The winning film from the Girls Impact the World Film Festival 2013 was a documentary about Oakland’s sex trafficking crisis, made by two local teenagers. Zoë Simone Yi and Rebecca Dharmapalan, seniors at Oakland School for the Arts, made International Boulevard because, for them, “sex trafficking isn’t an abstract tragedy that happens in another part of the world, it’s something that you know about just by living here and going to school in Oakland.”

The GITW Film Festival is an annual international festival open to high school and undergraduate filmmakers with short pieces focused on women’s issues. There is a poignancy and strength inherent in all the submissions because the filmmakers depicting the lives of girls and women are themselves young women.

The shadowy figures applying lipstick and managing their bodies in International Boulevard are Rebecca and Zoë. The lens separating documentarian and subject, advocate and victim, is mirrored. As international viewers judge Oakland’s sex crime horrors and the girls who are exploited here, they are also made to observe the empowered and sensitive ones that live alongside them.


Forty percent of the country’s sex trafficking happens in the Bay Area. Though social workers and law enforcement agencies uncovered the market in 1999, their uncoordinated efforts have been reactive rather than preventative. “Making International Boulevard was like lighting a candle in a dark room — a very dark room,” said Dharmapalan. As she describes it, the film ignited a concerted effort to coordinate the efforts of the police force, medical institutions, social services, schools, the public, and especially young girls.


“I was asked to join the first task force for the prevention of CSEC [commercial sexual exploitation of children] as a youth representative,” explained Dharmapalan. The task force is launching a billboard campaign, developing protocol within medical institutions for spotting and caring for exploited children, and making International Boulevard part of the curriculum in all OUSD fifth through seventh grade classes. Girls who may believe their experience is exceptional “need to understand that they are part of an epidemic,” explained Dharmaplan, an epidemic that preys on the cycle of abuse.

Because punitive efforts to combat CSEC often result in the problem being pushed to another neighborhood, this more preventive and holistic approach is promising. “Oakland is innovating some really hopeful solutions right now,” said Dharmaplan. “I really believe we’ll be seeing improvements in the next few years.”

Watch International Boulevard

Follow Oakland Local’s coverage of this issue and read more in our archive.

You can also listen to the 2010 report on Oakland’s sex trafficking done by Youth Radio. The extensive investigation features personal testimonials by survivors.
Part I
Part II

Find important support services for sexually exploited children:
Protect Oakland Kids
BAWAR: Bay Area Women Against Rape
Heat Watch

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