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SBIFF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and education organization dedicated to making a positive impact utilizing the power of film. SBIFF is a year-round organization that is best known for its main film festival that takes place each year in February. Over the past 30 years the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has become one of the leading film festivals in the United States – attracting 90,000 attendees and offering 11days of 200+ films, tributes and symposiums. We bring the best of independent and international cinema to Santa Barbara, and we continue to expand our year-round operation to include a wide range of educational programming, fulfilling our mission to engage, enrich and inspire our community through film.

In June 2016, SBIFF entered a new era with the acquisition of the historic and beloved Riviera Theatre. The theatre is SBIFF’s new home and is the catalyst for our program expansion. This marks the first time that Santa Barbara has had a 24/7 community center focused on the art of film and is an incredible opportunity to expand our mission of educational outreach. Particularly important to SBIFF is making available high quality learning opportunities for underserved and vulnerable populations. Our programs and reach are more robust than ever before.


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SBIFF Interview wit the team behind Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic

SEXTORTION: THE HIDDEN PANDEMIC

SBIFF 2022

 

With: Director/producer/editor Maria Demeshknina Peek, Producer Stephen Peek, special-agent Homeland Security Paul Wolpert, Executive director of ‘National center for missing and exploited children’ Lindsey Olson and ‘Million Kids’ CEO Opal Singleton.

Interview by Emmanuel Itier

This is the true nightmare of any responsible parent: having your daughter or son being the victim of a sexual cyber predator. With child trafficking this is, sadly, the hidden and rampant pandemic that is destroying from within and without America. But it’s also a global plague touching each, and every country around the world. Meet the team behind “Sextortion” who got the courage to face the facts and investigates about the possibilities for a change. Together we can change the world and the first step is about watching this daring and mind awakening documentary. Fasten your mind-belt, may the journey begin!

 

Q: Why this movie, what were you trying to explore with it and what was the impact you were aiming at?

 

Maria: Stephen and I are parents. When we started this movie our 2 girls were 9 and 12 years old. We met Opal Singleton, the CEO of www.MillionKids.org in 2019 and she sent us lots of books about “sextortion”. 2 years ago, we didn’t even know about this term: sextortion. I didn’t understand what it was about, but I found out that, sometimes, sextortion could lead to human trafficking. Sextortion affects a much larger population of children. This issue made, Stephen and I, extremely angry and we couldn’t believe this is happening right here in the USA, in our backyard. We turned our anger into activism, and we realized this story had to be told so that the next kid doesn’t get hurt. And in 2020 the pandemic happened so lots of children went on-line and of course it became a disaster in-regards to sextortion. This is the hardest documentary I have ever met. With the pandemic, scheduling and budgeting went by the window as it was hard to get people and hard to get more than one interview per day. Especially because we had to shut down an entire location if we wanted to film during this covid 19, protocol driven, pandemic. And, of course, we had to have a very small crew. After these 3 years of production, we really hope it will reach many people to make them aware of this true hidden pandemic.

 

Stephen: When we met Opal we realized very few people, like ourselves, knew about it. Most of our friends also didn’t know about it, even at their school. I did lots of research to find out about the angle, and how to approach this topic and why we should move forward with it. I found more than 50 docs on human trafficking but there was nothing on sextortion. As we developed relationships with homeland security, and Opal’s organization, and others we found out this was the fastest widest pandemic affecting children on-line. The numbers of children being used and abused are sky rocketing, this is truly frightening. As parents it became very personal, and we felt the urgency of putting together this doc. Kids aged 10 to 15 are the most at-risk group with these sexual predators. Therefore, I realized I’m my own demographic of my own movie. Parents really need to know this. And it’s touching every family, it’s not only about runaway kids or kids living on the fringe of society, the foster kids, etc.  Any kids, any time, on-line can become a victim. The other stereotype is the profile of the sexual predator. Well, it’s not always a creepy guy living in the basement of his mother’s house. On the contrary, with the case study we did in this film we found out that the predator was a naval academy graduate, a top gun pilot in the US navy, well respected but he had a secret life on-line, extorting hundreds of kids.  So, I hope this film will bring light to this subject matter and help parents. It all starts with a conversation with your kids.

 

Q: Why is this movie important to you, what do you hope people take from it?

 

Paul Wolpert: Well, the case they focused on in the film was my case. This is important to me because, beyond investigating, I do teach kids and parents about this issue. So, this is another educative tool of communication and I’m grateful I was able to be part of this team that put together this important documentary. Safeguarding is a priority in our agency because we usually find hundreds of victims in each phone or computer of any alleged sex offender. We have, too many times, the initial victim we investigate but then we find so many others who don’t report this abuse. Sometimes, some of the other victims stay silent for years. Some harm themselves. So this is a very important film and we will use part of it to teach in depth kids at school and other areas. It’s a horrible story but it’s a necessary one to be told. Nobody could believe this story and because of who was the offender. Yes, I’m glad this movie is coming out to enlighten people about these serious crimes.

 

Lindsey Olson: I work with the National Center for missing and exploited children, and we received calls for so many “sextortion” cases. We have a cyber tip line. We get various reports and then we pass them onto law enforcements. In 2021 we received over 21 million reports. And the year before it was almost 22 million reports! We really saw a huge increase of sextortion with the pandemic because our kids were at home and engaging constantly on-line. We had a 98% increase of cyber sextortion crime the first year of covid. This is a real issue that needs to be addressed and exposed with various means, such as with a documentary like this one. Gaming platforms, social apps are the places were these predators find our children. Just because your kids are at home on their device it doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe. It’s a global work to face this pandemic and with the help of law enforcement, as well as teachers, parents and filmmakers like Maria and Stephen. We need the conversation to keep going between everyone. With that sense of synergy, we can truly fight this pandemic.

 

Opal Singleton: I’m so proud of these team of amazing people who put together this inspiring movie. This is a grass root endeavor and a dream come true to be able to show our documentary today after three long years of hard work. I have been involved for many years with parents and children who have been the victims of sextortion or sex trafficking. I have trained at least half a million kids and young people, by now, to be aware of the traps from these horrible sexual predators. With the advance of technology and various site like Tik Tok there has been a huge increase of crimes. All a pedophile has to do, is type the category he wants and just wait. They can be in contact with millions of kids with whom they can communicate and lure into their dark web. I wrote a book about it: “Societal Shift: A world without borders and a home without walls.” 87% of our kids, today, sleep with their phone which make their home a home without walls! For most of our kids their first sexual experience will be a virtual one. And if it’s one of shame it will change who they are, who they become, forever. We are at the most important time in our lives. This is why this film is so important. It’s a riveting film telling the harsh truth. And it needs to be told and to be seen because there aren’t enough tools of education to reach out to our kids but also to all the parents of these kids. I wanted to make this movie with all my heart because I met so many parents who heart is broken because of what their kids have done to themselves, pushed by these criminals. I’m grateful that movie exist and that now it’s embraced by various governmental agencies in order to show it all around the country and all around the world.

 

Q: Tell me about the various challenges you faced making this film and how did this change you, making this important picture?

 

Maria: Actually, this movie turned me into an activist, and I didn’t expect this to happen to me. It’s not a subject you can forget and move on. You have to do what is right and do what is needed. This is why we are developing on-line modules with Homeland security and the national center for missing and exploited children in order to continue the process of healing this crisis. These modules will be on several websites and available to everyone. So, this is a step further in the right direction to fight this pandemic. It started with a movie and now it continues with tools of education. As far as challenges? Where do I start? Well, I have children being on-line, so this is a challenge. We had to be creative and find artist all around the world in order to do the animation, in our case with a maverick artist in Ukraine who turned drawings into animation. And, of course, we had covid and a tight protocol to be able to film this picture. We even had to hire our own kids to do the voice over since it was too complicated to hire actors to do so. At the end it all came together and I’m very proud of our movie.

 

Paul: Believe it or not, it was an eye opener. I seated on many interviews, and it was amazing to see how this movie was coming together. I’m so happy it got the finish point as sometimes I didn’t hear from anyone. I think the subject is so vast and there so many cases that I hope it can be turned into a series at some point.

 

Lindsey: As a mother of a teens this issue is very important for me. And it’s important to share the momentum with this film. The challenge is to keep raising the level of awareness. A film like this can only help with this process. Hopefully we can prevent children from being future victims.

 

Stephen: Maria summed it up very well. I was such a crazy process pushing that boulder over a mountain and during a period of over 18 months, non-stop! Just covid increased the budget by 30%. It was so hard to make. But because it was so personal, with our two daughters, we never gave up and we kept going. And we are, indeed, so happy with the result. I really hope, I know this movie will have an impact on the people who will watch it. Without our partners, Paul, Lindsey and Opal we could have never made this movie. They saw the heart we were putting in this movie. It was a work of trust and faith and it’s amazing it all came together at the end.

 

Opal: This movie is truly critical at this point and time in history. Our world changed within the last years, not only with covid but because of streaming and how we experience act of terrorism today. Kids are in a constant social environment where they want to be like and want to be the winner. And we put them in a “room” with people who can endanger them. Our kids are constantly exposed to multiple cyber-crimes and it is our duty to do something about it. It’s all about how we educate our kids and our parents. We set the stage for future generations. We needs to turn our kids into leaders and not into victims.

 

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