TAMPA — The smell of popcorn permeated the air. People snapped photos in front of the movie poster and chatted excitedly in their seats. It could have been the minutes before any movie premiere.
But when the lights dimmed and images filled the screen of girls shackled to walls or bent over scrubbing floors, a heaviness settled over the audience of more than 1,400 who had gathered to watch the documentary on human trafficking.
Too Close to Home details the brutal reality of human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area. A collaboration of WEDU, the Allegany Franciscan Ministries and the Junior League of Tampa, the 30-minute documentary seeks to bring awareness to the area and help people identify signs of human trafficking.
The downtown Tampa Theatre, which is also a sponsor, was filled to capacity, and about 200 people were still on the waiting list, WEDU spokeswoman Allison Hedrick said.
It's just the start, said Allegany Franciscan Ministries president and chief executive, Eileen Boyle.
"We hope this documentary will serve as a springboard to increase and connect collaborators throughout Florida," she said.
Producer Kristine Kelly spent six months on the film and said she was shocked to learn how much trafficking happened in Tampa Bay.
"I've been surprised by the brutality of the stories I hear from survivors," Kelly said. "In reality, it is just this brutal slavery. That's what it is. It's modern-day slavery."
During the past 18 months, awareness of the topic has risen enough to connect with multiple layers of the community, including law enforcement, prosecutors, community advocates and politicians. Groups such as the Junior League of Tampa, the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking and the Hillsborough Commission on the Status of Women have worked to spread the word.
"Quite honestly, I was embarrassed I didn't know about it (before starting the project)," said Larry Jopek, vice president of marketing and community partnerships for WEDU. "You can feel this energy building on both sides of the bay and see people working together. These problems don't end on county lines."
The documentary features a "who's who" of activists fighting human trafficking in Tampa Bay. Those keyed into the scene will recognize Clearwater police Detective James McBride, survivor Connie Rose, Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, Laura Hamilton of Bridging Freedom, Dotti Groover-Skipper of the HeartDance Foundation, and Natasha Nascimento of Redefining Refuge.
After the screening, Rose addressed the crowd and distributed stickers with the national hotline number. Rose urged women to post the stickers in the one place human trafficking victims can go alone — bathroom stalls.
"I want you to move from being reactive tonight to being proactive and helping us create social change," she said. "This didn't start yesterday and it's not going to end tomorrow, but you are going to help us make that social change."
Vivianie Lopez, 22, attended the screening with her mother and a friend. She said she was shocked to learn what was happening in her own community, and that victims like Rose were trafficked in downtown Tampa, including right in front of the Tampa Theatre.
"I think not a whole lot of friends and people my age know about this and that it actually happens," Lopez said.
Lopez and her friend Aisha Pabon, 21, each took a pack of stickers and plan to distribute them throughout bathroom stalls in the area.
"The only way we're going to fight this is through social awareness," producer Kelly said. "Even if you're just one person, you can help spread the word."
Junior League president Lee Lowry said the league was thrilled with the turnout at the screening. Since the premiere, she has been approached by people who saw the documentary or read about it and were appalled.
"It just means to us at the league that the word is starting to get out and we can really start to move the needle on this problem," Lowry said. "Hopefully this is the beginning of the tsunami of information."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.