Since its founding in 2005, the nonprofit organization COSA claimed to be a refuge for at-risk and trafficked girls in Northern Thailand. Led by the charismatic Mickey Choothesa, the sanctuary became known as a rare and safe opportunity for young girls to get an education. In an attempt to capture this heroic story, filmmakers Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams traveled to interview the families and girls who were saved by COSA. But the more questions they asked, the less they knew about what was really going on. Produced by Montclair residents and the team behind the Oscar-winning INOCENTE, THE WRONG LIGHT is the fascinating and troubling account of their quest to find answers. What really happened to these girls? And who is Mickey?
Co-Director and Director of Photography Dave Adams talked to Montclair Film Festival 2016 collectively on behalf of himself and Director/Producer Josie Swantek Heitz about their engrossing and daring documentary film.
How do you describe THE WRONG LIGHT in your own words?
Dave: The film starts as story about girls who have been sold into the sex trade by their parents and rescued by a charismatic former war photographer, Mickey Choothesa. We soon realize that his stories aren’t lining up. Two girls, Fon and Eye, he claimed to have rescued are confronted with his version of their past and fight to reclaim their true identities. What we uncovered over the course of our filming is that Mickey is deceiving all of us—the public, his donors, the girls he claims to protect, and the media circulating stories of his supposed exploits. News outlets such as Vice and PRI used Mickey as a source for their stories as we were investigating his shelter. I think there are elements of a film like SPOTLIGHT as the narrative moves forward and it becomes an investigation. I hope at the end of the film viewers will feel a strong bond with the girls and a call to action to spread the word and find out who Mickey really is.
What drew you to this particular story? Why did you tell this story the way that you did?
Dave: We were approached by Shine Global to make a film with a unique take on sex trafficking in Thailand. The film takes you on the same journey we experienced while making the film. You slowly get to know our characters Fon, Eye and Mickey. Eventually everything you think you know flips. By the midway point of the film you will be in our shoes, not knowing what to believe and who to trust. We wanted to stay true to our experiences and eventually had to break the fourth wall with our cameras because we became part of the film’s narrative.
When filming with Mickey before actually discovering his lie, did you detect any level of deception?
Dave: Mickey was a great storyteller and charismatic. His stories of war, photography, Thailand’s corruption and saving kids from brothels were unbelievable. At first, any inconsistencies in his stories we attributed to his massive workload of running an organization, saving children and having a family in another continent. We loved to hang out with him and thought he was a great guy. As the truth started to be revealed, his heroism crumbled in our minds and we were forced to pretend everything was okay. It was a delicate dance of pressing him for answers without playing our hand. We were constantly worried he might be on to us and shut down our filming.
How was filming with Mickey and the girls in your documentary different than your past projects?
Dave: This was my first feature documentary. I’ve worked on longer form TV in the past, but for most of my career I have worked in short form doc and branded content for the web. Establishing a relationship with your subjects is key in any documentary, but especially during a project that requires you to film for such an extended period of time. It required all of the subjects to be on board with us as we became part of their lives for months.
How did your relationships with the girls in the film change over the course of filming?
Dave: We became closer as the filming moved along, as is to be expected, but after the events of Chinese New Year depicted in the film we all had to work together to figure out what was really going on with Mickey. When the girls secretly record a major scene is when we traded places and they became filmmakers and collaborators. Without their openness we wouldn’t have been able to get very far with our investigation.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Dave: When we started this film I thought every scene was going to be beautifully shot on the Red Epic in 4k resolution. That quickly changed as the story evolved. We were using anything we could get our hands on in some situations. Whether it was an iPhone to record audio, a 5d to record an important conversation or Skype recorder for a major interview we were forced to utilize tools we never imagined would have a place in the film. Documentary is about being true to the story and not trying to force it into any preconceived notions that you start with. Let story and characters evolve naturally and you never know what you’ll discover.
What do you hope MFF audiences will take away from your film?
Dave: Always ask the extra question. Be curious. Don’t assume what you are hearing or reading is true. Find out for yourself.
Directors Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams will attend the screenings below.
Interview by MFF blogger Christopher Dixon.