Filmmaker’s Statement

Chelo Alvarez-Stehle
SANDS OF SILENCE: Waves of Courage

My commitment to denounce sexual exploitation was sparked in 1997 in remote Western Nepal when as a world reporter working for print publications in Spain I met young girls that had been sold to temples as the Goddesses’ vestals or trafficked to brothels in India. I continued writing about sexual exploitation, from the sexual abuse that most of Australia’s Aboriginal children of the “Stolen Generation” were subjected to, to the mass rape of Nepali women caught in Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing. In 2002, when one of my articles on child trafficking in the Himalayas was turned into the documentary film Tin Girls (Niñas de Hojalata) by Canal+ Spain, a film I worked for, I was forever converted to the art of documentary filmmaking.

In the short documentary Sold in America: A Modern-Day Tale of Sex Slavery, I denounced sexual exploitation and trafficking through the stories of three women sold at an early age. My current feature-length documentary Sands of Silence is a departure from the journalistic approach of the short.

The making of this film pushed me into a new journey of introspection. Witnessing our main subject Virginia find the courage to speak out about her trafficking experience and then confront the abuse within her family, inspired me to come face to face with the silence about abuse in my family. This gradually pushed me to reveal my own hidden ghosts in the film.

Thus my story creates a link between the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation, which affect many of those who live marginal lives, and the diffused but pervasive sexual abuse that our society tacitly condones. One important common theme is that the silence must be broken first within families. The support and understanding gained when families come together allows women to speak out publicly. By interweaving my story and my family’s with that of Virginia and her family, while stressing the vast differences, this film brings out that essential step. In spite of the different backgrounds, the same familial dynamic occurred when Virginia or I tried to speak up about abuse. This resonates with audiences in an intimate way, inspiring them to find the courage to break their own silence on sexual exploitation and moving them to take action at a societal level.

Jack Lerner, UC Irvine law professor, Director of the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic and member of the Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association said, “Through the searing stories Chelo Alvarez-Stehle tells in her film, she demonstrates that sexual abuse and sexual trafficking are but points on a continuum.  In so doing, she has made an important contribution to the national conversation about sexual assault and rape culture. This film is part of the new movement of independent documentary films that reveal important truths about the terrible secrets we keep as a society and the toll they take on all of us.”

I hope this film inspires audiences to break the cycle of silence and advance freedom from sexual exploitation.

Filmaker Chelo Alvarez-Stehle speaking at Yale University