Earlier this week I sat down with Producer Rob Nguyen and Director, Co-Producer Ethan Downing to learn about NJR's upcoming film The Snakehead. This blog will provide explanation of the content of the film-the issue of Chinese human smuggling and child trafficking, as well as sneak peeks of the film itself!

Jordanna Birnbaum: What are your backgrounds? Did you go through some experience which led you to this work?

ED:  I'm not even sure where to begin on this one, haha.  So to get the full picture we have to go back to when Rob and I met in undergrad at Fordham.  We were both English majors in the Honors Program, and we produced student theater there together.  After graduating I continued to act and Rob continued to direct and work in production on our own separate paths.  After a couple of years of working on shows that we weren't terribly impressed with, we decided to start producing our own shows (the first of which was picked up for an international re-staging in Belgium, and the second was an award winning show at the NYC International Fringe Festival last August).  About the same time as we started producing theater, I went back to school to get an M.S. in Conflict Resolution and Negotiation at Columbia (in retrospect this was probably not the best timing, but I have a knack for doing things the hard way I suppose).
I had always been interested in international aid work and international human rights, but many of the field positions I was looking at required at least a masters degree.  We had been one of the earliest theater companies to create supplemental video content for the web for each of our productions.  A lot of what we focused on was how to create a web experience for our fans that transcended the physical theater itself and existed before the show began and after it ended, with a very strong emphasis on entertainment.  When it came time to finish my degree, it just sort of made sense that with my background and contacts within the industry - and especially with Rob's and my online video campaign experience - that I try and bring awareness to a topic in a way I understand most.  To me, any way you raise awareness about issues is good.  You'll often hear about famous actors who bring awareness to a cause but have very few credentials to speak as an authority on the topic.  I'm not famous, and I'm not dating Angelina Jolie, but I did spend a lot of time studying conflict systems.

JB: What was the catalyst for this Project?

ED: In a lot of ways we knew that we wanted to do a much larger film project to be released online, so when I started looking at designing my capstone project for my degree, I immediately started thinking of ways to incorporate film.  For the past year and a half I'd spent a lot of time studying various conflict systems for grad school, and although academic writing is great for training you to analyze the various dynamics at the core of the conflict, it isn't something that appeals to the masses.  In terms of awareness, I don't think very many people are driven to read academic papers.  On the other hand, I noticed that people seem to be perfectly willing to watch (and share) videos online, as long it's something they are somewhat interested in to start with or it is referred to them by a friend.  I figured that I would already be researching a topic for my thesis, why not create a short documentary as well?  (I didn't really factor in lack of sleep at the time I made the decision, which in retrospect would have been a good reason not too, haha.)  I don't think people are going to be queuing up to read my thesis when it is finished (if I wasn't writing it I doubt that I even would), BUT I do think that people are willing to sit down for 20 min. and watch good, free, film online.  Maybe we should market it as a recession special - FREE FILM!!...ok, that's a terrible idea, but they can't all be great.

RN: In terms of how we came onto this topic, Lauren Burke is an attorney who is a Skaaden fellow at The Door, a center for youth development services. She's a friend of ours, and in the time that we've known her, she's done much work with young persons who had been sent to the United States through snakeheads. The issue has a wide range of players involved, from families, to business owners, to international criminals. Each has a diverse set of interests, and their pursuit of those interests ultimately leads to exploitation of children and young persons. From a conflict analysis point of view, there's a great deal to be studied. At the same time, from a human rights perspective, it is a topic that could benefit from a greater amount of awareness across the board.

JB: Why are you both passionate about this project?

ED: I'm passionate about the project because at the core of this film is a very human story.  It's absolutely terrible what these kids go through, and it's more than anyone I know has ever had to deal with, but when you talk to them or hear what they are doing you can't help but be impressed.  I feel anyone who has ever made a documentary on a human rights topic - or any topic for that matter - always says the same thing, "I had no idea what this film was really about until I started meeting people and talking to them."  Anything I say will probably sound like some generic-director soundbite, but what really gets me excited about this project is that up until now very little has been brought to light about these kids, and now there's the possibility of raising some awareness.  I'm not sure how much of an affect it will have on the system as a whole - but I believe the first step is awareness, and this film has the potential to do just that.
RN: My parents immigrated to the United States under much more favorable circumstances than the persons in our film. For my part, I was born here, so American citizenship was just a given fact of life. The young persons whom we are interviewing have had an extraordinarily different experience, and it highlights the contradictions between what America symbolizes for impoverished people in the world, and what the American experience actually is for people who make it here.

JB: Who is involved in this project & Why is it timely?

ED: It sort of depends on what level we are talking about, right? So on the most basic level there is Rob, myself, our amazing crew, and our fantastic administrative support team (such as yourself) - all of whom I should point out are working on this project as volunteers because they believe in the cause of raising awareness about the topic.  On another level, we are working with The Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at Columbia University.  Down the road, we hope to engage more non-profit organizations working on this topic.  We want to publish the film under a creative commons license and partner with NGO's so they can host the film on their website to bring awareness to the work they are doing without incurring anymore cost.

RN: In terms of the project's timeliness, there are indications that the amount of emigration from China has increased on account of the global economic crisis. At the same time, I think it’s worth noting that on the same day that the recent health care bill was signed by the House, 200,000 people were marching on Washington demanding immigration reform. It seems as if the pressures are there for this to be the next big social issue for the U.S., and cases such as the ones we are studying take the idea of "immigration reform" and break it down into human stories that people can understand on an individual level (as opposed to an abstract policy or issue).

ED: Rob, I'm really disappointed we didn't get any footage of that btw.

JB: What challenges have you faced in creating the film?

ED: One of the biggest hurdles is funding.  Film is a very expensive medium to work in, and even though everyone is working for free on this project, there still are a lot of production and post production costs that add up very quickly. Beyond the logistical hurdle of funding, the subject matter of the film is such that it makes it extremely difficult to find people willing to be interviewed.  At the core, this film deals with a transnational, illicit network.  These are people who charge $80,000 to illegally bring someone into the country, and threaten people at gunpoint.  They're not the type of people that you can get to sit down in front of a camera for an interview.  Additionally, it's equally hard to get children to talk about their experience because they fear the retribution they may face by the snakeheads.

RN: I'd agree with Ethan on both counts. We need to show the story in a way that will engage people so that they can connect with the story and identify with the people in it; at the same time we need to maintain anonymity for some of the persons who have chosen to speak with us, and this is an absolute. It's a creative challenge, and we'll continue to work on solutions to this over the course of shooting and editing.

JB: What is your approach to the film?

RN: In away our approach is pretty straightforward. For many people this is a new topic, so as a result of that, combined with the limits of the short film format that we've chosen, what it should be is pretty clear. We will explain the problem, show examples, and explore some of the hurdles that make this such a difficult problem to solve. The majority of this material will come from our interviews with young persons who've been smuggled, as well as experts in the field. We also want to visually represent some of that juxtaposition between promise and reality, so there's a lot of opportunity to show both the beauty and grit of New York City, as well as the various Chinatowns in Manhattan and the other boroughs.

JB:  Is this the first film production for both of you?

RN: This would be our second short film working together. As Ethan had mentioned earlier, our first on-camera projects for No Jacket Required were short videos promoting our theater shows, and we'd shot these with our digital still cameras, pretty much because we thought it'd be fun stuff that people could watch and enjoy. Over time, the content that we'd post became more elaborate in concept and the quality of the footage itself greatly improved. So the short film part is a natural evolution of where we've been going, and at the same time, this is a unique task because it is our first documentary project.

JB: What is your mission statement or goal for the film? What do you hope to accomplish?

ED: In short, our mission is to raise awareness about child labor trafficking through film.  The film was conceived as a tool that others could use as they saw fit to help them raise awareness about the work they are doing.  I would love it if, after watching the documentary, each person felt more informed and more receptive to hearing more about it.  In a lot of ways I think the best analogy is to painting a room.  This film is the primer coat that you put down to prep the room to receive the color.  I hope that we can make someone slightly more receptive to the efforts of the NGO's and people who have dedicated their lives to dealing with these issues and are much more qualified to find sustainable solutions to the conflict.

Basically, we are looking for a lot of people who care about this topic to get involved and help us create awareness.  So if you know anyone who is interested in this stuff, send them our way, and we'll get them involved!

If you are interested in this project and would like to get involved, please contact Ethan and Rob through the form on the contact page.

Rob Nguyen is an independent theater and film producer in New York City. He is a co-founder of No Jacket Required, and a co-producer with the Hipgnosis Theater Company. Recent projects include Bite the Apple Productions' upcoming short film "Second Glance" (Editor), and Hipgnosis Theater Company's 2009 production of "Macbeth" (Lighting Designer). He is a graduate of Fordham University, with Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in English Literature.

Ethan Downing is an actor and independent theater and film producer in New York City.  He is a co-founder of No Jacket Required, and currently finishing his M.S. in Conflict Resolution and Negotiation at Columbia University, where he is a fellow at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).  Recent projects include the award winning NYC International Fringe Festival play "Confirmation" (Outstanding Actor Award), and Philip Dorling's short film "Predisposed" (Official Selection: Sundance; Woodstock Film Festival) with Academy Award nominated Melissa Leo.

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