Most people understand that women are exploited throughout the world but we rarely put a face on people who go through this. One short film we came across decided to bring this reality to light. Niclas Gillis’ “Hold Me Down” tells the story of a 19-year-old single mother who supports her child at an illegal South Bronx nightclub. Employing women from the Bronx and real-life places with a past, the film explores just what these women go through. We interviewed the director, Niclas Gillis, to get a further look at the story.
What was the inspiration for telling this story?
When I moved to America back in 2009, I was invited to what I thought would be a regular house party in Harlem, but that proved to be an illicit event similar to the one depicted in the film. I witnessed a young woman have sex with a stranger on the floor of a crowded room for single dollar bills, and was shocked. We were the same age, and yet our realities seemed so far apart. When I asked her if she was okay, she told me that she had a two-year-old daughter and that this was what she had to do to survive. I couldn’t understand what sort of country would allow for a young mother to have to go through this to support her child, and I feared for what would become of her daughter. Most troubling of all was the realization that her predicament seemed to be so common. It prompted me to more seriously study American history and its bearings on the present day reality. The more I learned, the more troublesome the situation appeared. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, there is almost no other country in the developed world in which the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it is here. And in spite of the so called “American Dream”, a person born into poverty in America is less likely to make it out of poverty by adulthood than in almost any other developed nation. So five years later, I set out to make a film that I hoped would give the women who live that life the opportunity to tell their own story, to raise awareness of the conditions that they face, and inspire change.
What issues did you have adapting real-life events to the film?
The hardest thing to cope with was the fact that while we were filming, the women involved were still going through the very reality that we were addressing, so I was most often in a state of fear, fearing for their safety. Every three weeks someone would be hurt in a very real way, and my own inability to prevent that from happening, my inability to protect them, to help them immediately, was extremely hard to deal with. Now, thanks in large part to Project Rousseau, most of them have been able to gain stability in their lives. Tianna, who played the lead, has moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting, and both Tanisha and Unique are now pursuing higher education. We’ve only gotten closer, and quite frankly, we’ve only just begun.
The film employed real-life survivors of sexual exploitation and was filmed on location at a real brothel; what issues arose from that?
Of course the biggest concern was making sure that the women felt empowered and that the depiction was dignified. When filming, everyone was “acting” so nothing ever got out of hand. But I have to say that I really hit my ceiling as a director when it was time to shoot the rape scene. Nothing is more nauseating than sexual violence. I couldn’t ask a nineteen year old survivor to act out such a traumatic event for a film, so we resorted to realizing the moment through audio, and to look at the men instead. I think that was the right way to go.
How did you pull off the opening scene with the fly?
Trade secret. I usually say that the flies were trained and that we used a whistle, but the truth of the matter is that it was a moment of sheer luck; just movie magic at its best.
What messages do you want to send with this film?
Obviously, the purpose of the film is to raise awareness, but fundamentally, we all wanted it to be about our shared humanity. We want viewers to realize that we’re all human, that we all bleed the same color, and that we all deserve the same basic human rights.
What is the meaning of the title, “Hold Me Down?”
‘Hold Me Down’ is slang that means “be there for me”. Listen to Tianna talk about the title here:
What other projects are you working on?
Right now we’re actually in early pre-production on a feature film in the same world, called ‘Trouble Child’. Based on a true story, Trouble Child will depict a young woman’s journey from an abusive childhood in South Philadelphia, through her time at a juvenile correctional facility in Virginia, her dramatic escape, and descent into prostitution in the Bronx. It will be a further examination of the conditions faced by women in poverty in the United States, the rampant violence, and the perils of the criminal justice system. As in Hold Me Down, all the parts will be played by real people. Expect Tanisha Lambright to soar.
Hold Me Down is now available online: https://vimeo.com/holdmedown