Sometimes it takes a child to show the world a story's essence, but it takes filmmakers to document the layers as they peel back.
When Eric and Alex Harr showed their 8-year-old daughter Vivienne a photo of two Nepalese brothers holding hands atop a Himalayan mountain with rocks strapped to their heads and backs, Vivienne did what almost no one would do: She started a lemonade stand dedicated to raising money for children in debt-bondage slavery.
The photo came from the collection "Modern Day Slavery" by award-winning humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine, who intended to document "the pain of modern day slavery and the hope of freedom, allowing us to bear witness to the most horrible abuses imaginable and the most astonishing glimpses of the indomitable human spirit." This example of visual storytelling, full of dignity and reality, had a ripple effect far wider than any of the participants would foresee.
Approximately 20-30 million people are enslaved around the world today, so though the issue is still very much relevant, it is hardly an easy subject to tackle. "Every abolitionist movement has depended on striking images and stories, and what Lisa's work does is put a face to the stories," said Maurice Middleberg, executive director for Free the Slaves, the benefiting organization of Lisa Kristine (and later, as the story unfolds, of Vivienne Harr).
Shocked by the photo, and all that it represented, young Vivienne wanted to help. "Lemonade was basically the only business experience I had, so I just went with that," she told me on the phone. Make a Stand Lemon-Aid was born, and for the next 365 days, Vivienne set up her stand and sold cups of homemade lemonade. "People think other people are so greedy and that they never want to help, but once people learn about it, everyone wants to help," Vivienne says. Once she adopted her "Pay What's in Your Heart" model, the proceeds finally started rolling in – to the tune of $150,000. A few months in, Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion Films took notice while searching for a cause to highlight in a short film project. Fast-forward a few weeks, and Stillmotion was documenting their first feature-length documentary film.
"Originally, we thought that this was Vivienne's story, and in the end we discovered it's so much greater than that. Vivienne was our invitation to explore the fact that modern-day slavery exists in the world today," Grant Peelle, creative director of original programming for Stillmotion, told me over the phone.
What sets this Stillmotion film apart is that it acts not as an exposé, but rather a story in which the filmmakers thread all of these worlds together using beautiful cinematography, a concise but effective storyline, and artistic technical choices – even a custom soundtrack featuring Vivienne's glass lemonade bottles as percussion.
By intentionally contrasting Vivienne's luck by birth with the hows and whys of families trapped by generational bonded labor, the film highlights the remarkable, relatable power of children's spirits. "We knew that Vivienne was going to be the hope in the film and that we were going to have some terribly painful images that we were going to have to share, of slavery. Those images have a different color, a different quality to them ... so you understand the juxtaposition of the two different worlds – Vivienne's world and the world of the children who are enslaved," says Peelle.
"Open conversation about inequality is half the battle for human rights everywhere," declares the narrator; the very title of the film, #standwithme, serves as a social invitation. "We have very purposely structured this film as a social invitation to be aware of the topic," Peelle says. "We encourage [people] to participate as a family and create an open dialogue about [modern-day slavery], and to evaluate the decisions and actions that they can change in order to create more freedom."
How we tell the stories matters, but what we do with the insight going forward matters most. Now 10 years old, Vivienne offers this advice to other kids who feel inspired: "Just keep going and don't let anyone squash your dreams." She continues to financially support Free the Slaves and the other organizations with the money she raises selling her Lemon-Aid, which is available at an increasing number of retailers and online at www.makeastand.com (still offered at a "Pay What's in Your Heart" price).
#standwithme screens in Austin on Feb. 18. For ticket info, visit www.standwithmemovie.com.
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