Human trafficking documentary Dark Highway to screen at Kingston Canadian Film Festival

Dark Highway poster. Image via Winnie Wong.

Anna Jane (AJ) Edmonds is a Kingston-born filmmaker who is bringing her prominent documentary feature, Dark Highway, to the Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF) later this week.

Dark Highway is “told through the lens of a bystander… exposing the lived experiences of survivors across the 401. It explores sex trafficking, especially with minors, and how the crime is really pervasive… and how the highway affects the movement of this crime,” explains Edmonds.

Edmonds started researching human trafficking in Ontario over three years ago with a documentary team in Stratford. Through the research process, she built relationships with survivors and decided she wanted to tell the stories of this “invisible crime” through the lens of a bystander, herself. The project was handed over to Edmonds and her co-producer, Gina Simone, who spent the last three years creating Dark Highway.

This is Edmonds’ first time directing a documentary feature, which came with a lot of challenges. She explains that it began as a short film, “but over the course of all the interviews, [they] had so much content, and there were so many lived experiences that, without their voices behind it, the film wouldn’t have had the same impact.”.

Edmonds describes the difficulty of directing not only the narrative and structure of the film, but the “emotional directing” that comes with documentary filmmaking and lived experiences.

“I wasn’t ready for some of them. I didn’t think people would be so open… I learned a lot of really wonderful lessons in a lot of really great spaces,” she explains.

“When you’re working in the space of lived experiences that are so traumatic, there’s a lot of ownership that myself and Gina have to take of how we present them and how we honour the individuals that came forward… It was really important that… those that were affected by the crime had the opportunity to talk with me at almost all the stages… The film is based on lived experience and statistics. Whenever I went into the statistics space, I would always go back to one of the survivors… and I would say, ‘is this true?’… it was a beautiful thing to do, but it definitely takes time. I’m really grateful to have had the time to be able to put that together.”

Still image from Dark Highway, highlighting the pervasiveness of human trafficking in Ontario. Image via Winnie Wong.

Born and raised in Kingston, Edmonds now bounces between Los Angeles and Kingston. During her school days at Loyalist Collegiate Vocational Institution (LCVI), she spent a lot of time on the Grand Theatre stage.

“I’m feeling pretty humbled to have my film premiere, not only in my hometown, but at a theater that I spent a lot of time in at school,” Edmonds expresses.

“I started performing when I was about six in musical theatre. When I got to high school, there was another filmmaker, this incredibly talented guy… him and I bonded very quickly… I didn’t know anything about [filmmaking]… but I supported him on a feature length film about bullying in high school… I entered into the arts really young at LCVI… it was a great foundational space for me to start my artistic career.”

Although none of Dark Highway was filmed in Kingston, Edmonds’ Kingston heritage partly inspired the film.

“The big intention of the film is saying: ‘I grew up along the 401 and I had no idea’… I have been completely blind. It’s an invisible crime,” she explains.

Dark Highway will have its world premiere at the KCFF in the Baby Grand theatre on Thursday, Feb. 29, with an additional screening on Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024. Edmonds expresses that she “couldn’t be more excited that this is where Dark Highway has found its first home.”

“KCFF is one of the most welcoming and kind festival teams… I’m really excited to not only have the film there, but also to be there in person with my whole family,” the filmmaker shares.

Edmonds will also be conducting a Q&A after both screenings with Kelly Franklin, one of the survivor experiential leaders who helped with the creation of Dark Highway.

“[I hope] anybody that comes and sees [Dark Highway] feels that they can now walk away a little bit more informed about what’s going on, see it in their hometowns, and start actively participating in ending the crime,” says Edmonds, suggesting those who are moved to action look for “survivor-led organizations” such as Rising Angels, Courage for Freedom, and Restorations Canada.

There are a lot of survivor leaders doing incredible work, and they are at the heart of how we acknowledge and support those who are now getting out of it… When you’re looking for places to support… survivors are the key to ending this crime.”

AJ Edmonds in Dark Highway, which will be screened at the KCFF. Image via Winnie Wong.

Dark Highway reflects Edmonds’ belief that film is the most powerful medium for change: “I think we have a responsibility as filmmakers and storytellers to acknowledge that what we put out in the world is there forever and whatever we put out there will affect somebody… Film is a place that people go to escape, that people go to learn… film, and TV especially because it gets consumed at such a high level,… I do think we have an incredible impact on communities, whether we recognize it or not.”

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival runs from Wednesday, Feb. 28 to Sunday Mar. 3, 2024. Dark Highway will be playing at the Baby Grand theatre on Thursday, Feb. 29 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Mar. 3 at 4 p.m. For more information on the film, as well as details and events as part of the festival itself, visit the Kingston Canadian Film Festival website.

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