BY DANIEL P. SMITH
In making “Break the Chain,” Laura Swanson and Kirk Mason hope to inspire greater awareness and change by bringing human trafficking into the light.
The more Laura Swanson learned about the tortured existence of human trafficking victimsaround her, the more she knew she had to act.
So the native Kansan picked up the phone in 2014 and called Kirk Mason.
The pair had met as MSU undergraduates in an advanced documentary film course and later collaborated on a sexual assault- focused documentary titled “Every Two Minutes” that earned national attention, and an appearance on the “Dr. Phil” show.
Seeing human trafficking as a complex issue riddled with mis-conceptions and misinformation, Swanson pitched Mason on a new project examining the realities of human trafficking in Michigan and exposing its deepening penetration into American communities.
“Would you be interested?” asked Swanson, a filmmaker who favors research-rich topics.
“I was all in,” said Mason, a Bath native. “Laura wanted to share the truth so people could better under-stand human trafficking and the con-nections we all have to this issue.”
Thus began a nearly three-year effort to produce “Break the Chain,” a feature-length documentary chron-icling human trafficking’s troubling yet often overlooked, and often sen-sationalized, presence in Michigan and across the United States. The 64-minute film centers on two trafficking victims—one enslaved into labor for nearly five years along-side three other minors in a Habitat for Humanity-supplied Ypsilanti home and another who was sold for sex around metro Detroit as a teen. Paired with nearly 20 interviews of law enforcement officers, legisla-tors, nonprofit leaders and survivor advocates, and one particularly compelling jailhouse interview with a convicted human trafficker, “Break the Chain” delivers an unblemished look at a fast-growing and increasingly lucrative criminal practice that accepts humans as tradable, usable commodities.
“We wanted to help people under-stand how corrupt and manipulative this can be, but in an honest, accu-rate way that was not sensationalized or fueled by agendas,” Swanson said.
Quite intentionally, “Break the Chain” eschews the dramatized portraits of sex trafficking victims shackled together in dark basements in favor of the human trafficking activities occurring amid the day’s sunshine—forced labor in front yards, intense stares that fore-shadow coming abuse, and girls ushered into motel rooms on main thoroughfares. The film provides an awakening look at how slavery survives in a society that trumpets personal freedoms, reminding viewers that neither the Civil War nor a Constitu-tional amendment extinguished slavery in the U.S.
“Sex trafficking captures atten-tion, but this happens all around us in different ways each and every day,” Swanson said.
Since its 2017 release, “Break the Chain” has highlighted the preva-lence and toll of human trafficking to everyday Americans through screen-ings across the country, while not-for-profits, law enforcement agencies, and health care organizations have used the film as a training resource.
While Swanson hopes the film inspires empathy for victims, she and Mason ultimately hope viewers recognize human trafficking’s vast existence and the importance of conscious consumerism.
“If people watch the film and leave more informed, more willing to have conversations with others about human trafficking, and with a better understanding that they can have an impact on human trafficking, then we’ve accom-plished something really powerful,” Swanson said.