They gawked out the cab as we passed Radio City, then commented on the crazy drivers. I was the one person they knew in the city and had promised to take care of them. I was also the journalist who dug into the tenderest parts of their life. It was the first time in the City for Natalie and her parents. She’s the survivor story from the film; pimped out at 15, she gave her interview to me at 17. It’s the only one she’s ever going to give, she said.
I arranged a hotel for them near the touristy Times Square. Giddy with excitement, they stood in the frigid November night, staring at the bright lights just down the street. Their only request was to visit the 9/11 Memorial, but I also sent them to the Statue of Liberty and took them to the Museum of Natural History. The Alexia Foundation’s Jim Dooley spent an evening with them. All the walking inspired Natalie’s dad, Tom, to lead a healthier life. And it caused me a moment of deep fear.
“Working” wasn’t protecting me, and I started to realize just what I’d been witness to.
The evening of the film’s first private screening, for the Alexia Foundation I knocked on their hotel room door. Natalie’s mom, Nacole, answered, peeking out of a darkened room.
“You broke my family,” were the first words she said.
The floor dropped out beneath me. This is the last thing a journalist wants to hear from his subjects, especially when it comes to trauma and victimization. But as the door opened wider, in the darkness I saw Natalie curled up asleep and Tom with his face buried in a pillow.
“You wore us out!” Nacole continued, laughing. I was relieved. In a couple hours, the family was going to bare their lives on screen, and then on stage. I ironed Tom’s shirt as they got ready.
The night before, after months of anticipation, they’d seen the film for the first time. Members of the Alexia Foundation’s board were present, greeting the nervous family like honored dignitaries. MediaStorm staff knew them only through the footage; seeing them in real life was like meeting celebrities. I’d prepped the family on what to expect, but I knew it was going to be hard. For when I saw the first cut, I was surprised at how hard it was for me.
It was July, the blazing summer sun soaked stagnant air with intolerable heat. In the city’s concrete oven it came from above, below, and all sides. The subway platforms were the worst; with sweat trickling down my face I would wait for an approaching train’s gentle breeze, hoping it was mine and that it was air conditioned.
I arrived at MediaStorm with Carey Wagner, a fellow photojournalist who worked sporadically with me. She seemed to be enjoying the heat more than me.
McLaughlin’s editing suite was cozy and cool. The glow of two floor lamps and twin-monitor work stations lit the darkness.
In February, I’d delivered the initial footage in person, introducing McLaughlin to the characters, issues and themes. I pointed out some favorite scenes as he logged footage.
“Have I told you yet,” he kept on asking, “how excited I am to work on this?”
Now, spread across the walls, was the storyboard of his labors. Key scenes and characters, hand written notes, file numbers and time logs; the experiences I’d had, the story threads we’d discussed, were assembled in one long arc across the editing suite.
“How long is it,” Carey and I both asked.
“Just sit back and watch,” Brian responded, ever the one for a surprise.
As I watched, I knew the stories. I knew the people. I’ve put in more than 50 days shooting, easily over 100 on the phone and in person, building relationships.
Through experience, I’ve learned patience and anticipation, to balance presence with disassociation; it keeps my mind moving and my emotions in check. I am “on,” existing in an analytic state, making each moment less visceral. But now I was seeing it through McLaughlin’s eyes.
It took me by surprise. McLaughlin’s edit had more impact than actually being there. I was seeing people’s lives for the first time, without a barrier, and all the unaddressed emotion began leaking out. “Working” wasn’t protecting me, and I started to realize just what I’d been witness to.
Carey kept it together while filming intravenous drug use, but was visibly shaken afterwards. I took the paranoid precaution of phone check-ins when visiting a crack den, and it sometimes took me hours to unwind at night’s end. But it was watching the interviews in McLaughlin’s editing suite that killed me. Interviews I’d done.
Natalie and her parents settled into the first row of MediaStorm’s in-house studio; the rest of us sat behind. Everyone was worried, hoping they would like the film, finding it honest and reflective of the truth. I was more worried about what the film might do to them.
There were plenty of tissues available and, during the film, there were some silent tears. This was their story, on film. But when the lights came on, they dried their eyes and told us it was true and that they were proud of what we’d done.
It’s a strength I hope I never have to muster for myself. But I know it can be done.
As Nacole said of her daughter, “She’s my hero because no matter what my struggle is, I know her’s is worse, and she makes it every day.”
“The Long Night” is a documentary project by Tim Matsui on grassroots efforts to address Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). This project is funded by the Alexa Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant. The trailer for “The Long Night,” a documentary film being produced by MediaStorm with the footage Tim has gathered is now available. See more posts from this project here.