Our Ugliest Crime: Holly exposes child-sex trafficking

Movies Features Guy Jacobson
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Like the lead character in his film Holly, writer/producer Guy Jacobson stumbled unaware onto the issue of child sexual exploitation. The Israeli-born New York attorney was in the midst of a very long sabbatical, traveling around the world, when he found himself on the streets of Cambodia surrounded by a dozen young girls. “I’m talking really little, like five to seven years old, who were aggressively soliciting me for prostitution,” he recalls. “Hands straight to the crotch—nothing subtle—and I was kind of in shock, trying to remove their hands, saying ‘no touching, no touching.’ And one of the little girls told me in broken English, ‘I yum yum very good.’ And I’m like, ‘no.’ And she says, ‘I no money today, Mama san, she boxing me,’ meaning that the madam of the brothel would beat her up because she didn’t make any money. So I gave her some money, and I walked away and said, ‘I have to do something.’

“I started researching this subject matter and was horrified to find out not only that it wasn’t an isolated case, but that well over two million kids—some younger even than one year old—are kidnapped and sold to prostitution, sexual slavery and sexual exploitation worldwide every year.”

Jacobson couldn’t believe that someone like himself—well-educated, living in the media capital of the world—could be so oblivious to such a colossal issue. His fledgling production company, Priority Films, already had a couple of movies in development or pre-production, but he put them on hold and started writing a screenplay with director Guy Moshe about an American living in Cambodia who can no longer ignore what’s going on around him. Five years later, Holly is exposing audiences to the enormity of the issue without getting preachy, partly by casting Office Space’s Ron Livingston as Patrick (a very flawed character) and partly by never offering easy solutions. During one of his legally questionable errands for Freddie (played by the late Chris Penn, in his final role), Patrick meets Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a stubborn 12-year-old girl who’s been recently sold to a local brothel. He’s surprised to find that he cares about what happens to her, and his attempt to help her takes him across Cambodia.

“It was a very difficult line to walk,” Jacobson says. “We tried not to tell the story from the Hollywood perspective. ... So it’s not, you know: Tom Cruise, he’s a cop, killing all of the bad people, saving all of the kids, the whole world is a better place, and we hug a tree and eat a pizza—because that’s really not what happens. I really wanted to do it as kind of a delicate, impossible love-story relationship between this little girl who is sort of kidnapped into prostitution, and show the world from her point of view.”

To get this realism, Jacobson went undercover into several Cambodian brothels to try to understand what the young girls face each day. He hung around, speaking with pimps and clients and eventually was able to exert enough pressure on authorities to shut some of the brothels down. Much of Holly was eventually filmed in a former brothel in Svay Pak, the village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh notoriously known as K11, a hot spot for child-sex tourism before it was shut down a few months earlier.

“Some of the traffickers and pimps that we exposed—that kidnapped some of the kids—are in jail, as are some of the clients,” he says. “As we started exposing the issue and [other organizations continued exposing the issue], Svay Pak got closed; other brothels got closed, Cambodia established an anti-trafficking police [force]; traffickers, pimps and clients are in jail; and various girls and boys have been saved from brothels.”

Jacobson and Moshe also shot two feature documentaries while they were filming Holly in Cambodia, and their Redlight Children Campaign is a comprehensive blueprint for decreasing the demand for all forms of child exploitation, from physical sexual exploitation to child pornography.

“Look, I’m single,” Jacobson says. “I don’t have kids, I don’t have nieces, I don’t have nephews, but I think this is the biggest crime against humanity today. I don’t understand how people can abuse children in that way...If I’m not going to take a stand on it, really, who do I expect to?”

Sexual Exploitation Hits Close To Home

Child sexual exploitation isn’t limited to places like Cambodia or Calcutta. David Schisgall’s documentary Very Young Girls looks at American teenagers and pre-teens lured into prostitution. Following the girls living at counselor Rachel Lloyd’s restoration home in New York, the film shows how pimps target vulnerable 12- and 13-year-olds, often imprisoning them and subjecting them to repeated rapes. In one shocking scene filmed by two pimps who thought their actions might make a good reality series, we get a glimpse into their recruitment process. Once seduced, denigrated and controlled, the girls have a difficult time breaking free from the lifestyle, but people like Lloyd do their best to help.

The film began as Schisgall was filming a pilot for MTV about young people in conflict zones, and sex trafficking seemed to be one of the biggest issues they were facing. “We found that this kind of trafficking was going on in our [own] city, not very far away from where our offices were. The difference was that if you’re seduced and coerced and brought to New York City for the purposes of sexual exploitation from the Ukraine and you’re caught, you know you’ll get legal services and housing and help to get home. But if the same thing happens to you and you’re [an American] brought from Bridgeport, Conn., and you’re caught, you’re going to jail.”

“Also, if you’re a 40-year-old man and [you’re caught having] sex with a 14-year-old girl, it’s one of the worst crimes you can commit in [this] country, and the girl is going to get treatment. But if you do that, and you pay the girl $80 or $100 and you get caught, chances are you’re going to go home, but that girl is going to go into the correctional system.”