Review of Chelo Alvarez-Stehle’s Sands of Silence

Review by Julie Casper Roth

Sands of Silence (2016). United States, 86 minutes. Directed by Chelo Alvarez-Stehle. Featuring: Virginia Isaías, Charimaya ‘Anu’ Tamang, and Virginia ‘Lala’ Isaias Barajas.

Still from Sands of Silence

Most documentary filmmakers applying for project support will come face-to-face with the question: what is your relationship to the subject? The question seeks to understand the filmmaker’s investment in a topic, as well as her motivation for telling the story.

Over fifteen-years of reporting on the topics of sexual exploitation and trafficking, director Chelo Alvarez-Stehle sought to explore this question in her own life. The result is her feature-length documentary, Sands of Silence, which seeks to bridge the heroic stories of trafficking survivors with long-held secrets in Alvarez-Stehle’s family.

The film begins with a recounting from the director’s youth. This moment is illustrated with contemporary video clips of an empty beach and is narrated by Alvarez-Stehle. In her recounting, a young Alvarez-Stehle and her sister venture to a nearby beach where an interaction with a seemingly friendly man takes a turn for the worse. Alvarez-Stehle tells the viewer that the two sisters never discuss the incident. Each sister is left with her own memory of the event and a silence that keeps the incident sealed from their family and others.

Years later, Alvarez-Stehle is a successful journalist and filmmaker exploring the lives of women who’ve survived brutal episodes of abuse and exploitation. We meet her sometime near the present day, fifteen years into a journalistic quest to document these lives. Visually, Alvarez-Stehle’s camera moves with her subjects, navigating interviews with women who casually walk Alvarez-Stehle through their homes. These women are contextualized in domestic spaces, esteemed by a camera that centralizes them in the composition. Alvarez-Stehle herself remains in the visual periphery of these images, not wont for misdirecting the camera’s attention to herself. In these shots, we see the dignity afforded her subjects on the screen; they are strong, singular, and centered. Their homes are tidy sanctuaries and testaments to their survival. Alvarez-Stehle is patient with her interviewees, never rushing an answer out of a subject or making a premature cut to a new scene. This establishes a visual and emotional intimacy between viewer and subject. Ultimately, Alvarez-Stehle provides a mouthpiece for women who were once silenced and does so with a care that avoids further exploiting these women for their stories. They are not reduced to sound bites; they unfold in real time.

In Sands of Silence, Alvarez-Stehle highlights two women in particular. We learn that the first, Anu Tamang, was trafficked from Nepal to India when she was 16 years old. After enduring nearly two years as a sex slave, she was rescued and returned to a community that ostracized her. In the film, we see Tamang as a jovial, warm woman who refuses to hide the trauma of her past. Tamang makes it her mission to end sexual trafficking.

The other featured story is that of Virginia Isaías. Her narrative provides a major arc for the documentary. A victim of both sexual violence and trafficking, Isaías recounts the humiliation and torture she endured while enslaved. When her infant daughter is stolen from her, she tenaciously fights for her freedom. Isaías’ eventual escape and the recovery of her infant prove successful, and — much like Tamang — Isaías dedicates her life to ending abuse, violence, and sex trafficking.

The common thread among Tamang’s and Isaías’ stories is their journey from extreme trauma survivor to mouthpiece and advocate. By breaking their silence and sharing their experiences with others, they are able to foster support networks and advocacy groups that benefit other trauma survivors.

The inspiration of these women propels Alvarez-Stehle to end silence in her own life. The incident on the beach from her youth is offered, in the form of a movie trailer for Sands of Silence, for her family to see and digest. While Alvarez-Stehle is visually peripheral in these images, her voice anchors the trailer. She has begun a journey that will centralize herself in this story, moving her from peripheral journalist to central catalyst. After her family watches the trailer shot by their sister and daughter, discussions ensue. In the days following the screening, family members begin sharing narratives of abuse in their own lives.

Alvarez-Stehle’s message is clear: it’s important to be up front about personal trauma. After all, in Tamang and Isaías we see how breaking one’s silence can open pathways for others. As a journalist, Alvarez-Stehle has witnessed this firsthand. Broaching this topic in her personal life proves a bit more difficult; family members are initially visibly uncomfortable with the prospect of discussing trauma. Even Alvarez-Stehle herself initially holds fast to secrets while prodding family members to talk.

As evidenced by the film’s timeline and physical changes in the characters in the film, the documentary was filmed over a span of years. Some footage comes from prior projects. Visually, the camera image changes over time, representing changes in video technology over the span of the documentary’s filming. Possibly unintentional, the visual trajectory of the film connotes change and growth, mirroring the growth of the film’s subjects. Footage from early interviews looks a bit coarse at times. It’s flat, rough, and riddled with visual artifacts common in a pre-high-definition videoscape. As the narrative marches on and the story resolves in a contemporary setting, the cinematography is pointedly more confident and the image crisp — a clear rendering of modern technology. It’s as if the technology and cinematography themselves find their confidence over time. As the characters in the documentary strengthen over time, so do the technical aspects of the storytelling.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of the film comes in the form of the next generation. The daughters of Isaías and Alvarez-Stehle become representatives of the knowledge and strength of the next generation. In the face of their mothers’ traumatic pasts, these young women demonstrate insights that assure the viewer that silence will not be perpetuated into the future.

Sands of Silence demonstrates that trauma is not merely the plight of women in far-off lands. It can exist close to home and can only be felled by transparency and communication. The narratives contained within the documentary make this film a helpful resource for individuals and groups tackling the issues of abuse and sex-trafficking.

For more information about the film, make sure to visit its website. You can also check out Julie’s profile here.