of Marketing and Communications.


Explain to us the concept of a VR Documentary.

The documentary genre is similar across mediums but becomes unique in VR when it comes to film techniques. Typically, the filmmaking team takes on a position of observation behind the camera. However, in VR there is no hiding from the camera. The documentary filmmaker is usually able to set up shots and monitor them while they are being filmed.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

In VR, you have to set up your shot and then remove yourself from the vicinity so that you are not caught on camera. There has to be a deeper level of trust in the film subjects and story. There are also very unique capabilities provided to documentary filmmakers through VR technology. Documentaries are aimed at providing you with a true sense of someone else’s reality. In VR, you not only have a view of someone’s world, but you are also immersed into that world. There are some extremely powerful VR films based on the first-person POV, where the viewer takes on the perspective and becomes the subject of the film, and the narrative in the film becomes more like an internal voice.

Share with us one powerful trafficking story of a family that you met while you were researching materials for the movie, a story that has become a positive example for others.

This is a tough question. While we have come across several stories of families who are a positive example in responding to trafficking, we couldn’t say that these are role models for other families. Each case is totally different from the other once it comes to rehabilitation and repatriation (returning home) side of it.

However, we can definitely share stories of families who responded to trafficking in a good way. For example, in one case a 10th class girl was trafficked by her neighbor. They caught a train and took her to the next village so that they could see a movie along with their cousin sister. When this girl didn’t come back, her father started actively investigating. He soon figured out where his daughter was. He went to the cousin sister’s house and asked them to produce his daughter right away. They claimed they had no idea where she was. He fought with them, but there was little he could do on his own. He returned the next day with his son and others from the community, and they threatened to burn their house down if they didn’t produce his daughter. Fearful of the actions of this angry mob, within a day they returned the girl to her family.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

This is a really unusual story. The father would do anything to keep his daughter safe. They didn’t put shame on the daughter for her actions, or for what might have happened while she was away for five days. Instead, they got her home and made sure she continued with her studies.

The film insists on motivating the fathers to protect their daughters. Did you come across a story where the mother fought for her daughter?

No! The mothers who we had met are typically voiceless. Their maternal instinct may cause them to worry, but they just don’t have the allowance to speak out and affect the decision-making in their household. This is why our programs focus on building the confidence and knowledge base of mothers in trafficking-prone villages.

Is there any new aspect of sex-trafficking you discovered through the film that can be useful for the NGOs and the Police investigating these cases?

There are two “new” things for the anti-trafficking community to learn through the film: First is, the fathers are critical to the prevention of trafficking. Secondly, prevention should be and CAN BE the focus of efforts to end trafficking.

What were the biggest challenges you had faced while filming Notes to my Father

The biggest challenge was to find a real story, where the survivor had not only returned home, but the father was willing to talk about what happened, and his role in it.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

Another challenge was that Ramadevi is settled, married, and accepted in her community. The people in her community don’t know what happened to her. There have been some rumors, but so far, she has been able to keep her village insulated from the press. She didn’t want to disrupt this by having a film crew following her around at home. She knew that as soon as her neighbors saw the cameras, they would cast doubt on her past and ask questions. She didn’t want her family to face this.

The documentary filmmaking requires that you film your subject in their natural, authentic environments. Because of her fear we had to film in a completely different village, which ended up being 7 hours away from her home in Khadiri. This presented two challenges. First, we had to find a village which was friendly to our cause and willing to let us in, while scouting for homes and all kinds of shots that resembled Ramadevi’s reality. After overcoming this hurdle, next came the need to create a natural environment for Ramadevi and her father. We had to put in a lot of efforts to understand their normal routines, activities, and environment to recreate this for them in the other village. Fortunately, Ramadevi and her father are incredibly warm and charismatic people who made things better for us.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

Would you like to share one cut in the film that didn’t appear in the final documentary?

A trafficking survivor, Nagalaxmi, who is Ramadevi’s best friend also came to the village and participated in all of the shooting. These two are inseparable. Yet, Nagalaxmi doesn’t appear in any of the shots in the final cut of the film. Ramadevi and Nagalaxmi behave like school girls when they are together. They don’t stop giggling, cracking jokes, singing, and even dancing. One of the scenes we shot was these two women sitting near a stream while Nagalaxmi fixes Ramadevi’s hair. This scene is particularly beautiful because it captures the joy and friendship of both of these survivors. However, in 11 minutes short film that focuses on the father-daughter relationship, there just wasn’t space to include this shot.

Tell us about the stigmas Ramadevi had to face after returning to her village.

Fortunately for Ramadevi, she was trafficked from an area a little distant from the village she returned to. She had faced suspicion from the community, and a phase where nasty rumors were spread but eventually they died down. She now enjoys a calm life, married and has children. However, she is careful that her activism is kept out of her village. She is very protective of her family, not wanting them to face any difficulties because of her story.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

Having studied the subject in depth, what, according to you, is the rehabilitation facilities the survivors need to get back to normal life?

Survivor rehabilitation is a complicated and highly nuanced process. There are so many layers in it. However, the most critical period impacting recovery is the crisis phase right after the rescue. If the care provided isn’t consistent and is not of very high quality, it strongly decreases the rehabilitation capability of that survivor.

What is the most emotional moment for you in the documentary?

For me, the most emotional moments in the documentary are those that give voice to the pain I heard from Kullyappa during the interviews we had conducted with him. In the film, you hear Ramadevi say, “You cried like a baby when I came home. You said your heart was finally at peace.” These are direct lines from Kullyappa. His fatherly heart was torn into pieces when his daughter was missing. His life was never going to be whole without her. When she came home, his heart was at peace. Having a heart at peace is the pursuit of every person on earth, so it’s something that really struck a chord with me.

Not waiting for actions of the government, in what ways we as a society can help fight sex-trafficking in India?

The number one barrier to ending human trafficking is awareness. The general Indian public is still largely unaware that trafficking exists, let alone that India has disproportionately more slaves than any other country in the world. It happens at the back of our doorsteps. At least 85% of parents of girls who were trafficked had no idea what fate awaited their daughters – they are innocent and were tricked by traffickers.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

Tell us about your most favorite backstage moment.

Oh goodness. This is a difficult question because we were fortunate to be a really tight knit group. We spent nights laughing together, talking about movies, and our favorite things. Ramadevi always tried to get the girls on the shoot to have little dance parties during the evenings, playing music from her basic phone.

Despite making the severity of the issue seem surreal, we cried together during interview sessions. So, connecting with Ramadevi and loving her for all that shapes her is what I think was most precious to me.

Does this movie have any actors?

Yes, we have four actors in this film. There is a scene where little girls are playing in a dilapidated tree house near a railway track. These three girls are professional child actors as we could not ask any local people to let us shoot with their children away from the village. The other actor is the little girl who plays Ramadevi’s daughter. Ramadevi’s daughter was not able to leave school for shooting, and Ramadevi didn’t want her to be a part of something she might find difficult.

Sec trafficking VR documentary

During your meetings, how did fathers express the sorrow of selling their daughters off?

One very important distinction is that the fathers never look at this as “selling” their daughters. At least 85% of them have no idea what’s happening, and truly believe that their daughter is going to attain some legitimate opportunity. It is the poor situation at home that leads them to push aside rational fears about letting their daughters go. Kullyappa summarized it the best. He said, “I understand why fathers send off their daughters. They feel they have no option. I thought I had no option but to send my daughter away. But you can’t do it. It doesn’t matter what is happening, if you can’t eat at home, or have no money. You just cannot leave your daughter unprotected. There is no other option.”

Did you receive any personal threat or offensive behavior from the families for making this documentary?

No, we, fortunately, have not received threats in relation to this film. However, Ms. Bhanuja who handled all of Ramadevi’s case work and helped her win the legal battle against her traffickers had faced some real threats. Just a month before we interviewed Ramadevi for the first time, Bhanuja’s house was burned down by traffickers. She is an incredible force in the area of Ananthapur. Ananthapur is called the “stalking grounds of traffickers,” and she is an almost singular force against their work. She has faced many threats and experienced several attacks, but just keeps going.

To view the film and contribute click here.

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