Wherever you can buy drugs in this country, you can buy children – American children – for sex.
While it is not an easy film to watch, Playground is a must see. Its subject is the sexual exploitation of children; a topic many of us view as a foreign problem taking place in the developing world.
Throughout the film director Libby Spears shows us a world that is hardly recognizable. It is a world where children are sexually abused from an unthinkably early age, mothers sell their daughters for sex in order to pay for drugs, men who do not see anything wrong in having sex with an eleven-year-old schoolgirls still wearing their uniforms and 14-year-olds talking about sex as a transaction.
Unfortunately this is the world we live in.
Playground opens our eyes to the extent of the problem: the US has a thriving child sex industry and simultaneously influences the global demand and growth of sex trafficking.
The film is filled with harrowing statistics, and interviews with children, police officers, social workers and sometimes pimps and sexual predators themselves.
Playground is loosely structured around the search for one girl in particular: Michelle, who encountered sexual abuse at the age of five. The filmmaker tracks this story to show how easy it can be for a child to disappear from the eyes of society and be forced into the dark underbelly of the sexual exploitation. Spears eventually finds Michelle and discovers she now a mother of two. In the course of getting to know Michelle it becomes clear that even as a mother in a stable and loving relationship she might not be safe from falling back into drug use or even selling her children.
One interview stands out especially. A relatively young man behind bars explains how to manipulate children and take advantage of them. Chillingly, he shows no remorse. “If a female has been raped once,” he says, “she is not going to trip on it the second time.”
According to the US Department of Justice the commercial sexual exploitation of children is the world’s fastest growing form of organized crime. If it is not slowed over the next decade, worldwide child prostitution will be more profitable than the sale of illegal drugs.
One of the themes in Playground is that the only reason we don’t consider forced prostitution a problem is because we aren’t looking at it. Fortunately, with films like this, we are beginning to.
Helping the audience get through the film is a series of sensitive animations of paintings by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. The animation plays an important role in the the film as a poetic story telling device and hopeful inspiration.
During Tribeca Film Festival I spoke to the director Libby Spears about the role of art and animation in her film. We also talked about the school she’s planning to open in Cape Cod for exploited children.
Libby Spears: That was the biggest challenge. How do you tell a story when someone is talking about being sexually exploited? That’s where the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara comes in. He let us animate his paintings which he never allowed anyone else to do.
For this kind of film it’s incredibly important to give the audience respite, a moment to breathe between the information because it’s very dense and very heavy. I think the animation suits that and the music plays an important role.
To many people this topic seems very foreign and you need something to make them connect. So by using the music we did – like Bjork, Coco Rosie, Radiohead – it helped the audience stay with the film and not disconnect.
AL: How did you come up with the idea of using Nara’s work in the film? Was it after the you edited the footage?
LS: When you start to write you are looking at art books for inspiration. I’m a big fan of his work. When I was writing the treatment I had one of his books on the desk. I was struggling with writing because I thought: who is going to see this and how am I going to shoot this movie? What am I going to show?
I had his books out and I had a revelation: it has to be animation and it has to be Nara’s art work! The movie has to have this or it cannot be made. It has to be a component.
I called the Marianne Boesky gallery and they were surprised but said that if I wrote the request they’ll have it translated into Japanese. Two weeks later they called and said that Nara wants to meet, so I had to fly to Japan. I was kind of broke at the time, but bought a ticket with a credit card and in a couple of weeks went to Japan.
Originally we planned for him to come to the States and have a 30 day period to make new drawings, but we never had a chunk of time to meet together.
After I went to Indonesia I gave him some photographs and he did three stunning large paintings, but the fact that the film changed and concentrated more on the US prevented us from using them.
We could select from the body of his work, which was great.
AL: So Nara’s work was there from the beginning as an inspiration and as a part of the film.
LS: From day one.
Nara donated all his work, but animation took a year.
We had a wonderful artist Heather Bursch animate his painting. Before we found her we went to different animation studios, which gave us insane bids. We even had some of them do samples, but it did not work.
If you know Nara’s work it’s very delicate. And when you work with an artist of his caliber the most important thing is to be true to his work. And these samples were beautiful animation, but it was not Nara’s work. I was flying to Japan to show him the samples and he would say no.
So the woman we went with is a painter, who was in school for animation at the time. Heather hand draws every layer, while the others were using computers a lot.
Its a little bit of luck that we had a sensitive team.
In the beginning there were people who were willing to back up the film financially, but it would not be enough for the animation. And they were fine with it, but to me there would be no film without the animation.
When I screen the film people come up to me saying that the animation saved them and helped them to get thought the film.
AL: When you make a film that points to such a big social issue where do you stop? Can you extract yourself from the film and move on to another project?
That’s been the hardest thing. Where does one draw the line?
I’m constantly asking myself, am I a filmmaker or a social worker? I went into it to tell the story. I felt like my role was telling the story and that was going to be my contribution. But then you become a messenger and almost a character.
A few years into the movie a friend of mine said, “What are you going to do about the film?”
Well I said I’m going to finish this and make another film and another film. And she was like, “But what are you going to do about the problem?”
I thought my sacrifice would be to spend 6 years of my life to tell the story. I felt defensive. But now I see that she was right in a way.
As a documentarian spending so much time on something you sort of become an expert. I’m speaking at World Congress at Halifax in August. I get called in to speak, but I’m not trained in the field. I’m not a social worker. But I spend more time on the front lines then people who actually study the issue.
We definitely have a mission and a foundation. Nest Foundation and Playground Project are the same. We set up the foundation to raise awareness and to get the film in front as many eyes as possible. The web site is going to be revamped. We have 300 hours of footage, so we are planning to post extended interviews on it that did not make it into the film.
For example you are a parent and you want to see more of Jen Himan who talks about educating our kids about sexual respect. We have eight hours of her and were able to use only 7 minutes. So the site would have additional information.
The significance of awareness is really hard to describe to people. Recently I screened the film at the Suffolk University Law school. And someone in the audience came up to me and asked what I thought was needed.
There needs to be like a long terms place for these kids like a school. And I described my vision of a long term school with a farm incorporated. Artist in residency program where artists come and teach. I think art has to be a huge part of their recovery.
And someone approached me after he screening and told me that they had land in Cape Cod and if I wanted to do the school he’d donate the land. He already had the idea to give the land to the inner city kids, but instead he altered the idea to the population the film is about. I see myself involved in the art part of it.
We had artists like Matthew Barney, Cecily Brown, Jeff Koons donate work.
Instead of donating artwork for auctions though, I’d like to have artists come and spend time with these kids, teach a class in Cape Cod.