Though most think of slavery ending in the U.S. in the 1800s, a new form of slavery — human trafficking — quietly thrives across the country today.

Human trafficking includes sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In the United States, thousands of children are purchased and sold into sex trafficking, some as young as infants.

Awareness is growing, and locally, it will receive a shot in the arm when the award-winning film “California’s Forgotten Children” makes its Missouri debut Tuesday night inside Missouri Southern State University’s Corley Auditorium.

The documentary recounts true stories of girls and boys who were commercially exploited sexually in California. These individuals not only survived their ordeals but thrive today as advocates for human trafficking victims.

The film’s director, Melody Miller, first caught wind of this modern form of illegal slavery while still in high school, watching two documentaries about child sex trafficking from India and Europe. What she saw on screen horrified her.

“This issue, that I had no idea about, started to open my world,” Miller said. “I had this urge to immediately start helping in some way.”

She did, by volunteering for a local nonprofit in Oakland, California, named MISSSEY, whose motto is: “Every child is too valuable to be bought or sold.”

Along the way, she “found out that we were actually helping children in the United States — American-born kids, some going to my high school,” Miller said. “That just blew my mind.”

Now a professional cinematographer and documentarian — she has won various film awards nationwide, including The Motion Picture Association of America Award and Women in Film Award — Miller decided to make her own film to inspire others like those two films did for her.

“I watched a lot of films about child trafficking before I started mine, and I wanted to focus on my state” — California, home to three of the largest child sex trafficking areas in the nation — “to show how much trafficking is going on in hopes that other states will look closely at their cities and communities,” she said.

While the subject matter is dark, she said being a documentarian is like being an investigator in that to shed positive light on something, you must first uncover some of the darkest parts of humanity.

“But with that dark,” she said, “you can find the stars that shine the brightest — which is hope. I did experience vicarious trauma, and I learn from the film to have self-care. I think anyone working in the fields of social justice, it can be very heavy.”

“California’s Forgotten Children” — which Miller completed in 2018 and promptly won Best Documentary at the Soho International Film Festival — will air at 6 p.m. Tuesday. It is free and open to the public. Sponsored by RISE Coalition, the screening will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Miller as well as husband and fellow cinematographer Jason Knutzen, a 2005 graduate of Carl Junction High School. Joining the two filmmakers on stage will be Joplin Police Department Detective Chip Root, Rapha House’s Angie Brower and Karolyn Schrage, of Life Choices and RISE Coalition. There, they will discuss the various problems facing Missouri officials and what to do to stop it and help the survivors.

“I’m very proud to have had a role in the making of this very important film and believe it has already made a huge impact in bringing the subject of trafficking to light in communities across America and around the world,” said Knutzen, who now lives in Los Angeles and shot visuals for the documentary. Before working on the film, “I wasn’t aware of the pervasiveness of the issue, and in collaborating with Melody, it has been very insightful not only professionally but personally as well.”

While this is the film’s first public showing anywhere in the Show-Me State, “California’s Forgotten Children” has previously been shown in 17 international film festivals, 70 nationwide screenings in nearly a dozen states, the U.S. Senate, Facebook headquarters, Nepal and the UK. But getting people to actually see the film was a difficult journey at first, Miller said.

Their numerous rejections, she said, “broke my heart, after spending so much love, care, funds, time and effort making (it). I would ask the festivals why, and they would say they didn’t think it was important or that they wouldn’t sell enough tickets — some even said that they didn’t think their community would care. I really felt hopeless in humanity. But it just took one festival to say yes and give the film the opportunity to shine.”

After that, the film took off.

“It makes me proud, grateful and worth every sweat and tear to hear audiences’ reactions and how the film changes their lives after watching it,” she said.

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