Catholic George Elliot, pictured in a theater performance, is an actor, director, manager and playwright who was horrified to discover the scope of sex trafficking both globally and locally. (Courtesy Actor’s Actor Studio & Workshop)
Catholic George Elliot, pictured in a theater performance, is an actor, director, manager and playwright who was horrified to discover the scope of sex trafficking both globally and locally. (Courtesy Actor’s Actor Studio & Workshop)

George Elliot knows the power of a story to touch souls. He’s spent years as an actor, director and playwright. Now he’s on a mission to save lives.

Elliot, a member of St. Therese Parish in Northeast Portland, wants to educate people about the horrific and sometimes deadly reality of sex trafficking by bringing a drama to the big screen. He’s written a screenplay called “Lost in the Shadows,” which follows the story of a Portland sex trafficking survivor. The production crew hopes to begin shooting the independent film this fall.

“Sex trafficking is Portland’s ugly little secret that people don’t want to acknowledge,” said Elliot. “If we can bring it to light and reach out and save even one person with this film then it’s worth doing. As a Catholic man, I feel I have to walk the talk. I have to use my God-given talent to raise awareness in whatever way I can.”

Nationally, instances of human trafficking are rising. The most common types of human trafficking are forced labor, debt bondage and sex trafficking, with the latter disproportionately affecting women and children.

In the Portland metro region, there currently are nearly 600 minors and almost 1,200 adults being trafficked for sex, according to estimates from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

Amanda Swanson, trafficking intervention coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice, said sex trafficking thrives in the state due to the access provided by the Interstate-5 corridor and portions of state law that allow for a flourishing legal sex industry — where illegal trafficking can occur.

“The many strip clubs here operate without a lot of scrutiny,” according to Elliot, who immersed himself in the topic while crafting a script for a play version of “Lost in the Shadows.” He learned that pimps sometimes use the clubs as a place to break down a young woman’s inhibitions. “Pimps start with sending girls home with guys from the club, and from there put them out into the streets.”

Elliot composed the initial script for a production with young people at his acting studio and workshop in Northeast Portland. The company, created to aid aspiring actors of all ages, features live performances and also provides a foundation for actors who want to enter the film and television industries.

Through his research, Elliot discovered traffickers come from diverse backgrounds, but most all are slick. Some sport Armani suits and flashy jewelry. They attract girls, seduce them into being their girlfriend, then traffic them into prostitution, said Elliot.

“Lost in the Shadows” is the fictional story of two young victims lured from Portland-area middle- and upper-middle-class homes.

Elliot spoke with individuals who’ve been through the experience.

“It really humbled me how strong and resilient survivors are,” he said. Elliot wanted his protagonist to reveal such strength, to be “the epitome of a survivor.”

However he also learned of a 24-year-old trafficking victim who in 2014 was killed in a Northeast Portland hotel by her exploiter.

The story, like reality, “has elements that are chilling,” he said.

At the time he was finishing his script, most of his acting students were female, ranging from 11 to 20 years old.

“I would look at them and know in my heart that any one of them could be this girl that goes through these things,” said Elliot, who has two grown daughters. “That is what got me passionate about this — working with all these young women.”

The script became fodder for family conversations and turned some of the student actors into activists. A few wrote papers on the topic for school.

But Elliot was not satisfied. Running for portions of February and March in 2015, the play drew at most 100 people a night. “I felt like it was not enough,” he said. So he set to work on the film version.

“There have been many documentaries about trafficking and prostitution that young people are not interested in,” he said. “I don’t want to beat them over the head with it like documentaries can do. But if they can see themselves in a medium like a feature film and think, ‘Oh my gosh, she came from a nice family, this was a nice girl that it happened to’ — I think it will make an impact.”

He also hopes “Lost in the Shadows” will educate parents. “I’m a father, and I understand how it must crush a person’s soul to know that their kid got involved in something like this.”

Anne Leonard has collaborated on acting projects with Elliot for a decade and is working on the film.

She describes Elliot as “an amazing teacher who really digs in and thinks about the possible trajectory of young people, about their future.”

David Renshaw, director of the Office of Communications for the Archdiocese of Portland, is familiar with and inspired by Elliot’s work.

“There isn’t anything glamourous about what he does, but it’s the work that the Holy Spirit has put on his heart,” said Renshaw. He’s “working with the forgotten and marginalized and those who need a voice the most.”

“The play has touched so many young people — and adults — and educated them about a topic that isn’t easy to talk about,” he added. “But the film could reach so many more.”

According to Leonard, there’s been sufficient interest and financial backing for the film to move toward production. The crew is working to tighten the script and determine filming shots and locations.

Elliot has spent a large portion of his own savings to make sure the movie becomes a reality. “I’ve gone into debt to see it through,” he admits.

“But this was my calling, this is the path that God put me on,” he said. “It’s something that my faith directs me to do. So I must do it.”

 




The National Human Trafficking Hotline, for support or to report a tip: 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733)

For an in-depth look at sex trafficking in Oregon, click here.