This documentary is giving people the courage to speak out about sexual violence

William Sparkes

When the lights come on after a typical screening of Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage, what happens next is inspiring: Survivors of sexual violence start speaking out — many of them for the first time in their lives. Which is exactly what Chelo Alvarez-Stehle was hoping for when she made this film.

Almost eight years ago, Chelo set out to make a documentary that would give women the courage to stand together and share stories about sexual exploitation and violence. That film is now finished. In preview screenings, audience members have been so consistently moved to share their own stories that professional counselors are now present whenever the film is screened.

The message of the film is simple: It’s time that we end the shame that surrounds survivors of sexual violence. It’s time for all of us to come out of the shadows.

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One story the film tracks, is the story of a woman named Virginia and her daughter Lala. After years of being subjected to sexual violence by family and clergy members, Virginia was kidnapped into a Mexican trafficking ring while breastfeeding Lala, her six-month-old baby. Escaping the traffickers with baby Lala in her arms, Virginia ultimately crossed the U.S. border in search of freedom. She then spent a decade rebuilding her life, and becoming a committed advocate against gender exploitation. Virginia then broke the cycle of abuse her life had been engulfed in by confronting her own mother about forcing her to keep silent about the abuse in the family.

At 11, Lala was abused by a pedophile. After a lifetime of seeing her mother speak out about her own abuse, Lala did not keep quiet. Thanks to Lala’s prompt action, they are able to take the offender to jail. We meet Lala six years later, empowered and transformed. Lala, perhaps the only known trafficked baby, breaks her silence about the violence that engulfed her childhood for the first time in this film.

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Virginia and Lala today (image courtesy of Marla Ulloa)

Inspired by Virginia and Lala, Chelo begins a parallel journey of introspection setting out to shatter the silence about abuse in her own family and life — and to capture that on film.

Where Sands of Silence shines is when it shows survivors in the process of struggling with the decision to confront their fears and speak about what happened to them. Chelo’s own sister starts the film off camera, refusing to talk about what a man did to her on the beach one day when she and Chelo were just children. Throughout the course of the film, we hear Chelo’s sister minimize her experience while Chelo challenges her. These verité style family conversations, often confrontational, eventually lead others in Chelo’s family to open up about their experiences with sexual violence. Soon, Chelo admit that she too has been hiding a story of abuse.

As the women in Sands of Silence overcome their feelings of shame and choose to speak out about their experiences, survivors of all types of abuse in the audience are often filled with the courage to take the same step. “I am empowered to go lift up many women who have lost hope, like myself before I met you and Virginia,” said a 24 year-old woman who was trafficked at 15 while crossing the border with her baby.

Characters in the film describe a range of abuse from pedophilia to trafficking, to domestic abuse and religious abuse. But the documentary makes the point that all these forms of exploitation share a common thread. When Chelo shyly mentions to Virginia that her experience was tiny in comparison to hers, Virginia responds: “The level of abuse does not matter. We both know, along with others who have gone through this, that abuse goes beyond the physical pain. It is so much deeper.”

In January, a campaign launched to raise outreach and distribution funds for the documentary on the journalism crowdfunding site, Beacon. The money raised will make it possible for this film to reach people all across the country.

The crowdfunding campaign for Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage ends on March 3rd. Beacon has promised a $25,000 matching grant if the film reaches its $25,000 goal. They’re already 49% of the way there.

You can learn more about the campaign here.
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