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Shooting for Progress

Film professor Brett Levner leaves behind reality TV to fight the very real issue of underage sex trafficking.

Arts & Culture  |  Aug 24, 2016  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Brett Levner

Brett Levner (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

"The Track" will be screened on campus 4-6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9, 2017 in the Classroom Building Complex as part of UNLV's Research Week activities. The event is free and open to the public.

As she tells it, Brett Levner had no idea that the dark drama occurring outside her Berkeley, Calif., home would profoundly alter her focus as an artist. In fact, recalls Levner — now a director, producer and assistant professor of film at UNLV — she wasn’t quite sure what she was seeing when she looked out her window.

“I kept seeing this young girl — maybe 15, 16 — on the street corner,” Levner says. “She looked like a suburban kid with a T-shirt, jeans and a Hello Kitty backpack, but she was going in and out of cars, and they were bringing her back. At first I didn’t understand what was happening. Then it occurred to me. I’d read an article about the rise of underage sex trafficking in the Oakland area. I thought, ‘What is going on here?’”

Levner, then working as an adjunct at the Academy of Art University and the College of Marin, was new to teaching; the bulk of her career has been spent successfully producing nonfiction and reality TV shows like True Life, Bridezillas, and The First 48. Right outside her window was a different reality, though — one she felt compelled to respond to through her art. 

“I just wanted to do something more meaningful than my past work,” Levner says. “I started thinking, because I’m a teacher now, I had a responsibility to do something that had a message. I felt I had to be a mentor and role model, and I thought if I made a film that could make a difference in the community and raise awareness, that would be a good example to set.”

Thus Levner disrupted her own artistic trajectory, realizing that a project she could be passionate about was right in front of her. She tackled the difficult subject matter by creating a short film called The Track (after the slang term used to reference the particular area of town where prostitutes solicit customers), which combines fictionalized storytelling with a gritty, cinéma vérité shooting style native to the documentary film genre.

Levner’s preoccupation with trafficking wouldn’t end there, though. By 2011, she had joined UNLV’s faculty and was thinking about producing a feature film. When she ran across an article in the L.A. Times about underage sex trafficking in California and Las Vegas, she knew she had her subject. It was time to tell the story of Sin City’s victims. 

Once again, she would call the film The Track. Once again, she would create a fictionalized story around an underage sex trafficking victim named Barbie, whose path crosses with a mother from the suburbs, Caren, who is grieving the loss of her child. Once again, Levner would use the “run-and-gun” documentary shooting style using handheld cameras.

But this time around, she would be making a full-length film … and studying up on the subject first. “The thing I screwed up with on the short was, I didn’t do enough research,” Levner says. “I wrote a story from my imagination, and I saw the repercussions of that in the authenticity of the performances. So I said to myself, ‘This time, I’m going to do it right.’”

Levner’s research would be the in-the-field variety. She teamed up with UNLV criminal justice professor Alexis Kennedy, an expert in the field of sex trafficking, who connected Levner with a number of locals involved in the fight against this type of exploitation. Levner was introduced to Esther Rodriguez Brown, founder of The Embracing Project, a local organization that assists youth affected by sex trafficking and gang violence. Brown took Levner, along with The Track screenwriter/producer Matthew McCue and producer/alum Domenica Castro (2013), to the courthouse to meet the judge who sentences juvenile victims. They attended a Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force meeting, where they heard a former prostitute and former pimp speak. They met former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who was working diligently at the time to pass harsher regulations on sentencing for pimps. Masto provided background to the filmmakers on the legal challenges surrounding the issue.

The script was completed in 2013, and in 2014, Levner launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the movie. She raised $25,000, which was supplemented by additional financial support from private investors, thanks to the work of producer/alum May May Luong (2006). Cash in hand, Levner began auditioning and casting for the film. Missy Yager (from Mad Men), Sam Trammell (from True Blood), Mike Doyle (from Green Lantern and Law & Order: SVU), Michael Munney (from Veronica Mars and The Young and the Restless), Bre Blair (from Game of Silence and The Baby-Sitters Club), Clarence Gilyard (from Die Hard and Walker, Texas Ranger), and newcomer Mariah Kirstie all joined the roster.

The Track was filmed in just 17 days during October 2014. It was shot in various locations around Las Vegas, including the UNLV campus. Postproduction work — editing, sound design, music, and color correction — was completed in March of 2016. Every stage of the project provided UNLV students with unique professional development opportunities.

“It was a tremendous teaching tool,” Levner says. “A lot of my students worked in exchange for hands-on experience and credit that you typically have to work your way up the ranks for. Here, they got to jump that hurdle and go directly to being on the set of a feature film. From editing to the music and more, they brought so much to the project, and I couldn’t have made this film without them.”

Screenings of the feature film began in April 2016, and it officially premiered on June 12 at Los Angeles’ Dances With Films Film Festival. It also secured two awards at the Las Vegas Film Festival: Best Local Feature and Best First-Time Feature Director. And although Levner is waiting to hear back from potential digital distribution partners, the impact of the movie has already been felt. A charity screening Levner organized raised more than $4,000, and the film has become an important tool for Brown, a social worker in both the film and in real life, who has shared it with some of The Embracing Project’s victims and at Las Vegas detention centers.

“I feel so much more fulfilled having done The Track, even if it never makes a dollar, because it’s raising awareness,” Levner says. “It’s also been a wonderful artistic exercise that helped me hone my skills, improve, and continue on my educational journey as a director. It’s a story that could’ve been told by many people, but I became the conduit for it, and I’m proud of that.”