Imagine living for a month amongst incredible mountain views, ornate temples, running waterfalls, colorful festivals, and beautiful elephants. I did. But, all that I can seem to focus on in my memories of Thailand are the people that I left behind.
After reading Blindfold Magazine’s 2013 exclusive article with Urban Light founder, Alezandra Russell, I knew that I had to meet her. Little did I know that the story I had read, which had blown my mind, was only a piece the puzzle that made up this powerhouse of a woman. Urban Light is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring, rebuilding and empowering the lives of young men who are victims of abuse and exploitation in the Thailand sex trade. Alezandra Russell was visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2009 when she witnessed the victimization of these boys first-hand. Upon returning to the United States, Alezandra could not deter her thoughts from what she had seen. Her husband encouraged her to sell her wedding and engagement rings so that she could use the money to go back to Thailand and live out what would become her life’s vocation.
Seven years later, Urban Light is a four story community center where hundreds of boys can come to eat fresh meals, get counseling and emergency medical treatment, language and cultural education, as well as legal aide. I could write an entire book on the amazing work that each of the Urban Light team members do to keep the mission Alezandra started going, and progressing. They are not only intelligent and loving, but also have all ignored the cultural and societal norms that have advised them to look the other way when it comes to the male sex trade.
In 2015, I contacted Alezandra and told her that I wanted to film a documentary on the work she is doing for the boys with Urban Light. I started the pre-production process as soon as I got the “hell yes!” from her and by the end of that year, I had raised enough money to fly myself and my fellow Activist Filmmaker, Tabatha Mudra, to Thailand.
We spent the first couple weeks in Thailand shooting interviews with the Urban Light staff and gathering supporting footage. Alezandra wouldn’t arrive from the U.S. until we had already been in there for two weeks. We climbed mountains, we visited hill tribes, we saw the most enchanting temples and we even bathed elephants. I can’t deny that we had a blast shooting b-roll at the start of our trip. It wasn’t until we visited Bangkok to film their red-light district that “the realness” set in.
Urban Light had, over the years it has been active, developed a trust with the boys in Chiang Mai. Their outreach program consisted of them going out the bars where the boys were being sold to hand out safe sex and safe drug use kits. This was a successful tactic they used to get the boys to come to the center for refuge and help. We respected their wishes for us to head to a different city to get our footage of the boy bars and started our trek to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.
We did a location scouting of an alley we had been told was sadly, flourishing with boy bars in Bangkok called Soi Cowboy. It is a small alleyway. Either side of the road was lined with bars identified with big florescent signs reading “fresh boys”, “Hot Male” and “Boys Bangkok”. We were almost immediately hustled by a door man of one of the bars to come up and see his boys. He tried to coerce us by describing the size of their manhoods. Tabatha and I decided we should go in, at my resistance, to see what we were dealing with. We followed the man up the dark stairs that led to loud music. He set us up in a booth with some beers and left. What I saw next still will not leave my memory, no matter how hard I try. Young boys were being paraded on stage in tiny underpants with numbers pinned to them. The numbers were used for the “johns” to identify whichever boy they wanted to talk to or take to a back room for… more than talking. Between the times that the boys were called to stage to display themselves, there were nude performances. Some of the young men who were in the trade for a couple years, would choreograph dances to entertain the old, mostly white, men who filled the audience.
When I felt like I would explode if I had to sit in this scenario any longer, I told the hostess that I wanted to speak with any of her boys who spoke the most English. Sun came to our booth and upon realizing his English was extremely limited, I typed into Google translate that I wanted him to meet me in front of my hotel the next day with one of his friends who also worked in the bar.
Sure enough, the next day, Sun and his friend were standing in front of my hotel five minutes early. We took them to the park and asked them questions about how they got into the sex trade. At what age did they enter? How long had they been in the sex trade? What desperate situation were you in, in order for you to fall prey to this business? What were their hopes and dreams? At many points, we had to pause the interview because our translator, a local Thai woman, was in tears.
We headed back to Chiang Mai and finally, Alezandra Russell had made it to Thailand. It was go time. We only had one week left in our trip and there was so much left to film. On the days to follow, I saw the story that I read years before about this unstoppable woman playing out in front of me. We visited the boy who Alezandra first met all of those years ago, who inspired her to sell her rings and start Urban Light. He was in jail for stealing a small amount of money from one of his customers. His sentencing kept him there for over two years. We visited the hill tribe where he, and many of the other boys who utilize Urban Light’s services are from. We followed Alezandra as she interacted with the boys at the center she had built. They loved her. They respected her. They were grateful for her.
In the months following my return to the United States, I was incredibly depressed. I have always been a “fixer”. If I see a problem, I don’t let it marinate. I can’t forget it exists. I do what I can to solve it. As I scrubbed through footage and listened to interviews we had filmed, all I could see replaying in my mind were those boys on stage and on the street, who were victims of exploitation. The people who ran the Thailand sex trade were exploiting these boys in their times of desperation.
There are no words to express the infinite respect I have for Alezandra Russell. I realized that sharing her resilience in being a light for these boys through the power I had in filmmaking and storytelling, is my way of “fixing”. Her vocation is to put an end to the male sex trade in Thailand and to be the support the boys need when they are ready to leave it. Telling her story will help her to continue her fight.
While I take my time in piecing together the documentary I’m filming on Alezandra and the sexual exploitation of at-risk boys in Thailand’s sex tourism industry, I created a video that could be used to tell her story online. My goal was always to share her story with the masses so that people would take action and support the program she built. My dream was that you would be inspired by her story and do what was in your power to help these boys in need.