Three Iowa natives are raising funds to begin production on the documentary Gridshock: A Film about Sex Trafficking in Iowa, a “wake-up call” regarding the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise. Gridshock will be an exploration of the sex trafficking trade in Iowa, uncovering “the underground and horrendous crimes that are running rampant in our communities,” according to filmmakers Vanessa McNeal (co-director), Alex Schuman (co-director) and cinematographer Taylor Bluemel.
As stated in Gridshock promotional materials: “With its geometrically even 99 counties, Iowa appears from the sky to be a perfect grid — tidy and balanced. But all around us is a thinly veiled market trading in sexually enslaved human beings, mostly women and children. In two online clicks, you can purchase — for sex against their will — an infant, child, or adolescent; a woman or man; in any county in Iowa.”
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and Jan. 11 was national Human Trafficking Day (courtesy of a 2010 proclamation signed by President Barack Obama).
Human trafficking is a lucrative industry with high profits and low risk. Braking Traffik, an anti-trafficking activism program of the Davenport-based organization Family Resources, notes this black market affects nearly 21 million people worldwide. Despite the efforts of law enforcement to sound the alarm in recent years, many in the Hawkeye State are not aware that trafficking is taking place in their own communities. The creative forces behind Gridshock are hoping to change that.
To raise the funds necessary to produce Gridshock, filmmakers are using the crowdsourcing platform IndieGoGo. Having raised just over one third of their $35,000 goal, Gridshock co-director Vanessa McNeal said that if the fundraising goal is not reached by next month, the film cannot be made.
McNeal told Little Village, “Most people do not know what sex trafficking is, or they do not know it is happening in Iowa. The average mind can’t even fathom it is happening here. It is easier to think it’s happening in other places or in big cities. It is underground, but just because it’s happening in the shadows doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
McNeal previously directed the acclaimed documentary The Voiceless, featuring male survivors discussing sexual abuse, for which she was awarded the Best Director prize at the Newark International Film Festival. Drawing on her own experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse, McNeal said she “fell into” filmmaking because she recognized film as a powerful platform for discussing underreported subjects. Last year, McNeal founded the production company McNeal Media with the goal, she said, of “creating social change through the art of storytelling.” She attended Iowa State University and received a master’s degree in social work at the University of Northern Iowa.
Co-director Alex Schuman grew up in Fort Dodge and later attended the University of Iowa. Schuman went on to work as a news anchor in local television markets with a knack for covering politics. He relocated to Washington D.C. to establish a news bureau covering the national political scene for over 170 stations around the country. In addition to covering politics and human trafficking, Schuman has directed the documentaries Love v. Kentucky and The Obvious Choice. Schuman was an Iowa Broadcast News Association award for his coverage of sex trafficking in Iowa.
McNeal said she met Schuman in the summer of 2017. “We are really passionate about this,” she said of making the film and trying to raise awareness for the issues involved.
It wasn’t long before cinematographer Taylor Bluemel, a friend of McNeal’s who studied at the University of Northern Iowa and is now based in Portland, Oregon, was brought on board. Bluemel has worked on a number of projects from film to music videos to commercials. McNeal praised Bluemel’s photographic abilities by saying he will help make the film “inspiring and educational.”
The investigative documentary derives its title from the term “gridlock,” which the filmmakers define as “a traffic jam affecting a network of intersecting streets.” Iowa is located in what the filmmakers call the “crosshairs” of the intersection of interstates 80/35, which they say makes the it “uniquely suited to transport human cargo quickly and efficiently.”
This assessment has been corroborated by retired Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative Director (Iowa Department of Justice) Michael J. Ferjak, who provides specialized training for law enforcement and civic groups. Ferjak appears in the trailer for Gridshock and is scheduled to appear in the film.
To help audiences explore this shadowy underworld, the film will share the stories of people — law enforcement, social workers, medical professionals and activists — who have attempted to block the flow of trafficking in the state. Delving even deeper, it will expose the former traffickers operating in these dark networks, their methods and their motivations. However, the most important task to the filmmakers is to shine light on survivors. With the goal of creating an educational tool for audiences, Gridshock, according to its IndieGoGo page, will examine “The vulnerabilities that traffickers target. The emotional manipulation. The psychological warfare. The brutal everyday reality of sexual slavery.”
There are numerous misconceptions about the human slave trade, common myths being fostered which hinder efforts to recognize the signs and saving victims. McNeal said she learned two important things during the research period for the film. The first: Most trafficking victims are not abducted off the streets by strangers. Many are coerced, blackmailed or manipulated by people they know, including family members.
Despite this fact, “Many people have a narrow view on how this can happen,” McNeal said.
The second: Many who procure the exploitative and degrading services enabled by human trafficking are people with money. Journalist Nick Bryant noted in a January 2012 USA Today article, “Child Sexual Abuse’s Second Shame,” “The reality is that many perpetrators are not shady men in dirty, threadbare trench coats living in seedy hotels, but are, in fact, pillars of our community.”
“They’re people with money,” McNeal said. “They’re people with power who are making the calls for services.”