In the light

Posted February 02

'Sisters For Sale' is a unique story, with a unique power to shine a light onto the dark realities of human trafficking. 

Most people are now aware of human trafficking - yet the trafficking stories we are told are often impersonal, inaccessible, and oversimplified. 

'Sisters For Sale', on the other hand, is a deeply personal story which exposes the true complexities of the issue, and makes it real. 

It's a story that has proven its worth time and again on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on social media and countless blogs. 

A marketing expert looked over 'The Human, Earth Project' in the first year of its existence, when it had just 1,000 Facebook supporters. With the right marketing, she said, we easily could have had 10,000 supporters - even then, before we'd really achieved anything. 

After five years, and having achieved incredible things, we still don't have anything approaching that number. 

It's not because I've been promoting the project in the wrong way: it's because I've barely been promoting it at all. Worse than that - I've actively resisted any serious promotion for years. 

Our Twitter and Instagram accounts haven't been active in over a year. 

(The fact that there's a Twitter account at all is thanks to the wonderful Claire Bannerman-Mott, who set it up and ran it for years before I even thought of doing so. I don't even know who set up our Instagram account. I've never touched either of them.) 

I'll blog, and post to our Facebook account, maybe once or twice a month. That's it. There are no fancy tricks on our website to help build our mailing list. 

I haven't sought any real media attention in 15 months. (Any attention we've had since then - including VICE, CNN, and Newsweek - has come to me. While it's amazing that I'm being approached by organisations of that calibre, imagine how much more effective this project could be if it was promoted proactively!)

I often shy away from opportunities to tell my story, and there have been times I've gone for months without handing out a single business card (though I've seen how powerful those personal contacts can be). 

I can hear you thinking, this is a really stupid way to run a project that's all about raising awareness - and it is. I get messages like this: 

Dear friends at The Human, Earth Project, you're not loud enough... Your work and intentions are barely seen. That is because YOU'RE NOT LOUD ENOUGH.

It's true - yet I have my reasons, and they're personal. 

In 2014, I achieved some rather unusual things, and became more personally involved in this story than I'd ever intended. It brought me further into the public eye than I'd expected, or am comfortable with. 

Maybe you've seen my TEDx talk, or some of the televised interviews I've done, and you think that's who I am - someone who enjoys getting up in front of people and talking about themselves. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm normally very selective about who I share my life with. Even here, on my blog, I share only what I feel is necessary. 

It's true that I've deliberately sought a wider audience for my story at times - after all, the purpose of my work is to raise awareness of human trafficking. While I may not have initially realised exactly what "raising awareness" would involve, my story is currently the best tool I have to achieve that goal. 

I've received a very strong sense of resentment from some people, as if they want to be the guy telling the world they found their kidnapped friends in China. It's a good story, and for some people, being that guy might be amazing. For me, it's a role I've struggled with. 

Some people do seem to receive a great sense of self-worth and validation from the attention they receive, even from strangers on the Internet - and that's fine. I am not one of those people. 

I'll admit, I have enjoyed being recognised on the street by strangers, on the rare occasions it has happened. When those of you who have been following my story from a distance suddenly appear up close, in real life, it makes me feel that my work has had a real impact. 

It's good to know that you're out there in the world, listening. We have a common interest in this project, and I enjoy meeting you in person. Beyond that, what attention I've received from this project has only confirmed my desire for privacy. 

One criticism I've had of the documentary is that I'm barely present in the story, that I linger on the edge of frame. People have said they want to know more about me, and my role in the story. 

I'll share more if and when I'm ready - but I've never been the focus of this story, nor do I wish to be. 

Perhaps it's the filmmaker in me, who prefers to remain behind the lens. Perhaps it's the traveller in me, who prefers to blend in. Perhaps it's the Australian in me, with our culture of shooting down anyone who gets too big for their boots. Perhaps it's simply that I don't truly understand my own role in the story. 

Whatever it is, I'm just not the right person to promote this project. I don't need the world to know about me - but I do want them to know about 'Sisters For Sale', and the two can be very difficult to separate. 

On the rare occasions I've made efforts to promote my work, I've often bungled it. At its core, 'The Human, Earth Project' is tiny - much smaller than many people may realise. 

I don't test-market things. I don't have the luxury of researching and refining my presentation before I share it with the public. I just do whatever seems right at the time - and sometimes it's not right, but it is constantly getting better. 

I listen to people's comments - and abuse - and adjust the message accordingly. You are the test audience. This project is an eternal work-in-progress, subject to continual refinements. 

There has a been a long process of trying to understand my own role in the story, and finding the right way to tell it. It's very difficult to have an objective sense of something you're so close to. 

Seeing the attention I'd received for my work, someone once asked me (from the comfortable anonymity of the Internet): 

Was your friends getting kidnapped the best thing that ever happened to you?

I can't even begin to address the monumental ignorance behind that question, the years of unpaid work, and the personal sacrifices I've made for this project. All I can say is: 

Fuck. That. Guy. 

That's the kind of barb that sticks, long after the person who made it has forgotten all about it, and yet another reason why I shy away from promoting my work. 

But the work needs to be promoted: it's time to bring 'The Human, Earth Project' into the light. 

I'm looking for people with promotional and social media experience to help tell this story effectively and powerfully to as large an audience as possible, while giving due respect and privacy to those involved. 

You might be that person (or you might know someone who would be perfect!). 

Perhaps you have only a little time to consult on strategy, or perhaps you'd like to be more deeply involved. Either way, it's an opportunity to help share more of a unique and fascinating story which can make a very real difference against human trafficking. 

I can't say yet when I'll be able to share 'Sisters For Sale' itself - but there are plenty of other stories, images and videos we can share before then. 

Not sure what you can do? Reach out and find me at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com

Thank you :) 

- Ben 

PS. Speaking of publicity, Mireille L'Herminez recently covered our story on her Dutch-language blog 'Mirei Op Reis', and Matteo Damiani republished a previous interview in the first issue of the downloadable 'Planet China' magazine.

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Balance

Posted January 14

'Sisters For Sale' is a rather unusual documentary, following an extraordinary story through some very strange events. 

After filming the documentary, it took me a long time to begin processing the experience, and to start making sense of those events - particularly because I was so close to the story.

In a similar way, because I've been extremely close to 'Sisters For Sale' at all stages of production, I've found it very difficult to step back and view the film objectively. 

'Sisters For Sale' is my baby - of course I think she's special. If those around me think otherwise, would they tell me honestly? Would I even listen? 

I've spent five years of my life on this film, and can't help but ask myself, Was it worth it? Is 'Sisters For Sale' any good? 

On one hand, the film hasn't yet been accepted into any of the festivals I've submitted it to. 

On the other hand, I've sat with people watching it. I've seen them ride the highs and lows of the story. I've seen them moved to tears. 

(Yes, I realise it's horrible to use "making people cry" as a metric of success, but there it is.)

Over the past months we've had not one but two amazing teams busy translating 'Sisters For Sale' (and its trailer) into both Spanish and German. 

Not only will their work make it possible for 'Sisters For Sale' to reach millions more people around the globe, they have also helped give me a better feeling for the documentary itself. 

One of our translators told me it is one of the best and most interesting documentaries she has seen in years. Another said she cried just from reading a short section of the script. 

(Again, it's horrible to have worked so hard, for so long, on something that - if effective - will only upset people. It's no fun being the bearer of bad news, believe me.) 

Last summer I had the chance to show a rough cut of the film to another of our translators, a Hmong friend from Sapa. 

It was something I was a little nervous about, as there are certain elements of Hmong culture I've examined in the film, and not always in a positive light. 

To see my friend so supportive and enthusiastic about the film really meant a lot to me. 

Gratitude

I'd like to give a huge thank-you to both of our recent translation teams, which include some good friends and some newcomers to the Project. 

Our Spanish translators were Natalia Correa Glargaard, Javier Gómez, Sela Jiménez, Estrella López, Paola Mountbatten, Paula Olmo, Maria Julia Ravera, Andrea Vela Gonzalez, and Eli Zubiria, with a special thank-you to Carol Machete Rodríguez and Ivan Villegas.

Their work is now being double-checked by the amazing Laura Rodríguez Jarillo, with her Masters in English-Spanish translation. 

Our German translators were Fabian Altenhoefer, Justine Czora, Alena Figge, Sarah Huwald, Johanna Leiner, Lisanne Pervical, Christina Raue, Sophia Rötschke, and Katrin Schmidt. 

As a journalist and a wonderfully supportive member of our team, Astrid Hofer will be using her linguistic skills to check the translation. 

I also want to give a huge shout-out to Qiuda Guo, Jiumei Hong, Charlie McRae, Jackie Ong, and Yuqing Zhang, whose recent behind-the-scenes assistance has been absolutely invaluable to completion of the film - thank you so much!

(Please let me know if I've forgotten anyone - I hope not!) 

Some of you have offered to help translate 'Sisters For Sale' into your own languages, which is amazing. I'm working to put a system in place to make that an easier process for all of us. 

If you'd like to help bring 'Sisters For Sale' to your own country, let me know, and I'll keep you in the loop! 

Balance

I believe a good work-life balance is crucial to a happy, fulfilling life. 

Working on 'The Human, Earth Project' for the past five years, it has been a real struggle to maintain that balance, and last year I lost it completely. 

Two years ago, I began monitoring my hours (as well the funds) spent on the Project, and have recently been looking at last year's figures. 

In 2017, I worked a huge 155% of 2016's already-substantial work hours. 

It was a year that took a serious toll on me, both emotionally and physically. I've never been in worse shape, and am tired in a way sleep won't fix. 

I've had a slow start to 2018, as I work to get my balance back.

For those of you who are interested, I've broken down my 2017 work hours below. 

A year in review

Not only did I spend far more time on the Project in 2017, but that time was spent much more productively than the year before. 

Following the success of our 2016 crowdfunding campaign, I was able to spend literally hundreds of hours fewer on fundraising, promotion and networking. 

I also dramatically cut back my hours on the blog and website, pouring the bulk of my work hours into our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale'. 

While video editing consumed *by far* the most time, a phenomenal amount of time was also taken up by other tasks - animations (156.25hr), audio editing (63.25hr), colour grading (41.75hr), organising final translations to English (13.5hr), organising translations to French, German and Spanish (60.25hr), building an impact and distribution strategy (55.5hr), legal matters (52.5hr), and recording and inserting the narration (32.5hr). 

Some of the numbers were very surprising - I spent 78hr reviewing the film, 74hr working on the script, and an incredible 19.5hr organising lists of names for the credits!

Remember these are only my hours (not those of the dozens of other people who have worked with me on the film), and they are from only one of the five years 'Sisters For Sale' has been in production, and you'll begin to understand what a colossal undertaking this documentary has been. 

While not nearly as expensive as it could have been, 'Sisters For Sale' has of course been a very expensive production - and I haven't finished paying for it yet. 

On a project this size, otherwise insignificant tasks become major jobs in themselves - in 2017 alone, I spent 34.75hr organising and backing up files between a myriad of computers, external hard drives and online storage facilities, 18hr organising the necessary hardware, software and workstation, 22.75hr resolving technical issues, and 38hr on accounting and administration. 

As ever, messaging and communication consumed a great deal of time throughout the year, and significant amounts of time were also demanded by design work, planning, necessary travel, and the 'Sisters For Sale' podcast. 

A year to come

My work patterns will be changing again in 2018, as my focus shifts away from post-production of the documentary, and towards its distribution, promotion and impact. 

I'll also be spending more time on some exciting new elements of the Project - including the 10-part 'Sisters For Sale' podcast I'm working on with Claire Harris, and a few other surprises it is too soon to announce!

I'll be sharing more news shortly on the documentary itself, which is still awaiting music and a final sound mix... 

Stay tuned!

- Ben 

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Good feeling

Posted December 15

Two months ago, I was taking a city bus through an area that had been hit hard by the economic crises of the past decade. 

There was an old man in the centre section of the bus, near the back doors. Instead of a walker, he had a little old wooden table on wheels to steady him as he walked. 

When the old man's stop came, I helped carry the table off the bus for him. He was happy, and I was happy to have helped in some small way. 

I came back into the bus, and noticed a small bag sitting where the table had been. There was nobody else near it, and I assumed it belonged to the old man. 

I picked it up and made a quick dash for the closing doors, calling after the old man. 

A stocky young man leapt out of his seat in the back of the bus and came charging towards me, furious. He thought I was trying to steal his bag, and looked about ready to murder me. 

(I later realised he was an umbrella salesman on a sunny day forecast rain, and probably wasn't in the greatest mood to begin with.)

Before I knew what was happening, the man was up in my face, yelling, fists clenched. The good feeling I'd had dissolved instantly in a spike of adrenaline. 

That was the feeling that stayed with me afterwards - that sudden confusion at finding myself under attack, of being at the centre of a senseless conflict, preparing to defend myself.

It was a moment that struck a chord with me: that feeling was only too familiar. 

'The Human, Earth Project' began with the desire to do some good in the world. I've stayed true to that goal, have worked hard towards it for almost five years - and, in doing so, have found myself the target of more hatred than I'd ever felt in my life. 

In 2014, I achieved far more with this work than I'd ever hoped for - and it felt good, to have created something, to watch it grow, to see it making a difference in the world. It really seemed like anything was possible. 

Then, in early 2015, I found my work shot down - stupidly, senselessly, by those who had mistaken my intentions, or simply didn't care. The project went into a tailspin for almost two years. Progress was slow and difficult, and I was running out of reasons to push on. 

With my life and work so closely entangled, it became a personal struggle as well as a professional one. Even the monumental success of last year's fundraising campaign was overshadowed by backstage dramas. 

It was a strange, confusing time. I've never been perfect, but I'd done my best, with the best of intentions, and I wasn't prepared for the animosity. 

There might have been a hundred compliments for every piece of abuse - but it was the abuse that stuck, and always seemed to tip the scales somehow. 

2017 is the year 'The Human, Earth Project' has begun to rise - slowly, hopefully - once more. 

I've neglected social media, and have done very little promotion - yet people have been coming forward from all over the world, to show their appreciation and lend a hand. This year, the project has brought some amazing people together, and I've been thankful for all of you. 

I had a conversation recently with someone who was surprised to have been included in the credits for 'Sisters For Sale'. 

It was natural to help out, he said, and he'd only done a small thing - but this is a small project, and sometimes those small things can make a big difference. While he found it natural to help, there are many people who might not have bothered at all. 

I want to use what voice I have to recognise those people - good people - who may not otherwise get much appreciation for the things they do in life. 

When I scan the credits list, those are the names I see - hundreds upon hundreds of you. Butterflies unaware of the tornadoes you set in motion with every beat of your wings. 

Thank you. 

I don't know where 2018 will take us, but right now, I've got a good feeling. 

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Into the labyrinth

Posted November 25

It's been 18.5 years since I first became professionally involved in filmmaking. 

I've spent a great deal of time working with technical aspects of filmmaking - scripting, filming, editing, etc. - but these things are behind me now. Everything beyond this point is beyond my experience as a filmmaker. 

Finishing a film is one thing, but finding an audience is quite another. I've never been involved in impact, sales, marketing, distribution, or the festival circuit. It's a labyrinthine world, and unless you enter it with a very clear sense of direction, it's only too easy to lose your way. 

I've spent the past two months trying to understand that world as best I can, and asking myself innocent little questions with incredibly complex answers. 

What do you want for your film, and why? What are your impact goals, and how will you achieve them? What kind of distribution model will work best for your film? 

What kind of audiences are you aiming for? Will you merely be preaching to the choir, or can you find a way to reach beyond them, to the people who most need to hear your message? 

Do you want awards? Recognition? Opportunities for future projects? Some cute little laurels to put on your poster? 

Film festivals are the traditional starting point when sending an independent film out into the world - but festivals are a very complex, competitive world in themselves. There are literally thousands of film festivals around the world. Some of them are huge, and some are tiny. 

Over the past two months, I've painstakingly constructed a dizzying database of film festivals, all sorted and colour-coded, with endless annotations and cutoff dates. I've identified 191 festivals which could potentially work best with 'Sisters For Sale' - and that's still far, far too many. 

Submission fees to reputable festivals average around $50, and climb to around $160. That's around $10,000 in fees alone - which, needless to say, is far beyond my festival budget. With no guarantees of acceptance, entering festivals becomes a form of educated gambling. You can't back every horse - so, which will you choose? 

I've been gradually whittling down my list of festivals to a far more realistic figure. It's an ongoing process that involves long days of research, and more tough questions. How good do you think your film is? Which festivals will it best fit with? I see 'Sisters For Sale' as a strong film - but that doesn't make it a good match for every festival. 

While I've been working on 'Sisters For Sale', countless other filmmakers around the world have been working on their own films. We all think our babies are special, and important, and adorable. Ultimately, it's the entry judges who will decide.

Sometimes the odds are long - Sundance, for example, rejects around 99% of submitted films, but acceptance can make all the difference for your film. Which risks can I afford to take, and which opportunities am I willing to cut myself out of? 

Then there's the tangle of premieres (world, international, continent, region, city) demanded by festivals. Whichever possibilities you choose will disqualify you from others - and with none of your submissions guaranteed to succeed, you need a plan B, and C, and D. 

Each of the festivals has not one but several ticking deadlines - earlybird, regular, late, final - each with its own pricing. Should you send your film in early and incomplete, before the festival program fills up? Or should you send a later, more polished version, and pay double? 

Each festival has its own terms and conditions, and many seem ideal until you read the fine print. Some have obligatory attendance, on the other side of the world. Some demand the rights to unlimited screenings, sometimes for years. 

Some of the festivals are very broad, in terms of form, content and audience. Some are incredibly specific - there are entire film festivals dedicated to cats, or horses, for example. 

There are many Asian- and female-themed festivals, which will have ideal audiences for 'Sisters For Sale' - but as a Caucasian male director, my work is excluded from almost all of them. For the few that will accept my work - will they even give serious consideration to 'Sisters For Sale', or will they merely take my entry fee? 

(I absolutely agree that communities should be given the dominant voice in conversations about their own culture - but what if the communities involved aren't even having that conversation, if they're simply denying the issue by shaming and blaming victims, or sweeping it under the rug? What if the issues involved are blatant violations of the most basic human rights - at what point are other voices permitted to speak?)

Then there's the question, should you even bother with festivals at all? There are other emerging possibilities for independent filmmakers. There are success stories of those who have sidestepped the festival scene and chosen not to be dependent on traditional distribution routes. 

While it's an idea which appeals to my rebellious side, it can demand literally years more work, in the areas which appeal to me least: fundraising, organisation, promotion. 

I've now submitted 'Sisters For Sale' to a series of film festivals, and recently received my first response - a rejection. It seems the deciding factor was that the judges simply didn't believe that the events of the film were real, or even possible. I have nothing to offer besides the video evidence. 

In the same week, I also received a regional distribution offer from a major television network - which is very encouraging, since it's not something I'd even started looking for. 

Some of you have been asking for the current status of the film, and when it will be made available. It's still waiting on music and a final sound mix, which we're now hard at work on (more details shortly!). 

The timing of the release will depend on its festival premiere dates, none of which have yet been confirmed. Sharing the film earlier will disqualify it from being shown at festivals. 

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Keep your dreams

Posted November 16

I first launched 'The Human, Earth Project' after learning of the abduction of my young Hmong friend, M. 

The impossible dream behind the project was to get M home. 

M was taken from her home in northern Vietnam in July 2011, and presumed trafficked into China

In May 2014, I succeeded in locating and meeting with M in a distant region of China. It was the first time since her abduction that M had seen anyone she'd known from Vietnam. 

For the first time, M had an opportunity to go home, and was desperate to do so - but her decision was not an easy one. 

M had been forced into marriage with a local man, and had given birth in China. If M went home, what would happen with her baby girl? 

M spent a year agonising over her decision, ultimately deciding to remain in China for the sake of her child. 

At one point, M's husband even let her travel 3,000 km south to the visit her family in Vietnam - only to call her back north before she'd even crossed the border. 

In 2015, 'The Human, Earth Project' came under attack by a Vietnamese-based organisation which spread vicious rumours about me and my anti-trafficking work. 

This organisation succeeded in destroying many of my friendships in Vietnam - the very friendships which had inspired my work. 

After several months, it seemed that these rumours had reached M in China, who suddenly seemed less trusting of me and my motives. 

After having given all I could to help M for years, this was very difficult for me, and I considered shutting down 'The Human, Earth Project' altogether. 

M no longer needed me to check in on her - she'd made her decision to remain in China, and I'd long since put her in touch with other friends she could speak to. 

If there was no longer any friendship between us, and nothing more I could do to help her, there was no reason for me to keep calling. 

I began calling M less and less often - until finally, I stopped calling altogether. I had her contact via social media. I could see that she was alive and well, and that was enough. 

Then this year - for several weeks, and then months - I didn't see anything new from M on social media. I told myself I should call her - and kept finding excuses to delay that call. 

I didn't want any more bad news. 

Last week, someone tried video-calling me via Facebook. It was a Hmong name I didn't recognise, and I rejected the call. 

When I checked the profile picture, I realised it was M - she'd changed the name of her account. I called her back immediately. 

It was the first time we'd spoken in a long time. M looked well - in fact, she looked really happy. 

In the background, I expected to see the walls of M's home in China. Instead, I saw a simple wooden hut - a hut I recognised. 

It was M's family home, in Vietnam. 

For the first time in 6 years and 4 months, M was home. 

This was the impossible dream I'd spent years waiting for and working towards. I'd lost all hope of ever seeing it - then suddenly, here it was, made real. It was a surreal moment, to say the least. 

M and I spoke for half an hour - we had plenty to catch up on. 

M's little girl was still in China, with her husband. Amazingly, he'd given M permission to visit her family in Vietnam for three months, until the Hmong new year in mid-February. 

M wanted to see me again. I told her I could come and see her while she was there in Vietnam. I said the documentary was almost finished, and I could show it to her there. She was excited. 

As soon as I hung up, I cancelled all my plans, and began searching for flights to Vietnam. I hadn't been back since January 2015, and hadn't expected to return. Now everything had changed. 

I tried to call M again, two days later, and couldn't get through. I spoke to her again on the third day, just before I booked my flight. 

M's husband had changed his mind, and called her back to China. He'd already booked a ticket for her, in two days' time. She had no choice, she said. 

She could escape China, but she couldn't escape her culture. 

We wouldn't have a chance to meet, after all. I wouldn't have a chance to show her the documentary - not yet. 

Maybe next year, she said. 

M left Vietnam for China today. 

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