The first time we presented our just finished film to high-school students in Santa Monica, California, a senior girl had her hand raised before we opened for questions. “How did you manage to forgive?” she asked, “because I am unable to forgive those who have sexually abused me.” Her question was unexpected. This was our test screening, and we had no idea that our film was going resonate in a profound way with teenagers. Since then, we’ve had many occasions to witness the film’s impact in schools and colleges from the border city of Mexicali, Mexico to Barcelona, Madrid, Oxford University and Yale.

Sands of Silence a tool to empower students

At a Q&A with a group of 100 14 to 18-year-old students in Spain, several of them found the courage to line up to share their testimony, defying those who giggled and made fun of them.

A senior said, “Someone in my family was abused by my uncle, and he is about to come out of prison like Lala’s abuser. And we don’t know what to do.”

A 16-year-old girl said, “I want you all to know that I have just become emancipated from my abusive family and am living on my own.”

A 15-year old said, “My ex-boyfriend is stalking me, and I don’t know what to do.”

Hopefully we had counselors and teachers in the audience who were able to follow up. It was the first time those stories had been told.

In the after-screening questionnaire that the 100 students filled-in that day there was at least 10 students admitting they had been victims of abuse. There were many more who knew someone very close who had been victimized. Two students felt compelled to create a club to fight sexual abuse.

A freshman at a university in Spain insisted on talking to me after the screening.
A few months back she had gone to a physical therapist for a shoulder problem. He convinced her, by showing her information on Google, that he needed to touch a point in her vagina in order to cure her. He ended up inserting a vibrator in her vagina. “When he asked me to kneel down and take a dog posture, finally something clicked for me and I left. My mother did not believe me, and when she finally did, she went to confront him, but he denied everything. Please help me. Now I have nightmares. I don’t even let my dad approach me. And I want to report him, the therapist, but I don’t know how.”

I was able to refer her to Themis [www. mujeresjuristasthemis.org], an association of women lawyers that provides legal pro bono services to victims.



The day after meeting the Secretary of Health, Social Services and Equality, I faced a group of 25 sexual violence offenders at a Barcelona prison. Among them were pedophiles, rapists, traffickers, and child pornography providers.

I was a bit nervous. I told them that after 20 years of working with victims this was the first time I faced people at the other side of the fence. And, using the Secretary’s words, that I was there to learn. I believe that helped open something in them.

They formed a circle, and many had tears in their eyes. Therapists and prison staff were also present.

Sands of Silence in Prison


The first question came from a well-dressed, educated inmate: “Chelo, I am the protagonist of something very similar to what happened to you. Did you forgive him?”
This question comes often in Q&As, but it is not the same when a perpetrator asks it.

Some thanked me for being there in spite of being a victim myself. The film had really awakened their consciences about what they did. Some would not be able to sleep that night.

An inmate from Ecuador described how, growing up in the streets of Guayaquil, he had to step on murdered bodies on his way to school. He had been in and out of prison in Ecuador and said he later came to Spain. Eventually he subjected his wife to horrific abuse.

After a while others asked me how I saw them. Did I view them as monsters?
I told them, as honestly as I could, that I viewed them as human beings. That inside as all, we have a victim as well as an executioner. They began to speak more freely.

One older man said, “We need to break the silence not only in the victims’ families, but also in the offenders’ families… How is it possible that my family never saw there was anything wrong with me growing up? I did not have any place to turn to. And now I am here.”

They related some of their struggles and stories, but more than anything they said they wanted their voices heard. When I told them that I would gladly come back to gather their stories, they were thrilled. The staff was all for it. They also wanted me to come back and show the film to a group of female inmates.

As we were leaving, the well-dressed inmate approached me. “I am a doctor, and I abused two of my patients,” he said. This gave me goose bumps. “And I was always involved with human rights organizations, supporting so many of them,” he continued. “I don’t know what happened to me.”

He asked with great urgency, “You talk about forgiveness and reparation. Do you think that being here, in this place, is ‘reparation’?” Of course I said no; prison was something society had imposed. He needed to take ownership, I said, attempt to make up for his crime by doing something positive, help another, write about it, etc.

Later I found out the group I met with had been in a rehabilitation program for two years. And the prison staff told me that they’ve had much better results rehabilitating sexual violence offenders through therapy than they’d had with any other types of offenders.

I realized that if we really want to heal the infected social fabric from this pandemic, we perhaps need to start listening also to the perpetrators.

When they left the room, I broke down in tears. It was overwhelming, but it gave me hope.

Sands of Silence Brians Prison
Chelo and Virginia Isaias address inmates at Brians Prison, Barcelona.
Sands of Silence in Prisons
Chelo with inmates after a screening at Logroño Prison, Spain


In February, we received a Cultural Award in Barcelona for Sands of Silence, and two days later we had a special screening in the city. Spain’s Secretary of Health, Social Services and Equality had read an interview with me in La Contra de La Vanguardia, (equivalent to Spain’s “Fresh Air.”) She attended one of my screenings in Barcelona at a large Women’s Library and Center. When I greeted her, I asked if she would like to make a few remarks after the film, but she told me, “Chelo, I have come here to learn.” I was humbled. Her large entourage insisted that she should leave at the Q&A, but she made a point of staying till the end and afterwards gave me a hug. I was so exhausted during the tour that I had developed a case of shingles on my face. I was reluctant to hug her for that reason, but she insisted, saying she didn’t care, and that she was so moved by the film that she wanted to use it. Now they have invited me to show the film in Spain in September for the International Day of Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking.

Sands of Silence Spain Secretary of Health
Vicky Bernadet, Montserrat Dolors (Spain Secretary of Health, and Chelo Alvarez-Stehle

In 2016, Spain Bar Association Foundation invited us to screen SOS in Madrid on Nov 25, International Day Against the Elimination of Violence against Women.

On July 10, 2017, along with our partner Equality Now, we had the chance to present the film as a side event at the High-Level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York. The event was presented by Spain’s Ambassador to the United Nations and co-hosted by U.N. Women and Apne Aap Women Worldwide.

On July 11, 2017, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the New York City Bar Association, along with our partner Equality Now, invited us to present the film. At the Q&A, among an audience of lawyers, a young student who was very moved by the film, asked how I managed to break the silence and tell my story because she was a victim of abuse and had never found the courage to speak up. Her tears gave way to a smile when I told her she had just done so.

Chelo on panel European Parliament
Chelo on panel at the EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT in Brussels, with MEP Iratxe García, MEP Zita Gurmai and Elles Tournent director Marie Vermeiren. Nov. 21st, 2017, on the occasion of Intl. Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.


Chelo speaks at European Parliament
Chelo takes a question at the European Parliament screening – Intl. Day for the Eilimination of Violence Against Women.
MEP Julie Ward speaks at the Q&A
MEP Julie Ward speaks at the Sands of Silence Q&A at the European Parliament.


A grandma and a baker in Northern Minnesota heard about our film and contacted me about organizing a mini film festival featuring films on trafficking for her community in Hackensack, MN. When she saw our film, she decided to instead organize a two-day symposium centered around Sands of Silence and invite me, along with Virginia Isaias, be on the panel. She wrote: “Today, Sunday, my daughter, my grand-daughter, and I baked enough loaves of bread to pay for one of your flights. One loaf at a time.”
I told her how moved I was by that expression, and she decided to name her event “One Loaf At A Time Symposium on Sexual Violence and Trafficking”.

Minnesotta public gives a standing ovation at director Chelo Alvarez-Stehle and survivor Virginia Isaias. Foto credit: Jillian Gandsey
Sands of Silence in Minnesota
Virginia Isaias and Chelo after the screening of Sands of Silence to 450 people that filled in four screening rooms at a multiplex movie theater in Hackensack, MN, in spite of a snow storm.
One Loaf at a Time founder, Linnea Dietrich (right) with co founder Lynnette Dirks.

When I told her we would be flying from Yale University where we had a presentation the day before, people in her community were astounded. “Do they know where they are coming?” they asked. Hackensack has a Population of 313, according to Wikipedia. But they have a multiplex movie theater with four screening rooms for the summer season when tourists flock to the lakes. The symposium was held in April, and, in the midst of a snow storm, we had a full house with 450 people who came from the surrounding lake areas. Our largest screening ever! The second day we were on a panel with a judge, law enforcement, NGO leaders, and Native American leaders. A young woman who grew up in the community shared a powerful first-hand account of psychological manipulation and grooming that, according to the community “brought home the message that this problem was not remote news from a far-away land, but a very real threat at home.”

I was appalled by the number of people who spoke at the Q&A, or approached us with stories of sexual violence and trafficking among those living in remote, isolated communities.

After we left, they had a follow up meeting with 20 core people who committed to continue raising awareness with specific actions. I still get emails and Facebook comments on how much we have ignited awareness in their community and changed it forever.


When actor Robert Rusler [LA LA LAND] introduced our film and Q&A at the Malibu International Film Festival, where we received the Best Documentary Award and the Audience Choice Award, he had tears in his eyes, revealing to the public that he himself had been a victim of sexual abuse—something that had marked his life to this day.

Malibu Intl Film Festival
Actor Robert Rusler present Chelo at the Malibu Intl. Film Festival

At the San Diego Latino Film Festival, a Mexican American man felt compelled to tell his story of abuse in public for the first time. “I was raped by my nanny as a four-year-old. When my aunt started abusing me, I was six. Then it was me who at that young age started to look for her. I had my sexuality arisen and I didn’t know any better. When I was nearing puberty I tried to talk about it to older boys around me, but the only answer I got was, ‘Oh man, how lucky you are.’”

At the Valencia Human Rights Film Festival in Spain, a Colombian refugee said, “I never had the courage to share that I am the daughter of a prostitute. But your film gave me the strength. I want to tell the world that I am proud of my mother because she always protected me and never let me see the work she was doing. Most in my family and village told me I could never do anything with my life being the daughter of a prostitute. But I educated myself, and when I started asking too many questions about my mother’s disappearance at the hands of the paramilitary, I became their target, too.”

Chelo hugs woman who broke silence Valencia HRFF
Chelo hugs a woman who broke her silence HumansFest at Valencia International Human Rights Film Festival


In 2008, Rocio Watson, director of WTLC, a women’s shelter for survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking in Orange County, CA, contacted me. Due to state budget cuts, the shelter was facing having to shut doors and put 150 women and children on the streets. She asked me to create a short video for a fundraiser event. After I interviewed several women at the shelter, Rocio suggested I speak with Virginia Isaias, whom she had recently met at a Mexican women’s networking group, and who was working for the county providing services to migrants. Virginia had never publicly revealed her history, but she wanted to help the women in the shelter and trusted me with her story. We screened a nine-minute short at a fundraiser hosted by California Senator Lou Correa. It was extremely difficult for Virginia to see herself on screen and relive the tragic events of her kidnapping and forced sexual exploitation. However, she was committed to helping put an end to this global crime. That day, 150 women and children were spared going homeless and our film was born.

sex-trafficking survivor Virginia Isaias

In 2010, two years into the shooting of this documentary, we were invited to screen excerpts of our work-in-progress at the first Women In The World Summit: Stories and Solutions in New York. We invited Virginia to attend. The event, opened by Hillary Clinton and attended by hundreds of women activists from around the world, inspired Virginia to create her own non-profit. Six months later, Virginia, barely speaking English, had established a 501(c)3: Fundación de Supervivientes de Tráfico Humano, which she currently runs. The non-profit provides counseling and resources to numerous members in the community who are victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and trafficking.

Lala Isaias Fundacion Sobrevivientes de Tráfico Humano

When we had our first screening of the finished film in Santa Monica, CA, Lala (Virginia’s daughter) invited her managers at Cinemark, the movie theater where she works, to attend. Her managers were so moved by Lala’s and her mother’s story, as well as the volunteer work Lala continued to do, that a year later they honored her at a We event [https://www.we.org/we-day/we-day-events/california2017/] held at a packed stadium in Inglewood, CA, where they presented her with a $10,000 check for the non-profit her mother created.

Anu Tamang Melamchi 1997 Sands of Silence

Following her rescue from a brothel in Mumbai in 1996, Anu only wanted to rebuild her life. She was too afraid to speak up and, understandably so, only wanted to find a means to survive. Then Chelo’s interview with Anu, published in Planeta Humano magazine (Spain, 1997) received the Editor’s Cash Prize. That small but pivotal point enabled Anu, then 19, to start going to school. Even though she encountered many obstacles, with Chelo’s and her husband Mark’s help along with that of Anjana Shakya, president of HimRights [www.himrights.org], Anu was later able to open a small grocery store. At first Anu only wanted a “normal” life and raise her two children. Soon though, she would join the survivor-run NGO Shakti Samuha, where she has worked for years and continues to work tirelessly against trafficking.