Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

‘Even When I Fall’ seeks to empower, not sensationalise, trafficked women

A new documentary tells the story of three Nepali women using the skills they acquired after being ‘sold’ into the circus to keep others from making the same mistake. 

Kate McLarnon Sky Neal
30 March 2016

Circus Kathmandu. Provided by authors, all rights reserved.

‘Even When I Fall’ tells the story of three young Nepali women who are all survivors of human trafficking into corrupt big-top circuses across India. They met as teenagers in a Kathmandu refuge after they had been rescued, and it is here that we begin our story – in the often overlooked aftermath of a childhood spent in captivity and forced labour. They were inadvertently left with a secret weapon by their captors: their breathtaking skill as circus performers. The film traces their journey as they work hard with 10 other survivors of human trafficking to build Circus Kathmandu – Nepal’s first and only circus – following their stories as they face the families that sold them and seek acceptance within their own communities.

‘Even When I Fall’ has been five years in the making and we're currently raising the final funds needed to finish it. Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform and we only have a few days to raise the full amount. Please join us and help finish the film.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery sat down with the directors of the new documentary ‘Even When I Fall’ to discuss why the film was made, why they chose to focus more on empowerment than on exploitation, and their take on the wider visual representation of trafficking in popular media.

What inspired you to make this film?


Sky NealKate McLarnon

Sky Neal, co-director and founder of the film, originally planned a trip to India to combine her anthropology and filmmaking work with her skills as an aerialist/trapeze artist. Once she found out about the scale of the trafficking and corruption in Indian circuses – and it must be emphasised not in all of them – her journey turned a corner. She went instead across one of the busiest human trafficking borders in the world to Nepal to work with a charity carrying out the complicated and arduous work of identifying, rescuing, and offering refuge to Nepali nationals working in Indian circuses. Joining the Nepali and Indian team carrying out the tense and risky rescue operations, and helping back at the refuge, Sky got to know some of the young women who feature in the film.

As she was being freed one of the girls had asked: “what will I do now? All I know is circus”. It became clear that for many of the rescued people there was a need and an opportunity to use creative education, circus, and film to facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration. Sky drew on her range of skills to support the charity’s educational and therapeutic work, gradually helping some of the group build new, professional careers. Through film she saw she could take their story to a global audience. Finding common language through the circus sessions, her rapport with the group created a space where the young people could share their experiences and thoughts on the present and their futures. Kate McLarnon (Kate and Sky met on the Goldsmith’s visual anthropology course in London) joined her some months later for a trip to Kathmandu, and once she had met the young people and spent three weeks filming and talking with them, she was inspired to help tell the story.

What do you hope to achieve with the film? What is its key message?

Trailer for 'Even When I Fall'.

There is no doubt any increase in awareness of and reduction in human trafficking would be the greatest hope and most important achievement – but I think the focus of our project and even our most realistic ambition is more subtle. It has come to be a story about the self-esteem, the creativity, and the expression of those affected by trafficking – and especially a story about the women.

We collaborate with three women in particular to help them tell their own story, to represent themselves on camera, as on stage. With the film we are trying to create an empathy that humanises, that conjures the complexity of the reality that isn’t captured by statistics and the gruesome stories of abuse and slavery. What happens to women when they go back to their communities and families, back to ‘normal’ life, and try to form new relationships? How do they feel about returning to a country that some were taken from as very young children – to a country that has become foreign? How do they move forward, deprived of education? How do they lay a path away from their past?

The hope is that greater empathy will inspire better support and compassion (both globally and in Nepal) for victims of trafficking (or of rape, kidnap or abuse) and their families and better understanding about the context in which it happens. And of course if there is more empathy I hope more people will be inspired to campaign or fundraise for change.

The story we are telling brings us into contact with inspirational and talented circus artists, who have emerged from their experience with power, strength, and the ability for defiance and positive action. A big part of what we are doing with ‘Even When I Fall’ is passing on some of the inspiration they have given us. We want our film to amaze and entertain as this takes place. Often issue-led documentaries – with vitally important ideas to explore – are passed over by viewers due to the intense and depressing experience of watching them all the way through. We are following the lead of Circus Kathmandu; using the seductive beauty of circus to enthral the senses while addressing a serious subject.


A still from 'Even When I Fall'. Provided by authors, all rights reserved.

Representations of trafficking are often disempowering, often almost voyeuristic. How did you critically approach the representation of trafficked people? What conscious decisions did you make to present a different image?

The work to represent the subjects of our documentary in a way that does them justice is very much still going on – with final shoots and post-production still ahead of us. Some of the toughest decisions in documentary are always in the editing room. The balance between describing their dignity and referring to a past in which this dignity was abused continues to be one of the challenges, but it is also one of the subjects at the heart of the film.

One thing that is often overlooked in the fight against trafficking is the stigmatisation of survivors. That’s the double indignity that they endure. This happens within their communities and countries, but is often also perpetuated by well-meaning storytellers and charity workers. Circus Kathmandu itself (which was co-founded Sky) also walks the line of not emphasising the victimhood of the artists, but at the same time giving them a platform to speak from personal experience, raising awareness in trafficking prone communities and worldwide.

The challenge, the balance, is inherent in the process, and facing this challenge is absolutely necessary in taking a stand against the stigma. To be in a position where they can stand up and use the power of their authenticity to provoke change (however small – a child saved – a mother informed) but to feel pride in that action is where we want to help them to be. The fact that they gained their skills under duress while enslaved, and now use them freely to forge an international career and to find a platform from which to speak, is a story so poignant it’s almost difficult to believe. It so vividly describes the movement of turning past struggles into future strength – of living, of owning, your life again, scars and all.


Circus Kathmandu. Provided by authors, all rights reserved.

Of course not all survivors will be taking to the stage, and this story we hope resonates around the wider suffering of abused women. The narrative we follow does not focus on the abuse, but on the rising above of those who refuse to be defined by it. It’s a challenge to a society that, unwittingly or not, treats their abuse like a full stop on their life. The people we have talked to hope that women will feel less shame in speaking up and feel more able to change their lives – and that there will be greater external support to help them do that.

But it is necessarily a balance and an ongoing conversation. One of the biggest challenges I think is not the tone being struck in the film itself, but in the process of trying to raise money for the production. Without the film and its subjects to speak for themselves it can be difficult to find language we all feel comfortable with, and at the same time attract the interest and understanding of people in a hurry.  

Trafficking isn’t a black and white issue for many communities. Some don’t even recognise the concept of ‘trafficking’ to be part of a global, let alone local, slavery phenomenon. Poverty, illness, death, disasters – like the ongoing earthquakes – all mean families are vulnerable to seeing sending a loved one away as the only option.

The shades of grey within trafficking, human rights and gender issues specific to this group challenged us to portray the nuances and broader representation than is often seen. We also hope to address and challenge some of the myths surrounding trafficking both locally and globally.

Why is your film and its focus so different from standard anti-trafficking narratives?

I would like to mention here the family focus of the film. While we are often told harrowing stories about the struggles of trafficking victims as individuals, we hear very little of the wider family networks affected by the trafficking trade. We are still weighing up exactly how much of the very complicated and varied family stories we have captured will make it into the film, but we are certain that we want to explore and share the experiences of some of the mothers we have met. The shorthand thought afforded the mothers (and fathers) who ‘sell’ their children or send them away doesn’t usually do them justice. While every case is different, many of these parents are misled and lied to. They are told their children will be fed, clothed, educated and paid, and even that they can visit them.  Most are desperate due to entrenched poverty, and thus are easy prey to appealing tales of hope. This grave exploitation of a parent’s desire to see his or her children have better lives leaves many heartbroken with grief and guilt when they realise the truth.

‘Even When I Fall’ has been five years in the making and we're currently raising the final funds needed to finish it. Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform and we only have a few days to raise the full amount. Please join us and help finish the film.

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