Below is my interview with Holly Mosher, director of the award-winning documentary, Hummingbird. In the film, Mosher records the devastating lives of street children and under-aged prostitutes in Recife, Brazil, and the local non-profit organizations working to inspire change.
I just watched your film Hummingbird this week and I thought it was incredible, really compelling. How did you find out about the House of Passage and the Women’s Life Collective?
My interest started in 1995. I read an article when I was living in Brazil, it was in a magazine. The article was about European men that came and got Brazilian girls thinking that they were their girlfriend or they were going to be an actress or a model. Instead, they ended up taking the girls to Europe, and not letting them have any freedom while they were there and used them for sex trafficking. So I was shocked and horrified. At that point, I started doing research and I even went back to New York. I was at the New York Public Library and I was looking up sex trafficking. There was almost nothing on it, just these tiny little articles. But through my research in the library in Rio, I found out about the House of Passage and that it was in Recife. Finally, in January of 1997 I started a research trip and found not only the House of Passage, but the Women’s Life Collective. And I think they were two very active groups in Recife because it was one of the biggest hubs for tourism and sex tourism. A lot of Europeans come there because it’s the closest trip to Brazil, the weather is always warm, it’s perfect.
And for those who haven’t watched the film, why are so many women and children forced to live on the streets in Recife?
Well, Recife has a lot of poverty; it’s one of the cities with the most unemployment. With the domestic violence that happens you see a lot of kids running away and going to the streets because they actually feel safer on the streets, you know, initially, than what is happening at home with the violence. And one interesting thing to me was that the people running the programs said that the kids who turn to the streets actually have stronger survival instincts, where as the ones that end up taking the abuse at home don’t have the same survival instincts as the ones willing to leave and get away; either they are getting beat up, or there is incest at home or whatever is going on at home that is forcing them out.
The children seemed so resilient in a lot of ways, hard almost, and I wanted to touch on that. You make some interesting choices in certain scenes, specifically, the scene where the two young girls, I think at the Women’s Life Collective, were both playing with toy guns and discussing the violence happening in their communities. What were you trying to translate there?
Several things. First, for you to see that violence really is their reality. I wasn’t expecting her to say that she has seen people with guns that were threatening. She’s probably eight. You know, I grew up here. That is not my reality. I was really surprised at the level of violence they had already seen at that age; it was shocking to me. I also liked that the school uses those toys to get them to play in a safe space and deal with what they’ve been dealing with at home. It was interesting that it was on purpose that they gave kids the guns so they could deal with things in a playful way and get them talking about it. Often, there would be one of the school workers in there and they’d have the opportunity to use what they call the “Pedagogy of Affection” to get through these difficult things that they have seen at such a shockingly young age.
Can you talk a little bit about the “Pedagogy of Affection” and about the House of Passage and the Women’s Life Collective; the individual organizations, the work they do, and their missions?
It’s interesting, I remember when I was in college we had to read articles by Paulo Freire our freshman year. They have taken some of his ideas and gone even further with them to create what they call the “Pedagogy of Affection”, where they are working with the kids with an unconditional love and acceptance. Some of the girls are prostitutes and they don’t say You’re wrong, you shouldn’t do this. Through the group meetings and letting the girls speak to each other in a guided safe space, in time, they’ll learn better choices, but they are not opposing the outside view, saying this is wrong. Everyone learns for themselves over time as their healing happens, as they learn to make a living and how to provide for themselves. It is a very holistic approach; through movement and a positive sense of touch. I think a lot of stuff gets locked in the body, so they are working on both the mind and the body at the same time. They say at an average of 2 years they can get people through the process. Some of the harder cases are like Adriana, who had been living on the streets for 5 years.
I wanted to talk about Adriana because she was a very interesting addition to the film. I thought she was a great example how these groups really can make a difference. Can you tell me more about her and how you came to meet her?
She was one of the big inspirations for the film. I actually met her on my first research trip in 1997. The founder of the program happened to be out that day, so she really just took me under her wing and showed me around and showed me what they do. But at the time she was still pretty rough around the edges. But I’ve seen her progress from the time she was 17 to when I filmed her at 22, her work, even though she had left the program. Imagine you are on the street since the age of 6. Your social conditioning is only out on the street in a very fight/survive sense, so she was rough, you know, I loved her, but I was a little scared by her. But once you learn the lessons that they’ve taught, you can keep growing on your own, you have the structure. I think that’s what we call “maturity”. That’s why up until the age of 18 parents are really supposed to help take care and give their child the framework so they can be out on their own, but if that happens too early in an angry or violent setting, the child doesn’t have a way to form. By having these groups where they can spend a lot of their time, by having a safe space during the day, they were still able to work with people and have the same results.
Do most of the women and children seek out the House of Passage and the Women’s Life Collective on their own, or do the organizations actually go out into the community and take them in?
They go into the community and find them. They’ve done paper pamphlets and questionnaires in the school to find out who is most likely to be at the highest risk of violence at home, and then they invite them into the community groups and weekly groups. So it’s really about calling them in.
They go back to their homes at the end of the day, I’m assuming?
Or the streets, it depends. For a while they did have an overnight service, but it didn’t go well. Depending on the level of integration and where they’re at. Adriana actually now lives in the same building as her mother again and she has not lived with her for years and years and years. And at one point, Adriana, when I first met her, was in her own housing, they’d helped her. At a certain point they do help the girls get set up on their own. Adriana was 17 and she was starting to take care of her daughter again, so they got her set up with an apartment.
Are you interested in exploring similar themes of domestic violence and trafficking domestically?
For some reason I haven’t felt called since then to do a film on this topic. Recently, I’ve been inspired to do one on date rape which I feel is probably more necessary in this country. Each film I do takes me deeply into the topic for about 5 years. After Hummingbird, I did a few films on the pharmaceutical industry and microcredit, etc. Sex trafficking is such a dark topic, I’m only feeling ready to even take on one about date rape now after having been away from the topic of sex trafficking for a while. When I started talking to people about sex trafficking, most people didn’t know about it, now at least, they know about it. In 1996, there was the first international conference on sex trafficking and the media promised to start covering it, and I’ve seen a change in the coverage. It is really such a worldwide level problem, it’s as big as the arms trade. A multibillion dollar international industry.
So can you tell me about what you’re working on right now?
Well, I just spent the past 5 years making Bonsai People: the Vision of Muhammad Yunus. What I realized from making Hummingbird is that I love stories about one person making a big difference. Most of these women that started the groups were so inspiring to me, they just said oh, I’m going to do something for my community, and they did it! When these groups were about 10 years old, they were helping thousands of people and it was amazing! Of course, there were different degrees of success. In fact, one of the girls who I had interviewed at night out on the street had been in the program. I could tell she’d been in the program because she knew what her rights were compared to the other street kids. So what I like are stories about one person making a big difference. When I read the New York Times that Muhammed Yunus had gotten the Nobel Peace Prize for helping 6.5 million women, I realized I had a film to make. I realized I was actually kind of making the same film; it was about women coming together once a week, but instead of an emotional group circle, it was a financial group circle. It was about women coming together to support each other and learn from each other under some guidance. And that’s really all it takes to save the world. If we could all find our own support groups and meet weekly and come together, we could solve all of our problems.
And where can we go see Bonsai People?
There is an hour long version on American Public Television, and I’m going to be in the Whole Foods Do Something Real Film Festival in March, and then after that it should be on Netflix. You can get DVDs from my website already. I’ve been trying to get Hummingbird on Netflix, as well, because even though it’s an older film, I feel like its message really is timeless. I get emails from people regularly saying how much it touched them. I am hoping to find a wider audience.
To find official government data on human trafficking in the Unites States and abroad please visit:
If you think you have seen a victim of human sex trafficking contact the following organization anytime toll free, 24 hours a day:
National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888