In the 1990s, you couldn't ride the subways without seeing them: shabbily dressed, silent peddlers placing key chains with tags that read "$1 I am deaf" on the seats and hastily collecting those not purchased.
Brooklyn resident Maximón Monihan, a filmmaker and former skateboarder, had always suspected they were motivated by more than desperation and poverty, he told DNAinfo New York.
"For years, I was upset because so many people said, ‘Aw, they’re faking it,'" he recalled. "[But] there’s easier ways to make a buck in New York than to go and degrade yourself every day on the train. You could sense it from the way that people were so timid that were doing this that ... there was something else going on.”
Then, in 1997, when the NYPD found 57 Mexican trinket sellers, most deaf and non-verbal, living in what authorities described as "virtual slavery," Monihan felt vindicated, he said.
"I just wanted to go yell at everybody and say 'I told you.' But I knew that would be pointless, because nobody wants to be schooled like that."
Almost two decades later, Monihan's film "The Voice of the Voiceless," a mostly silent black-and-white film enjoying its New York premiere at the ReelAbilities Film Festival Thursday, opens a window into the enslaved peddlers' world.
Monihan's first full-length feature tells the tale of Olga, a deaf Guatemalan teenager who is lured by an international crime syndicate to New York City under the false promise of schooling. In the U.S., she finds herself condemned to the conditions of bondage reported in 1997.
Monihan told DNAinfo he wanted his low-budget feature capturing that reality and its New York setting to "feel real." Here's how he did it:
1. It's based on a real New York City story.
The illicit operation to which Olga is prey was brought to the public's attention when American law officials indicted 20 people in New York involved in the trafficking, confinement, forced labor and corporal punishment of more than 1,000 deaf and non-verbal Mexicans.
The Paoletti family and their co-conspirators brought these men and women into the U.S. promising them good jobs, but later forcing them to sell trinkets and beg on the subways and buses. They treated their captives like slaves, hunting them down when they escaped and beating them when they failed to meet their quotas.
”It’s a side of our city that is nothing to be proud about," Monihan said, "but it’s something that — given the fact that we’re all so caught up with our own dramas — you could see how it would be so easily ignored or just overlooked."
2. Janeva Zentz, playing Olga, gave such a convincing performance as a subway panhandler that straphangers gave her donations they refused to take back.
After "Olga" laid down trinkets and cards asking for donations on behalf of a deaf woman's education, subway riders made donations immediately, "which was great because we didn't have to fake it," Maximon said.
But, he added, many wouldn't take them back when the director's crew offered them at the scene's end.
"A lot of the times, people would be like, 'Oh no no no, she needs the money more than us. It's all right.' And we would be like, 'No, you see this is a camera.'"
Zentz insisted they give the money to the homeless, “so as not to get bad karma, to not keep money in the terms we were trying to critique," her director said.
3. The film's lead actress was a Cooper Union student at the time.
Zentz was studying fine arts at Cooper Union when Monihan convinced her to star in his film. Her cinematic debut and its warm reception encouraged her to do more acting in film and television in Los Angeles, where she lives today.
4. All its New York scenes are filmed in the city, mostly in public spaces.
"Most New York films don’t feel like New York films because you’re cutting back and forth between stuff they filmed in Canada," Monihan said. "Or you just see the same Fifth Avenue boring stuff that’s a shopping montage." (For some context, the city hosted 242 film productions in 2014 and at least 256 films in 2015, according to the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment.)
Much of "The Voice of the Voiceless" was shot in 2008 and 2009 on the subways, on the A, C, E, F, N, R, and 7 lines. Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan all take their star turn on the screen.
5. Monihan is working to arrange screenings this spring or early summer at New York City theaters.
While the director is excited for the film's New York premiere with the ReelAbilities, which is dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives of people with different abilities — "it’s an important film festival for the audience it draws and that’s why we wanted to do it” — he says he's also working on its proper release in a theater like Film Forum or the newly opened Metrograph.
That's taking some time because Monihan wants opening night to feature live music, as low-frequency as the film's soundtrack — which is intended to replicate what the non-hearing experience — by hip-hop artists Prince Paul and Edan.
Watch the trailer below:
The ReelAbilities Film Festival runs from March 10 to 16 at more than 40 venues in the city. You can find a complete lineup and ticket information here.