As filmmakers, we are often faced with the dilemma of developing appealing and relevant content without becoming a redundant rehash of so many things that have come before. The collaborative efforts of indie filmmakers are often at the forefront of original creative approach, and honestly in execution. By keeping our compassionate objectives at the forefront, the net result becomes a thoughtful and compelling film, stripped of Hollywood hype, and presented with artistic integrity. MAYA is one such film.
MAYA is writer/director Julia Verdin’s powerful film about human sex trafficking. It articulates this horrendous problem clearly, yet without being heavy handed or prurient. The effect is expertly achieved by approaching the subject from the emotional perspective of the family that it is affecting. Specifically, it dwells on fear, guilt, inadequacy, and hopelessness. The inevitable sexual encounters lay bare the brutality of the act. Yet, they are handled tactfully with cutaways, time lapse photography, and extreme closeups of the anguish experienced by the victims.
There are some standout performances in MAYA. Patricia Velasquez carries a disproportionate weight of the movie, as she plays a woman who is both abused and desperate. The source of abuse is obvious: her ne’er-do-well, freeloading boyfriend (played by Gian Franco Rodriguez) who takes care of her when he wants, and beats her when he feels the urge, which is often. The desperation comes on several fronts. Her cleaning service job keeps her running out of the house at all hours to try to pick up extra money. Her boyfriend’s threats to abandon her keep her dangling by a short, thick leash of emotional and financial dependency.
The sudden disappearance of her daughter, Maya, causes anguish that is only exacerbated by the lack of progress by law enforcement. Velasquez’s performance is even and consistent. She is, by far, the most believable character. That is just as well, since there is no one who could bring fire to a situation better than a desperate mother. All due respect to the other principals, Velasquez makes MAYA the deeply disturbing, hopeless yet hopeful, story that it is.
The most relatable character is Maya, herself, played by Isabella Feliciana. Maya walks the line between being an outcast in her own family and seeking social acceptance among her friends. As a 15-year old girl, Maya seeks companionship in all the wrong places. Unable — or unwilling — to drop the protective bubble she has built around herself, Maya finds solace in a compassionate stranger who seems to “get” her better than anyone else. True to the predator’s model, this stranger is a man pretending to be a boy, who paints a remarkably relatable picture of himself in order to gain Maya’s confidence and affection.
This predator, Ray (played with eerie accuracy by Billy Budinich), employs a method of catfishing designed not to defraud, but to disarm an unsuspecting Maya, so successfully that even when she finds out that he is significantly older than he implied, she is already committed to emotionally bonding with Ray, at least as a friend and confidante. Feliciana plays Maya with street smart intelligence and emotional vulnerability. The result is that Feliciana produces, in her portrayal, a vivid reflection of young teen angst and impressionability that is in a constant battle with her better judgment.
Maya is finessed into the world of drugs and prostitution, mostly out of fear and confusion. Ray paints a picture of the lesser of two evils and, even worse, the prospect of pleasing someone and gaining their love and acceptance through horrific acts of sexual slavery. Here is where one must remember the effects of the Stockholm Syndrome, and how it seems to change victims in ways that continue to defy logic or explanation. Even at the depths of her despair, Maya cannot help but to proclaim her love for Ray, her protector and her oppressor.
MAYA questions the definition of “love” as interpreted by adolescents too young to understand the familial love that is meant to protect them, and too old to remember that there was a time in their young lives when love was unconditional and above reproach. Human trafficking is an epidemic, and MAYA is an instructional film that paints a very clear scenario that is both recognizable and easily avoided, but only with the proper precautions, mutual trust, and familial love.
ARTISTS FOR CHANGE is a social change organization founded by Julia Verdin. Learn more about this collaborative and transformative enterprise at www.artists4change.org.
Also see Peter Foldy’s interview with Julia Verdin.