Truckers see the sorrow, violence, and disgrace of sex trafficking almost every day. From the lot lizards who knock on their cab doors while they’re trying to sleep to the child peering out from behind a van curtain that is violently pulled shut by an adult.
That’s why when filmmaker Pearl Gluck decided to look into the world of sex trafficking for her recent movie, The Turn Out, she did so through the eyes of a truck driver—a real trucker. Although better known for her documentary films, Gluck was spurred to use fiction to help audiences better understand how sex trafficking not only affects those being bought and sold, but those whom she calls the ‘bystanders’—mainly truckers and others who witness trafficking firsthand and must decide whether or not to help the victims.
She wanted to focus on a male truck driver as her main character because of what one judge told her. “He said, ‘You will not change the traffickers. You can do all you can for the victims, but they probably won’t see your movie. You want to think about the bystanders and the buyers,’” said Gluck. “The bottom line is that’s who traffickers are targeting; they’re targeting the buyers, often truckers. I swear that every trucker I’ve met has a story where they’ve seen children in vans…
“When we were filming, my editor said, ‘Pearl, I want to cut this so that people can see the pressures of being a trucker. I don’t think people understand how tough, lonely and intense that life is.’”
James J. Gagne, Jr., the actor playing the lead role, was actually a trucker for 25 years when he met Gluck. “It was so brave of him to do this movie, because he does have a daughter, he doesn’t do drugs, and he doesn’t hire prostitutes,” said Gluck.
Gagne was a producer and motorcycle stunt driver for one of Gluck’s earlier films. He continues to drive trucks, now for the U.S. Postal System in the Indianapolis area. “I didn’t just act in this movie,” he said. “I was part of the writing [team], and I also helped produce it. I had a lot of input. It was a challenge to act, but basically all I had to do was take deep breaths and try to be myself— in a way, interact with people and listen to the director.
“Being on the road for 30 years, you know how to interact with people,” he said.
Gagne not only acted in the movie but drove a truck, too, a job usually handled by stunt drivers. “There was a lot I brought to the movie,” he explained.
“My interest in the subject of trafficking was sparked because of a trip I took with Jim where I saw the mobile chapel in Frystown, PA,” Gluck said. “They offer a lot of literature about God and the Bible, but there’s also literature about Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT).”
Gluck had no idea truckers were trained by TAT to look for signs of trafficking and report suspicious activity. “I wrote a scene in my head about when a trucker changes and realizes what’s really going on and sees the high percentage of trafficking and prostitution,” she said. “He changes his mind from not wanting people to knock on his cab door to wanting them to so he can help them.”
Gluck began her research on trafficking by meeting survivors and learning their stories, often through Catch Court, an alternative judicial system in Columbus, OH, (and other jurisdictions) that treats those who were trafficked as victims of abuse and not prostitutes.
“In order to participate in the program, they have to get clean [if they’re on drugs],” she said. “They learn how to balance checkbooks, really basic things.”
Gluck said that one of the factors keeping people enslaved is that their criminal records keep them from work opportunities. “If they do all this [complete the court-ordered program], then their prostitution record gets expunged, so they can be hirable.”
One of the most profound and unusual stories she heard was from a male trucker who was teaming with his wife.
“We were all sitting there [Gluck and her crew] expecting the usual stories we’ve been hearing [mainly about females], and he looked at me and said, ‘I was trafficked.’ You could hear a pin drop. He said, ‘My father trafficked me at this very truck stop when I was nine years old, going from truck to truck. It took my grandfather [to stop it].
“It’s stories like that that made me change my beliefs about domestic trafficking. We [Americans] think it’s just in India or the Philippines or wherever people are poverty-stricken, but we have poverty right here in our country, and we have opioid addiction right here in our country. Where you have drugs, you have trafficking. And where you have trafficking, you have drugs.”
What happens to the main character, the trucker? The essence of storytelling is that the main character must undergo change, and Gluck’s movie is no exception.
“I thought, ‘What if I [created] a character who starts changing from someone who thought one way about the women who were coming door-to-door at the truck stop, and changes his thinking about them?’” she said. “It’s a film about someone who’s conflicted and torn, trying to be a good dad and struggles at being on the road. It’s almost like a redemption story where his realization about what’s happening to a young girl at the truck stop actually turns him into an everyday hero and a better father.”