Studies show that a girl is sold in the flesh trade in India once every 10 minutes. The average age of a trafficked child in India is 12 and the country is estimated to have almost 14 million slaves. Not just a social menace, sex trafficking affects countless women and their families across the length and breadth of India.
Notes to my Father is the world’s first Virtual Reality (VR) documentary on sex trafficking that highlights the phenomenon through the experience of actual survivors.
The movie is an initiative of My Choices Foundation (MCF), a Hyderabad-based organisation that collaborated with Oculus VR For Good to produce the movie. Founded by Elca Grobler, MCF has two initiatives, Operation PeaceMaker, which addresses domestic violence, and Operation Red Aler for sex-trafficking.
According to Hannah Norling, the organisation’s head of Marketing and Communications, the movie was a culmination of research that pointed towards fathers as critical to the prevention of trafficking. “Not only are fathers the gatekeepers in girl’s lives, but they offer the biggest source of hope,” she says.
The team roped in filmmaker Jayisha Patel to direct the movie, but the real obstacle lay in finding the right story to tell. The MCF team was determined to share a real-life story. Only about 1% trafficked girls are rescued; their chances of returning home is slimmer and families are rarely willing to talk about the situation publicly.
“We spoke to several survivors, but most couldn’t fathom having their father talk about what happened,” says Hannah. “The fathers we spoke to were happy to be interviewed, but had their reasons for not wanting to be a part of a film. Then we met Ramadevi and Kullyappa, this dynamic duo who couldn’t live without each other. He typifies the Good Father, and more than being willing, he felt it was his duty to be a part of a larger message to other fathers to keep their daughters safe.”
The film also draws attention to the fact that Indian families that allow their girls to leave with traffickers are often tricked into their decision. For instance, Kullyappa spent a long time searching for Ramadevi in all parts of South India. Notes to my Father calls for awareness and action but not without understanding and empathy.
The movie was showcased this January at an event hosted by Oculus during Sundance Film Festival.
While BBC had earlier released an animated VR film on sex-trafficking, Notes to my Father is the first documentary that tackles the subject. Employing VR as a medium has also served to expand the audience, including those who watch VR films but may not be aware of trafficking.
“There is nothing more powerful than our own personal experience,” Hannah says. “Our experiences shape us and drive us. VR gives you the ‘power of being there’. It has emerged as the most powerful medium yet to tap into people’s compassion, by giving them a first person experience in another person’s world. In Notes to My Father, viewers become a part of the story of a trafficking survivor. Of course, it is easy to trigger too much emotion in VR, so we were careful to convey the story delicately so that the focus stays on the main message Ramadevi give to her father—we can prevent this!”
VR is becoming a popular medium around the world and its audience is limited but steadily increasing. In fact, the world’s second VR cinema — and India’s first — launched at Bombay Art Society in Mumbai this February.
The MCF team aims to host viewing events in India from May and start online public viewing in 360 format through Facebook and Google cardboard latest by September. They are also keen to test VR in rural areas, and hope that they will gradually be able to translate the movie in regional languages.
The documentary will be part of My Choices Foundation’s forthcoming Good Father campaign.
The campaign will take a positive approach to prevent trafficking, motivating everyday fathers to take up the onus of keeping their daughters protected and contributing to a culture of gender equality. Having received an early stamp of approval from MS Dhoni, the campaign is currently building a network of support from online and offline communities.
Citing coalition building as one of their core principles, Hannah points out that funding remains a great need. She encourages people to “adopt a village” and educate families in some of India’s highest trafficking-prone regions to stay safe.
Offering a nuanced perspective on trafficking, Notes to my Father left its audience during its first viewing in tears. Hannah says, “The film provides a subtle education on the cause. While you feel totally immersed in this family’s story, you are learning about the vulnerability of families who are exploited by traffickers. Your emotions will surprise you. These are the kinds of things we have heard from film viewers.”
Notes to My Father will make its world premier at SXSW Film Festival in April. To know more about My Choices Foundation and request a viewing of the film, click here.