What you need to know
'I think this subject, the sexual exploitation of minors, is a very difficult one. We wanted to do it in a way that I would want to watch it, even if I don’t understand that world.'
A new documentary series and TV film are raising awareness about the role of minors in Taiwan's sex industry by connecting the victims and the audience at a more human level.
With between 300 and 500 minors victims of sexual exploitation in Taiwan each year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2014 originally wanted to commission a dramatic film on the issue to reach a general audience.
However, Jay Chern (陳鈺杰), award-winning director and producer at Epic Entertainment, wanted to tackle the issue through a different approach, and this is how “Warmth” came into production.
“I think this subject, the sexual exploitation of minors, is a very difficult one,” Chern told The News Lens International. “We wanted to do it in a way that I would want to watch it, even if I don’t understand that world.”
Chern and his team pitched the idea of producing a documentary and a TV film and, to their surprise, won the public bidding of NT$6 million (US$193,000).
“I thought there were aspects of the subject matter that we could explore more if it was done in a way that’s not like melodrama,” says Chern. “The idea was that the general audience would be more engaged if they understood the background behind it [sexual exploitation], instead of going, ‘Oh, this is just fiction.’”
The director says the ministry also wanted to send a positive message in both films of how it has helped children integrate back into society. At the same time it was honest about how difficult the process is and that many of the children go back and do the same work.
“There are these problems in our society, whether it’s economic, social or political, but if you’re always negative about it that doesn’t change anything and of course you don’t want to sugarcoat it,” says Chern. “That’s why I thought this project was interesting. They [the ministry] are willing to address the problem, but if the production didn’t do it in the right way then we would waste this opportunity or the people who watched it wouldn’t really gain something from it.”
But how do you navigate all the information the interviewees give you, and compile it into a compelling documentary that people want to watch?
“Sometimes you see short clips of documentaries or films and you can tell their goal is sensationalism or they have some goal other than trying to promote what’s best for these kids and this theme,” says Chern. “So I think we tried really hard to keep ‘us’ out of it and our goal was to be the voice.”
“We tried to make the audience feel like this is someone I might know. Like I don’t actually know them, but it’s so easy to discard them if they don’t feel human, so we were trying to give them a face.”
The team couldn’t give the interviewees in the documentary a real face, and they didn’t want to blurr their faces either, beause they thought it was "cheap." They originally thought to keep the faces as a dark image, but the ministry still worried that someone could, in future, color-correct it and make it brighter.
“They asked if we could put a drawing of the actual person on top, so we did, and then we were like, ‘Wait a minute, then we can see who that is,’” says Chern.
In the end, the team hired a group of artists, gave them the voices of the interviewees, and told them to imagine and draw the person. So the image covering the faces lets the audience imagine that it’s the person, when it’s actually not at all.
Chern and the ministry were also initially worried that not enough minors would be willing to be interviewed for the documentary, but around 20 girls showed up.
“We chose six out of the 20 girls to be interviewed based on their different backgrounds, and they were actually more open than we were,” says Chern. “They would tell us things that we were afraid to ask.”
Challenges in promotion
Chern says the sexual exploitation of minors isn’t an issue that only Taiwan has to deal with and that if the ministry wanted to promote discussion, it shouldn’t be a just a local conversation.
“If the film was only in Chinese, then only the Chinese can discuss. But if we have English subtitles, the discussion could reach more people,” says Chern.
A Southeast Asian TV station has also purchased “Warmth” and the film is expected to start airing in September in most Southeast Asian countries.
However, team is finding it difficult to promote the film locally.
“We have submitted to the Golden Bells Awards and the Golden Horse Awards,” says Chern. “If we get any type of nomination then people will notice it more and TV stations will play it more, so I think we’re just trying to get the word out.”
Since the release of “Warmth” in March, the only TV station that has been willing to air the film is Videoland Television Network (緯來電視網).
“I think it’s because TV stations are worried that a government-commissioned film will be of lower-quality,” says Chern. “Making a good film is hard enough and then you have to market it, so we’re still learning.”
Nevertheless “Warmth” has received positive responses from social workers and people who have seen the film.
“When we were screening the film for the social workers involved in the film, one of them especially came up to me and said, ‘This film makes me want to continue doing my work,’” says Chern.
The director says they don’t want to label the girls. He wants both films to discuss how the general public relates to these girls and the social workers at a human level.
“What we lack isn’t necessarily love, but warmth and a person that cares,” says Chern.
(You can watch the first episode of the mini-documentary "Warmth" here.)
First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole