March 1, 2018

Lalo’s House Screening and Discussion Brings Awareness to the Realities of Human Trafficking

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Kelley Kali’s film, Lalo’s House, was recently screened at the USC School of Cinematic Art (SCA) as part of the Our Voices series, sponsored by the SCA Council on Diversity & Inclusion. Filmed on location in Haiti, Lalo’s House is the story two young girls who are kidnapped into prostitution, and the immense lengths the older sister, Manouchka, goes to preserve her young sister’s innocence. Kali, who graduated with a Masters of Fine Art from the Film and TV Production Division, has watched her thesis project blossom into a work of art for social change. There are those films that serve to purely entertain; and then there are those that captivate the audience through artful storytelling, while also shedding light on tragic elements of the human experience in an attempt to advocate for social justice. As Kali puts it, “People are often times more inspired by watching a film about a subject matter than listening to a politician. As filmmakers, we need to realize the influence that we have on viewers. So my crew and I choose to use our influence to bring awareness to the issues of human trafficking. I want people to watch the film and feel connected to our characters so much that they want to learn more about what they can do to help in their own communities.”

Lalo’s House was a film nine years in the making for director and co-writer Kali, who graduated from the MFA Film & Television Production program. Before attending SCA, Kali received a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology with a minor in Classical Civilizations and Film from Howard University. It was through her anthropology background that she learned about the child trafficking issues between the U.S. and Haiti, subsequently going to Haiti and investigating a Catholic orphanage where a nun put girls as young as 12 years old out for prostitution. The harrowing footage from this documentary led to Kali’s acceptance into the School of Cinematic Arts, and it was there that Kali found the faculty, crew, resources, and support to make her passion for telling the story of Lalo’s House a reality. The film premiered at the Pan African Film Festival on February 10th, winning the Programmers’ Award for Best Short. At the USC screening later in February, there was not a dry eye in the room as the end credits rolled: Lalo’s House enraged the spirit and captivated the heart of the audience.

With a crew of mostly fellow SCA students, a thesis project as daring as Lalo’s House was only able to come to fruition because the right people came together at the right time. In a panel discussion following the screening, Kali was joined by executive producers Lisa L. Wilson and Garcelle Beauvais, as well as producer Victor Pourcel, and the film’s young star, Jasmin Jean-Louisall, all of whom played incredibly important roles in telling this meaningful and uncomfortable story. Pourcel is a graduate student in the Film & Television Production Department at SCA, Lisa Wilson is an Emmy Award-winning producer and development executive, and Beauvais is an celebrated actress with a long list of TV and film credits including a starring role on The Jamie Foxx Show that brought her to prominence. The event was co-presented by the USC Media Institute for Social Change. The panel also included Keyonna Munroe, a trafficking survivor who is CEO of the Pretty2Me organization working to prevent young women from being lured by traffickers, and Damaris Diaz, who is an Assistant Attorney for the Department of Justice and prosecutes traffickers. They joined the Lalo’s House team in answering questions about the making of the film and the prevalence of human trafficking everywhere in the world, saying the scope of advocacy work that Lalo’s House is inspiring to has just begun. As Wilson explained, “My hope is that Lalo’s House will not only spread awareness about the gruesome crime of human trafficking in Haiti, but inform those who are unaware that it is happening around the world. Children and adults are being trafficked in our own communities, and Lalo’s House will be the uncomfortable reminder that we, global citizens, must come together to end trafficking. I don’t care what the statistics are, one child being trafficked is to many.” The next step is to make Lalo’s House into a full-length feature, says Wilson, adding, “The feature is going to push the envelope of social change through art. As filmmakers, we have the responsibility to use our platforms to push for positive social change, and my hope is that our film will have the biggest impact, saving lives.”

For Garcelle Beauvais, who also plays the role of Sister Francine, the villain at the center of Lalo’s House, this project was deeply personal. The actress and executive producer was born in Haiti, immigrating to the United States with her mother and sisters at the age of seven. Now a mother herself, the filming of Lalo’s House was the first time Beauvais’s children had the opportunity to experience her native country. As she explained, “I love my country and I loved being there, but telling a story that is so tragic and knowing that it is happening not only in Haiti but also all over the world was difficult. I am very proud of the way we showed the beauty of the island while at the same time getting to the truth of the tragedy.” The cognitive dissonance in the fact that things this heinous are still occurring in the 21st century is startling, and Lalo’s House does an excellent job of exposing dualities that are too easily unseen: The rainforest canopy looks beautiful from up above, but the production of Lalo’s House shows the reality of what can happen below.

Haiti is a very young country, with 33% of the total 10,461,100 population under the age of 14, and 24% under the age of 24, according to UNICEF in 2015. Producer Victor Pourcel sees this as one of its greatest strengths, “Haiti is literally full of potential. And in a country still recuperating from its wounds after the disastrous Earthquake of 2010 and the hurricane Matthews of 2016, this youth and energy are the best hope or sign that Haiti will fully rebuild itself and thrive.” However, he explains that the innocence of such a youthful population also invites predators. “The abundance of children, the lack of proper documentation or institution tracking, the level of poverty and its economic pressures, the lack of public social system and structure, still make those very children easy prey for human trafficking,” he says. For Pourcel, getting a feature made about this issue is of utmost importance. Lalo’s House has already gained momentum and created a community of people who truly want to make a difference, he says. “If the subject of Lalo's House could gain a more widespread visibility through the powerful canals of art and entertainment, and if we could manage to just hold the time and attention for a second, then people in power could get encouraged or be pushed to address this issue and repair the system where it fell asleep. This is why there is a feature film version of Lalo's House being made right now, the subject is complex and it's important.”

The success of Lalo’s House is a true testament to persistent and patient hard work, and shining example of the courage and dedication it takes to make a dream project come true. It’s especially exemplary as a thesis film, filmed on location in a developing country that is known for being difficult to navigate. For co-writer/director Kelley Kali the stress seemed insurmountable at times but, she says, even when she didn’t know it was her job to convince the team they would get it done. “The most difficult thing was keeping the faith that I can get this story out to the world despite all of the times I fell down trying to get this off the ground,” she says. “Finally, I found a group of people at USC who cared about exposing this issue as much as I did and with the unwavering support of our executive producers, Garcelle and Lisa, it gave me the strength to be able to face the hundreds of other difficult tasks that we were faced with in production.” She adds that, “In all ways, this could not have been possible without USC School of Cinematic Arts. USC gave me the support of other filmmakers to help me realize my vision, they gave me access to state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, they gave me credibility when I went to gather outside support from our executive producers, and the faculty and administration was and still is our foundation to stand on when we encountered issues that we had not handled before. USC had our back and that felt good!”

From left to right, executive producers Lisa L. Wilson and Garcelle Beauvais, with star Jasmin Jean-Louisall and director/co-writer Kelley Kali, joined by Damaris Diaz and Keyonna Munroe.

Middle photo: Producer Victor Pourcel shares an amusing production story with Kali, Beauvais, and Munroe.