This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
They start the class by lying on the ground, and the three instructors move throughout the room, adjusting the girls’ feet. Next, the girls sit with their backs ramrod straight and legs crossed, palms facing up and the backs of their hands resting on their knees. The scene is still and calm. Not tranquil, but there’s a feeling of steadiness, of pause.
Then come the masks. The girls draw simple faces on blank paper, snip out eyeholes, and thread string through the outside edge of the paper. Once the masks are on, the girls begin dancing. They vigorously stomp and slap. They smash and punch the air. When the dance finishes, the girls stand quietly while the main instructor, Sohini Chakraborty, the founder of the nonprofit that runs these dance classes, moves from girl to girl, pulling the mask off of each girl’s face and tearing the paper in half.
The dance class takes place in the HASUS Shelter Home, which houses girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking or child abuse. A few days before this class was filmed, one of the girls from the shelter hung herself, and the dancers’ mixture of stillness and anger in the therapy session speaks to the welter of betrayal, camaraderie, and catharsis the girls could be feeling. The scene is a sobering reminder that the consequences of gender-based violence don’t just live on in the bodies and minds of survivors but in the silences of those who are no longer present to testify.
“I was thinking that maybe I am responsible, maybe the entire process doesn’t work properly,” Chakraborty says of her emotional response to the news of the girl’s death. “But it’s part of the entire process. The process has successes, and the process has risks. It’s a challenge, and it creates an impact. But it’s not something that we [in the class] hide, we share it.”
Chakraborty’s work using dance therapy to help girls exploited in sex trafficking and child abuse cases is just one of four narratives in the film Little Stones, which was written, directed, and produced by LSA alumna Sophia Kruz (A.B. 2011). The stories also address domestic violence, genital mutilation, and poverty. In all four, art and cultural production are used to empower people through education, personal expression, and truth-telling.
The title for the film comes from a quote by the suffragist Alice Paul, who said, “I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone.”
“I think this film is resonating with people in part because of the time that we’re living in,” Kruz says. “This is in many ways a really difficult moment, and I think people are really moved to take action right now. Especially women.”
The organization placed Kruz’s group in a hospital in Dar es Salaam. The students were assigned to produce a short film on preventable blindness for the Clinton Global Initiative. The hospital also offered obstetric fistula repair.
“I’d never heard of it before,” Kruz says. “It doesn’t often happen in the developed world, where access to maternal health care is better. But in the developing world, women in rural areas who have complications during childbirth could be in labor for days without seeing a doctor or midwife. In that time, the baby’s head can damage the mother’s tissue and make the woman incontinent. And many of these women end up ostracized from their community.”
The women in the Students of the World program were invited to visit the obstetric fistula ward, and Kruz met women from all over Tanzania. Some of the women had been living with their condition for 50 years.
“It blew my mind that these preventable tragedies were happening to women around the world,” Kruz says. “It was a really formative experience for me as a college student.”
Kruz also visited a nonprofit organization in Dar es Salaam associated with the hospital that gave women recovering from fistula repair surgeries a place to recuperate. The organization held workshops to help these women improve their lives. The women received vocational training, such as beading and printmaking, and learned skills such as money management, health and hygiene, and literacy.
“I saw the power of art to build confidence and create community and the importance of having a vocational skill,” Kruz says. “That really stuck with me, what the lack of access to maternal care means for women. The power of art to create healing and social change did, too.”
“A friend who came back from a Fulbright fellowship in India told me about this amazing woman named Sohini Chakraborty who was using dance to rehabilitate sex-trafficking survivors,” Kruz says. “I started ballet when I was two and participated in a modern dance company called Cadence at U-M, and I think that the idea really resonated with me—that dance can help you get back into your body and learn to love your body again. I was interested in women’s issues and in using art for social change, and I think I was just primed and ready for a story like this. And it just fell into my lap.”
From there, Kruz began researching other women who were using art to tackle gender and equality issues around the world, which led to her discovery of artist Panmela Castro’s anti-domestic abuse graffiti in Brazil, musician Sister Fa’s work to eliminate genital mutilation in Senegal, and fashion designer Anna Taylor’s anti-poverty efforts through her company Judith & James in Kenya.
Once she decided to begin the project, Kruz started her search for a cinematographer. She knew that there would be times when interviews would touch on sensitive subject matter, and she believed that a female creative partner would be instrumental to having the project succeed.
“I knew that we were going into situations, for instance into villages in Senegal, where we were going to ask girls who were 10 or 11 to talk about being cut,” Kruz says. “This is a taboo subject in these communities, because it’s illegal and because it’s considered personal and private. In India, we were interviewing young girls who had been rescued from sex trafficking, and having a woman behind the camera, I think, made them more comfortable, also.”
But finding a female cinematographer wasn’t easy. All of the cinematographers Kruz knew through her work at PBS were men, as were her cinematographer friends from school. Kruz’s boss put her in contact with some producers in Los Angeles who connected Kruz with Meena Singh, a woman who had a lot of experience with television and feature films, but not with documentaries.
“This was her first entry into documentary, and I think it shaped her a lot,” says Kruz. “Meena rolled with the grueling travel schedules and the small budget, and she was great at handling all of the extreme shooting environments that we were in. She was such a great creative collaborator, and together we were able to make and finish the film.”
After principal photography was complete, Kruz was selected as a visiting social activist fellow at U-M’s Center for the Education of Women. Because of that support, she was able to leave her job at Detroit Public Television and put together a rough cut of the film. The center also introduced Kruz to faculty at U-M’s School of Education, who helped her develop educational materials for the film. Then, in March of last year, the film made its debut.
Since then, it has won a slew of awards around the world, including recognition from the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, the Vail Film Festival, the Female Eye Film Festival, the Zonta Film Festival, the Docutah Film Festival, and the Impact Doc Awards.
The film has also inspired viewers to use art to make change around issues that mattered to them. Following an Ann Arbor screening of the film, 100 high school students from Ann Arbor and Detroit participated in a workshop in Liberty Plaza using poster design and spoken word poetry to advocate for social change. And activists in Bend, Oregon, held a four-day series of art workshops preceded by a sold-out screening of the film.
“Events like the one in Oregon are a dream,” Kruz says. “As a filmmaker, you go work on something for four or more years, and you’re just hoping that it resonates with audiences. Then people show up and not only respond, but they are inspired to take action themselves. That kind of thing is so rewarding.”
Kruz is still working full time supporting the film and has speaking engagements and screenings scheduled through the first part of 2018. (The film will be available from iTunes in July.) She also dedicates time to Driftseed, a nonprofit Kruz co-founded with Little Stones cinematographer Meena Singh and attorney Ankita Singh, whose mission is to use education, outreach, and documentary storytelling to improve the lives of girls and women.
“Art is a great access point,” Kruz says. “It’s a great way to engage new people in a dialogue and to get people excited. We’re not just talking about terrible problems with no end in sight. I think we can really offer people some solutions.”