I Am Still Here, an independent film, has won Best Feature at the Nice Film Festival. The film follows the story of Layla, played by Aliyah Conley, a 10-year old girl of colour who is abducted into the sex trade. It follows the next 48 hours of torment at the hands of her captors.
The trailer is very difficult to watch. In the beginning, we see her being kidnapped and thrown into a van, where she screams as she's being gagged. Layla wakes up in a brothel, dizzy and disoriented, indicating she may have been drugged. Drugging victims to make them more compliant is a tool of torture that traffickers are known to use.
It is heartbreaking when she says "I want my mommy," through sobs that sound terrifyingly real. She is told by her captors that she has a "new family," and is introduced to more young trafficked girls as "sisters." In various scenes, we see Layla being assaulted by her abductors, the other young victims, and johns. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene she is curled up in a ball covered in injuries, and in another she is crying in a bathroom while a man looms menacingly over her tiny frame. But we also see the police working to rescue her.
There's still so much work to be done to ensure that the law protects victims of trafficking. The United Nations says that "sexual exploitation [is] noted as by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79%) followed by forced labour (18%)."
Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, spoke to Refinery29 about the the legislation she co-sponsored, the Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act which was passed earlier this year in the US. The SOAR Act trains healthcare professionals to recognise signs of trafficking, which was the biggest request she heard directly from the families of victims.
It's also important that Layla is played by a young actress of colour. Actress Gabrielle Union explained in Essence that girls of colour are disproportionately more likely to be victims of child sex trafficking.
The film was both directed and written by Mischa Marcus, who tells Deadline that a child sex trafficking ring was busted in her area, which "shook [her] to [her] core." She studied the crime extensively before creating the film, and the trailer notes that the film is based on actual events.
Watch it below, but please note the sobering subject matter is graphically portrayed. The next stateside screening of I Am Still Here is in Harlem, NY on June 1 (UK release TBC).
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.