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Current Events Vanessa Marano talks the importance of sexual exploitation narratives

Nov. 27, 2020
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Starring sisters Vanessa and Laura Marano, Saving Zoë (2019) shines a light on the continuum of female sexual exploitation. The film follows high school student Echo (Laura) who, a year after the tragic murder of her older sister Zoë (Vanessa), is haunted by visions of her and the shadowy circumstances surrounding her death. In the making of the film, the sisters partnered with the women’s rights nonprofit Equality Now. Adolescent Content talked to Vanessa Marano on the need to depict narratives of sexual exploitation and pending legislation that will support victims.

Adolescent Content: The one-year anniversary of Saving Zoë’s release recently passed. You produced and starred in the film alongside your sister, Laura. Tell us about the premise of the film.

Vanessa Marano: Saving Zoë is about two sisters, one dead and one alive. The younger sister, Echo, finds the diary of her older sister, Zoë, and discovers there's more to Zoë's murder than meets the eye. It's a story about grief and the bond between sisters, and it also sheds light on how easily anyone can find themselves unwittingly a victim of sexual exploitation.

Adolescent: Based on the novel of the same name by Alyson Noël, Saving Zoë was optioned over ten years ago. What was the process of adapting the story for the screen?

Vanessa: Well, Alyson was a dream to work with. She truly believed in us and let us hold on to the rights for ten years. We were knocking on doors and getting rejected every step of the way. By the time Laura and I had found success with our own TV shows, there was finally some interest in getting the movie made; however, companies wanted a much more watered-down version of the story. 

We knew we wanted to make a movie that was grounded and truly reflected the horrors that these characters were facing. So, we attached a director and he attached writers, and we all started developing the script together. That took about a year and a half. Then we went out to independent production companies for financing. 

We shot the film in 15 days with a very small budget. It then took another two years to get a distributor attached. Again, we ran into the issue of no one really wanting to release a film about sexual exploitation made for a teenage audience, but we just kept moving forward until we found a company that did. It was very hard, but we got it done and I'm very proud of that.

Adolescent: How has your knowledge of sexual exploitation evolved over the decade-long course of making the film?

Vanessa: Laura, my mom, and I learned so much throughout making, editing, and advertising it. Much of that credit goes to Equality Now. They were instrumental in introducing us to survivors of exploitation, and those survivors graciously shared their stories with us and educated us on the subject in ways that we never could have imagined. Laura and I are [really believe] survivors need to have a seat at the table when policies concerning the subject of exploitation are being [discussed]. 

 Adolescent: In an op-ed for the politics newspaper The Hill, you wrote about the reluctance of film companies to take on the project: “It was considered too dark to discuss because young women supposedly want light, digestible content—movies about romance.” Why do you think that’s assumed, exactly? Can you speak to the importance of depicting narratives of sexual exploitation, even when the subject may make viewers uncomfortable?

Vanessa: I'm not sure why it's assumed, but there's no doubt still a stigma around female-driven content to begin with. People, not just young women, like light, romantic content—but that doesn't mean we aren't drawn to all different types of storytelling, specifically on subjects that can directly affect us. 

94% of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls. 6% of victims are men and boys. It is a subject that affects everyone. That's why we need to talk about it. If we don't, it just continues happening—and victims not only suffer in silence but also think they’re alone. One of the greatest things about film and television is the ability to spread awareness through entertainment. The ability to tell stories about subjects that are important to us is such a gift. 

Adolescent: The film’s release coincided with a turning point in the Me Too movement, which has empowered survivors of sexual assault to share their experiences and has increased awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual assault. What was it like to make and release Saving Zoë amid this widespread reckoning?

Vanessa: I honestly don't think there would have been interest in releasing Saving Zoë without that reckoning. People were finally willing to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse—but we still found ourselves being turned down by national talk shows and radio shows because sex trafficking was such a taboo subject at the time. We even had the opportunity to speak with a congressman canceled last minute because he didn't want to discuss the topic with two actresses. That being said, there were other outlets and political publications that actually were willing to talk about the film and we are so grateful for that. 

Adolescent: You’ve spoken in favor of passing Put Trafficking Victims First Act (H.R. 507), a bill helmed by Congresswoman Karen Bass. Can you give us a rundown on how the legislation outlined in H.R. 507 will support sex trafficking victims?

Vanessa: The bill covers a lot, but here are a few points:

  • Require law enforcement to set aside a portion of funds received to combat human trafficking and devote those to providing victims with support that is trauma-informed, evidence-based, and survivor-centered.
  • Facilitate access for child victims of commercial sex trafficking to the services and protections afforded to other victims of sexual violence.
  • Encourage states to improve efforts to identify and meet the needs of human-trafficking victims.
  • Ensure that law enforcement officers and prosecutors make every attempt to determine whether an individual is a victim of human trafficking before arresting and charging the individual with an offense that is a direct result of the victimization.
  • Effectively prosecute traffickers and individuals who patronize or solicit children for sex. 

Adolescent: H.R. 507 has been stalled in the Senate for over a year and a half. What can we do to advocate for its passage?

Vanessa: Call your senators and tell them you want this bill passed. Use your voice on social media. H.R. 507 is just a first step toward survivor-informed solutions. We have to continue to listen to survivors and take their opinions into account when policies and laws are being made. They have firsthand experience and knowledge that can truly help combat this issue and save lives.

Saving Zoë is available for streaming on Netflix. Learn more about the Put Trafficking Victims First Act.