Hidden in Plain Sight: Q&A With Paradise Highway Director Anna Gutto

Human trafficking is a devastating and urgent crime that affects every country and community around the world. But it is an issue that is often hidden in plain sight.

Children make up almost one-third of trafficked persons worldwide. The voices of these children need to be heard. Because when our stories are heard and understood, we can begin to heal.

Paradise Highway is one such story that is representative of the thousands of children who are trafficked, and how the people they encounter play a role in how their story ends. In tragedy — or in hope and healing.

We sat down with the writer and director of the film, Anna Gutto, and discussed why stories like these are important to tell.

What is Paradise Highway about?

Paradise Highway portrays a female trucker and deals with aspects of human trafficking. To save the life of her brother, Sally, a truck driver reluctantly agrees to smuggle illicit cargo: a girl named Leila. As Sally and Leila begin a danger-fraught journey across state lines, a dogged FBI operative and his partner set out on their trail, determined to do whatever it takes to terminate a human-trafficking operation — and bring Sally and Leila to safety.

Where did you find inspiration for this film?

The inspiration initially came from reading and watching everything about trafficking, and talking with people who had experience in the field. This was the core of my research. As I continued digging into the story, I became familiar with a community of female truckers through Desiree Wood and her advocacy organization REAL Women in Trucking.

I went on the road with Desiree, spending my days in the cab and nights in the bunk. She also invited me to participate in conference calls she and her colleagues would have. They would talk about everything from engine repairs and the very technical challenges of truck driving, experiences of assault at the truck stops, and the traumas of their personal lives.

All these women had made strong choices to make a better life for themselves. I grew a deep respect for all these women which translated into scenes and dialogue in the script, and the decision to cast two of the trucker women in the movie: Desiree and Dianne McNair-Smith.

Getting to know these women and their stories made me want to tell this story even more.

For most of us, trucks are just an annoyance on the road, but these are the people who bring us everything we eat and wear — and many of us know nothing about them. I realized how eager we were to know them. We want to see what’s inside those tin cans and what living in a truck is like. It’s exciting and exotic in a way. Finding the environment of trucking brought the story to life.

The more I learned about trafficking, about the trucking industry, and later about the work of the FBI, the more vibrant the characters would become.

What drew you to such a challenging topic?

As a child, I had to confront the reality of trafficking. Not as a victim, but as a bystander. Someone who maybe could’ve done something.

When I was around 17, there was a police bust in my friend’s building of a sex trafficking ring. It shook me to the core. This was a neighborhood just like yours or mine. And still, right under my nose, young girls had been trafficked. While my friends and I had been listening to music and sharing hopes and dreams of all the great things we would do in our lives, girls my age had been forced to have sex with strangers just a few apartments below.

The reality of trafficking happening right under my nose stayed with me, and it made me conscious of not turning a blind eye, but wanting to be aware of what I was seeing.

When I became a filmmaker, I wanted to create a movie about the topic — a film that people want to see, about a topic most people don’t want to talk about.

Which character do you feel most connected to? Most challenged by?

I connect with all of the characters in the story at different levels, that’s how it is when I write characters, is that I have to find something to connect with each of them. That said, I definitely connect most with the lead characters, Sally and Leila. Their strength and doubts, and the power they can summon when necessary.

The most challenging character was the character of the trafficker, Claire. It is very difficult to gain an understanding of how someone can sell children for sex. I will never quite manage to understand it, yet I understand enough about how damaged people may hurt others as part of their survival. That a person can become so damaged that they lose their humanity. The greatest danger in our society is the evil it creates when people lose their humanity.

The cast is incredible, how did you attach them to a film with a challenging topic?

The challenging topic was a big part of why the cast got involved actually. They cared about the topic and wanted to be part of it.

You worked with some advocacy groups on the film, can you share how their work helped shape the story or outcome?

The knowledge and research I could access through the advocacy groups shaped many aspects of the story. Every detail in the film comes from some part of the research I did, and a lot of that research came from the work of the advocacy groups. I have great respect for their work and can only hope that the film can advance their work in some ways.

What is the one thing you want the audience to feel or remember when seeing the film?

To love and care about people around you. To keep an eye out for each other, and also those who might not be just in your family or friends. Sometimes, all that’s needed to help someone who is vulnerable is to not look the other way– to care.

Everyone has a role to play in keeping children safe. The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children is committed to equipping you with knowledge, tools, and resources so that you can play an active role in preventing, identifying, and supporting those who have experienced exploitation. Through collaborations like this one, we hope to raise awareness for an issue that is hidden in plain sight — in your town, your community — and embolden you to join the fight for a safer world for every child.

Learn more about how you can help identify and stop human trafficking and exploitation. Visit icmec.org/trafficking

Paradise Highway, a film by Anna Gutto. Cast: Juliette Binoche (Sally), Frank Grillo (Dennis), Hala Finley (Leila), Cameron Monaghan (Special Agent Sterling), Veronica Ferres (Rose), Christiane Seidel (Claire), Morgan Freeman (Gerick)

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The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children defends children from sexual exploitation, abuse, or the risk of going missing. icmec.org