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[Interview] – Niclas Gillis – “Hold Me Down” – A Feature Film

 

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Posted March 26, 2018 by

 
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Survivors of sexual exploitation address the reality of being a woman in poverty through film In the midst of celebrity outcry over sexual misconduct in Hollywood, one film has emerged to address the conditions faced by the silent majority. ‘Hold Me Down’ is based on the experiences of Unique Adams, a single mother from the South Bronx, New York, whose experiences of childhood poverty and abuse lead her into prostitution in early adolescence. “This film will be our voice”,  says Adams. According to a report by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, more than half of all women of color in the United States will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives. All the parts in the film are played by women survivors from the Bronx, none of whom had ever acted before. “We have to be the ones that is looking out for each other”, says Tianna Allen, 19, who plays the lead role.

Hold Me Down depicts a day in the life of a 19-year-old single mother who works as a stripper at an illegal nightclub to support her child in the South Bronx. It is filmed in the locations where the events depicted actually occurred; in the Mott Haven Housing Projects and in an actual brothel, and features a cast of non-actors / women survivors of sexual exploitation and domestic violence.

“A window into a life lead by millions of women in the shadows of mainstream America.” – Odense International Film Festival

On International Women’s Day, the Nordic International Film Festival and Project Rousseau presented the US premiere of Hold Me Down to critical acclaim.

Referred to as “the premiere talent to watch” by Nike in 2017, Swedish writer-director Niclas Gillis first became aware of the harsh conditions faced by women in poverty in the United States back in 2009 when a former classmate invited him to what he thought would be a regular house party in Harlem, but that proved to be an illicit event similar to the one depicted in the film. He was nineteen years old, and what he witnessed shocked him to the extent that he would spend the next five years researching the issue, and the subsequent three making a film addressing it. After moving to the Bronx in 2014, Gillis interviewed hundreds of local women survivors to craft the story, ensure its authenticity, and assemble the cast.

“We wanted the women who really live this life to have the opportunity to tell their own story, to raise awareness of the conditions that they face and inspire change”, Gillis says.

Thanks to a partnership with the NGO, Project Rousseau, the women involved have since been able to gain stability in their lives and are now pursuing higher education. “This is what we want to achieve on a larger scale”, says Gillis.

Hold Me Down was produced by More Media and The Collectif with support from IFP, Sveriges Television and the Swedish Film Institute. It premiered to standing ovations at the Gothenburg International Film Festival. It has been released exclusively on Vimeo and shared on the Nordic International Film Festival’s website.

Interview:

To being with, tell us about your latest film “Hold Me Down”…

Based on true events, Hold Me Down depicts a day in the life of a 19-year-old single mother who works as a stripper at an illegal nightclub to support her child in the South Bronx. It is filmed in the locations where the events depicted actually occurred; in the Mott Haven Housing Projects and in an actual brothel, and features a cast of non-actors / women survivors of sexual exploitation and domestic violence.

How did you get involved with the film?

When I moved to America from Sweden back in 2009, I was invited to what I thought would be regular house party in Harlem, but that proved to be an illicit event similar to the one depicted in the film. I witnessed a young woman have sex with a stranger on the floor of a crowded room for single dollar bills, and was shocked. We were the same age, and yet our realities seemed so far apart. When I asked her if she was okay, she told me that she had a two-year-old daughter and that this was what she had to do to survive. I couldn’t understand what sort of country would allow for a young mother to have to go through this to support her child, and I feared for what would become of her daughter. Most troubling of all was the realization that her predicament seemed to be so common. It prompted me to more seriously study American history and its bearings on the present day reality. The more I learned, the more troublesome the situation appeared. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, there is almost no other country in the developed world in which the disparity between rich and poor is greater than it is here. And in spite of the so called “American Dream”, a person born into poverty in America is less likely to make it out of poverty by adulthood than in almost any other developed nation. So five years later, I set out to make a film that I hoped would give the women who live that life the opportunity to tell their own story, to raise awareness of the conditions that they face, and inspire change.

What are your influences as a filmmaker?

Steve McQueen is a big favorite of mine. I feel that McQueen’s films all depict life as some form of imprisonment. Whether his characters be shackled by nationality, addiction, skin color, or even as prison guards and overseers, they’re all trapped. No one is really free in a Steve McQueen film; they all suffer, and there’s something fundamentally human about that.

What advice would you have for anyone trying to crack the industry?

The need to be an artist can be likened to addiction. It is something that you need to do, to the detriment of your mental, emotional and physical health. If you can see yourself doing anything else, I urge you to do it.

When and where can we expect to see “Hold Me Down”?

Hold Me Down is now available for free at vimeo.com/holdmedown.

What is the next step for you? Do you have any other films or projects in production?

We’re actually in early pre-production now on a feature film that will take place in the same world as Hold Me Down, called Trouble Child. Based on a true story, the film will chronicle one young woman’s journey from an abusive childhood in South Philadelphia, through her time at a juvenile correctional facility in Virginia, her dramatic escape, and descent into prostitution in the Bronx. It is a deeper examination of the conditions faced by women in poverty in the United States, the rampant violence, and the perils of the criminal justice system.

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Interviewed By:

Adam Snowden
@FilmDebate
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