Even before the introductory statement qualifies the Very Young Girls title by indicating that the average age of entry to prostitution is 13 years old, directors David Schisgall and Nina Alvarez challenge the viewer: try saying you're going to see “Very Young Girls” or searching for information on the film on the web and it's hard not to feel like a pervert.
Yet, perhaps this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers, in that also they want to lure certain kinds of men into realising what their attitudes and behaviour actually mean for those who are exploited by the sex industry.
These men are the johns and the pimps, revealing footage of both of whom are included in the documentary in the form of some truly horrifying home video footage shot by two pimps in the hope of landing themselves a reality TV series, and of a mixed group of men whom we see going through the first stage of a re-education course; if the footage of the latter is dispiriting in that the men are presented as being there primarily because it is a way of getting their criminal record cleared, that of the former at least landed those responsible ten-year federal prison stretches for the crime of transporting minors across state lines.
The filmmakers main focus, however, is on the girls and those trying to help them, most notably Rachel Lloyd and her organisation GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), which provides support to underage girls in the New York sex industry.
The girls, disproportionately African-American, tell the same stories time and again to the camera and the GEMS staff, some of whom are themselves ex-prostitutes with personal experience of “the life”: in vulnerable situations they are approached by pimps, older and apparently disproportionately African-American, who work to reduce them to a state essentially equivalent to slavery.
The pimps begin by isolating their victims from their family and others so as better to induce a state of emotional dependency, before convincing them to prostitute themselves as a demonstration of their love. Once this happens, she becomes another commodity in the pimp's stable, with verbal and physical violence being used to keep her in line, turning tricks and bringing in the money.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the film, however, is what it reveals about US culture and society more broadly. At one point, we see a distraught mother trying to get the police to rescue her daughter from her captors, only to be told that they cannot intervene: the law, it seems, does not care or is ineffectual. At another, we see Lloyd receiving a well-deserved humanitarian reward for her work.
Unfortunately, the amount of publicity this reward gained for GEMS was undoubtedly minuscule compared to that received by the Three 6 Mafia for their song “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which had won an Academy Award a few days earlier. More generally, it's this whole glorification of the pimp and the objectification of women across the board, from blaxploitation and Iceberg Slim influenced gangster rap to the Playboy T-shirt ironically worn by one of the girls, that GEMS are fighting against. Hopefully theirs will not prove a losing battle...
Very Young Girls screens as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival at The Filmhouse on 26 June, 8pm.