Angie: Lost Girls tells the story of a teenager who was forced into a life of sex trafficking, and her family’s journey as they come to terms with what’s happened to her as she recovers.
The film was written and directed by Julia Verdin, and stars Olivia d’Abo. We caught up with both artists to discuss how Angie: Lost Girls came to life and what the film is doing to raise awareness about this devastating issue.
TWFF: Julia, you’re an accomplished filmmaker who has worked on many projects over the years. How did Angie: Lost Girls come about?
JV: I used to volunteer at a children’s shelter for runaway teens and I could tell just from body language that many of them had been through a lot of trauma. I started talking with the staff and volunteers, and I heard heartbreaking stories of what had happened to these young girls. A lot of them are being trafficked. It just seems so awful that this could be actually happening in Los Angeles, and I realized what a prolific problem it was.
And I just kept meeting people working in that world. A friend of mine was dating a detective who was the head of the trafficking division in London. I met people working for NGOs fighting against trafficking and I started getting these invitations for events. It was almost like I felt I was called to do a film on it.
The first thing I did was a short film called Lost Girls and we had a lot of organizations use it for outreach and education—a very positive response from those who didn’t know much about trafficking. I was asked to speak at a World Bank event to nonprofits from all around the world about the film and the filmmaking process, and how nonprofits could use the same process of filmmaking I used for trafficking for their own organization’s issues. In talking with them I learned two things: One, that most nonprofits don’t have people working for them that have storytelling skills or a background in filmmaking. Secondly, they don’t have budget to spend on creating media. Yet, I believe media is one of the most powerful tools for raising awareness and getting people to take action on any issue.
So … call me crazy, but I founded a nonprofit, Artists for Change. I just felt like we could do something here. I got a lot of other artists involved—Olivia and Julian are both on the Advisory Board, for example. Our nonprofit is about creating a community of artists to use their voices whether it be through art. media or film to make good social changes for the better. Our mission is also to create film or other media that helps to raise awareness on various social issues and bring about positive social change.
TWFF: When many people think of ’cause’ films, their brain goes straight to documentary. So, how did you decide creatively to make Angie: Lost Girls a fictional film vs. a story about real victims?
JV: I think that’s an interesting question and I’ll tell you exactly why. It’s because from the research that I’ve done, I believe people go to documentaries when they’re already interested in a topic.
TWFF: That makes sense.
JV: If you think about your own viewing tastes when you watch a documentary, it’s usually because you want to find out more about something you already know a bit about. But I felt like a narrative feature, engaging people emotionally about what happens to Angie and her family—and this incident that tears them apart—would be way more powerful.
TWFF: I’ve seen the film twice now and was very moved by it. It’s incredibly powerful and one thing I found especially interesting was your decision to focus on a victim who was more privileged than a stereotypical victim. Was that to align more with the audience who is going to see this and potentially be able to help?
JV: You hit the button on the head there, and I wish this weren’t true, but the reason that trafficking has been swept under the carpet for so long is because the majority of the teenagers who are getting trafficked are from low-income backgrounds, the foster system, etc. So no one’s jumping up and down about it and I wanted to make a film that will make people jump up and down about it and use our voices to protect those kids who don’t have anyone using a voice for them.
And it does happen in middle class families so it’s not a total stretch of the imagination; it actually happens more than one would think. But a lot of the time, there’s so much shame involved, particularly from the parents, that they don’t want the world to know their daughter was trafficked.
Just like Olivia’s beautiful portrayal of Hayley in the film, as parents they feel like they failed even though it wasn’t their fault. Very often teenagers from these middle class families are trafficked, but we don’t hear about it because it’s hushed up.
TWFF: Olivia, you have such a versatile career—from The Wonder Years to Star Trek to various films. How did you choose this project or did the project choose you?
Od’A: A little bit of both—I wanted to take the opportunity that Julia presented me to work with her because we’ve known each other and been soul sister comrades for so long. Through her passion, I got more familiarized with child trafficking and it’s such a deep, deep wound in our society that we have to heal.
I knew the film would be a tumultuous, emotional roller coaster, but I wanted to take that journey with Julia and everyone. I thought she put together a phenomenal cast, a phenomenal crew and it’s a philanthropic cause I’m passionate about.
TWFF: You’re also a mother in real life—how did you psychologically prepare for those difficult scenes and then afterward, how did you decompress?
Od’A: The mother part of it was a very strong connective tissue for me, playing Hayley. Interestingly enough I have a son, who is a masculine, old soul, Scorpio and someone who knew who he was when he came out. Not that he didn’t get any guidance from me being his mother as I raised him, but there was something beautiful that happened around the feminine energy on the film set having these two girls. The eldest one disappearing and the dynamic of my motherhood toward these two girls.
It’s very scary for a child to return after that kind of trauma and back into their own life. They don’t know who they are. In the scene when Angie comes back and she clutches her stuffed animal—as parents, Randall and I are sensitive to the fact that she needs time, but her sister just wants to go and immediately reconnect with the sisterhood they had. But that’s got to be rebuilt.
So all of those aspects of it I just found so interesting to discover as an actor and they just came naturally for everyone so that was kind of serendipitous. Julia said to me several times on the film that she felt directorially that she was channeling it. She’s a brilliant director, but I think we were all so like a tight-knitted sweater that it all just came and that’s the best kind of experience you can have in art when that happens. We were very lucky.
TWFF: That scene you just mentioned—and all of it, really—seemed very real, felt incredibly authentic. Did you have any special methods of bonding as a cast off-camera to create that space on-screen?
Od’A: I think the natural method was just us being in Julia’s house shooting, really. Because we had such a low budget—which I think was a good thing—I think it worked for the purpose of the film that we shared space together. The living room adjacent to Julia’s bedroom became the green room, but the closet was mine! (laughs) That was my little space to go.
JV: (laughs) My closet became the little meditation center to go to!
TWFF: So, aside from the exteriors and the warehouse, did you shoot the whole film in the house?!
JV: All of the Morgan family scenes, yes. We were so stretched with our budget that I thought I could at least donate my house for part of it, so we made it work. Other scenes were shot at a studio and a number of other locations, though.
TWFF: Since you filmed this back in 2018, it must feel great to have this finally out in the world now.
Od’A: I think it’s a good thing that it came out before the end of 2020 because it was such a clearly unprecedented year. Nobody could’ve been prepared for what’s transpired and I was saying this to Julia the other day I just think that everything’s up right now. Every potential thing that we have to deal with socially, politically, environmentally, racially—all these things in the world.
I think in 2021, us in America are going to go through a healing process, but 2020 was the year to look at everything. We came out of the Me Too movement and Time’s Up, which was substantial for women and boundaries. I think that the subject matter of trafficking is so vital and critical to be dealt with as well. It’s important that we have people’s attention right now. Everything we have to look at is right in front of us. It’s a pivotal time.
JV: Yes, we were originally planning to do a theatrical release with screenings in various areas, but obviously with the pandemic we had to re-think all of that. It ended up being shown for a week at a drive-in, instead.
TWFF: That sounds like fun to me!
Od’A: It was so great!
TWFF: I was thinking about my own childhood and how vulnerable I probably was to this sort of thing, though it never happened to me. I wish I could have seen something like this as a teenager. Do you have plans to get the film into schools for students that age?
JV: Yes, and we’re working on a whole educational curriculum to go along with it. A lot of times with schools, the parents have to see the film first so often the way to introduce it is to get the parents to see it and then if the parents approve it, it gets shown in the school.
TWFF: Julia, you mentioned that you believe media is a very powerful way to spread the word about this issue and Olivia, you mentioned the challenging year that 2020 was, and that brings me to a problem which erupted in 2020, which is “fake news.” Unfortunately there are conspiracy theories surrounding the very real issue of trafficking, so how can regular people who honestly want to learn more about this and help separate fact from fiction?
JV: I think starting with the reputable nonprofits and reading up about it themselves is the best place to start. We have nonprofits that work actively with victims that we recommend. Saving Innocence, Association for the Recovery of Children and there’s also a lot of church groups that do amazing work. I’ve been working with the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force and that’s an amazing group of people as well that’s very involved.
TWFF: I remember the last time I flew into the airport in Las Vegas, in the women’s restroom, inside the stall was a number to call if you were being trafficked. I was horrified, but it made me think—what about all of the other places, the small towns or lesser-known cities that could have a trafficking problem? How can people learn whether or not it’s a problem in their own community?
JV: I think it goes back to keeping your eyes open. The more you observe what’s going on around you and if you see something that doesn’t look right, report it. That’s the power of film—someone who saw my short film used to work up in the Hollywood Hills and saw a young girl being pulled out of a car and dragged into a house by a much older guy. She remembered my film and called the police. And it turned out to be a trafficking house and they closed the house down.
To me, education leads to prevention. When we’re educated and start to understand what trafficking looks like we’ll have our eyes open because we’ve been emotionally affected by it. If teenage girls, because they’ve seen the film, start to recognize the signs of one of their friends being trafficked and report it to someone that friend could be saved.
TWFF: And also our intuition, right? I went back to a book that I read years ago after I saw your film, The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.
Od’A: Great book! He’s something else.
TWFF: Isn’t he? The whole lesson is just to listen to yourself and your body and when things don’t look or feel right, trust your instinct and get yourself out of the situation, or report it if it’s someone else’s situation. I wonder: Have both of you had survivors or parents reach out since seeing the film?
Od’A: I’ve heard from girls around Angie’s age—some younger friends of my son’s, and his girlfriend really related to it. His girlfriend is half-Greek and the same thing had happened to her in Greece, but thankfully her mother saved her. Some guys tried to get her and her girlfriend onto a boat. So you can imagine where they would’ve taken them—another example of how it’s happening globally.
And yes, I’ve had mothers reach out saying they related to the dynamic between my character and the girls. Women have really been responding to it from many different aspects: How susceptible and vulnerable we are at that sort of “Lolita” age. We don’t realize it. And this happens to boys too—it was in my mind when we were filming how I would have reacted if this had happened to my son.
JV: I had a beautiful email from a survivor who had seen the film and liked the fact that I had focused on the struggle that survivors have and the level of trauma they’ve been through, which she said she’d never seen before in a film. That is why I also wanted to focus on that aspect. One of the biggest areas where groups need support is the rehabilitation of survivors to help them get back into society. There is so much shame and grief surrounding this issue. We have to wake up and say Time’s Up on trafficking and Time’s Up on shame.
TWFF: And Time’s Up on men who are capable of such abuses. We as a society focus so much on what girls should do to prevent being victimized, but there shouldn’t be a need for that because both men and women shouldn’t be doing horrible things to begin with. And as we saw in the movie, there are women also involved in trafficking. If we raised our kids right from the start it wouldn’t be happening.
Od’A: Well said!
JV: A very important point there. We struggle to change the conversation and that’s why I want the next generation to see the film, young men especially, because most aren’t getting their sex education from the right places and the images they’re seeing are young women being treated badly or abused. It makes it all seem acceptable and it’s not. So for young men to see this and empathize with Angie’s journey could help. In general women have loved this film, and some men have loved it too, but others expressed that it made them uncomfortable.
Od’A: I think societally in 2020 there’s been so much discomfort to contend with, you watch the news you get uncomfortable. It’s almost like psychologically we’re prone to accepting it because we have no choice. So, let’s get this in there while we’re all open to it!
During the Me Too movement my son was at college and told me that he didn’t look at girls the same way—he was shy and had a more cautious approach. But I think that’s good that there was discomfort because that’s how you affect change. If it doesn’t hurt enough, you don’t feel the deep-rooted feelings that need to be implemented. That’s how change happens in my opinion.
TWFF: Discomfort ignites positive change, for sure. What is next for you both?
Od’A: I feel very strongly about continuing this plight for philanthropic work for Artists for Change. For me, I’m very passionate about the homeless situation, which in L.A. is diabolical. I’ve even noticed bookshelves in the encampments—someone needs to paint this or film this immediately. These aren’t people who have mental health issues; there are so many different divisions of homelessness. There are people who have been on the streets for a number of years who do have mental health issues, but there are also the newer homeless, which are often families. And it’s odd to see, but they’ve made it ‘cozy’ in a way, sort of beautiful in a way.
TWFF: Tragically beautiful.
Od’A: Yes, tragically beautiful—why we need artists to capture this and get all of the metaphors. I want to continue to do whatever I can with philanthropy. Maybe not just acting, I may try directing or set designing—I don’t know. I just want to be part of it. I’m very passionate about it.
As for projects, I was very lucky during the pandemic to shoot two films—one presently untitled with Danny Houston and Stephen Dorff and another called Staycation.
JV: I have another film about trafficking coming up because during the pandemic the numbers have actually gone up. So the focus of this new film will be exploring the aspect of predators coming into the home online.
We also have an event coming up in January (which we’ll post to our website) for anyone who is interested on how we put Angie: Lost girls together and want to learn how to use media for social change. Plus, we’re going to continue screening the film, getting the word out, getting it seen by teenagers, parents and nonprofits, using it for education and prevention.
We want everybody shouting Time’s Up on Trafficking! It shouldn’t be happening in society anymore, it just shouldn’t.
Angie: Lost Girls is streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and YouTube. It will become available in more countries later this year. Sign up to receive updates at Artists for Change.
Photos of Julia Verdin and Angie:Lost Girls Drive-in Event, courtesy of Julia Verdin.
Photo of Olivia d’Abo, courtesy of Olivia d’Abo.