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Raven Kaliana – puppeteer, filmmaker and survivor of commercial child abuse

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Puppets by RavenKaliana, Photo (c) 2008CereinynOrd

Una Purdie
WVoN co-editor 

“My parents sold me into the child pornography industry.”

These are words that nobody should ever have to utter. For most of us, it’s unimaginable.

But for London based puppeteer, filmmaker and human rights activist Raven Kaliana, it’s reality.

The US born artist lays bare her harrowing experiences at the premiere of her debut short film Hooray for Hollywood on a dark midweek night in Amnesty International’s London office.

The autobiographical film tells the story of two small children, trapped and exploited in the organised criminal underworld of child pornography.

It reflects real events from Kaliana’s childhood, when her parents profited from her abuse from an early age until her eventual escape in her late teens.

They were part of a child pornography ring in her hometown – a place she says “was rife with corruption” – and trafficked her to a studio in LA.

One of the first questions she is normally asked is how anyone’s parents can do that to their child. Describing them as “very very very sick people,” Kaliana says she was exploding with rage when she first escaped.

While what they did was “horribly horribly wrong” she also understands on one level that they were damaged people who had themselves been sold into the child porn industry and were repeating the abuse.

But it’s “a crime that needs to stop”, and Kaliana uses her own history and the medium of art to explore this difficult topic.

Kaliana’s film certainly packs a punch. Its strength is in its simplicity. With subject matter as intrinsically disturbing as child abuse, there is no need for overstatement, nor any graphic depictions that would compromise the viewer.

Underpinned by a beautifully haunting violin score, the film instead relies on expressive hand-carved puppets, effectively sparse dialogue, imagery and metaphor to get the message across. The heartrending pain of the terrified children is made all too clear.

In the film the adults are seen only from the waist down, ensuring everything is viewed from the child’s perspective.

It reminds people that there is a real child involved in each of the remote news stories we hear about, the statistics we read and the internet images of abuse that are circulated.

“The language often used in mainstream media can be misleading – terms like ‘indecent images’. People assume it’s cartoons,” Kaliana says.

“Even using the term ‘pornography’ or gross terms like ‘kiddy porn’ – it puts it in the same category as adult pornography which is much greyer.

“With adults there is potentially – not always – more choice involved.

“With children there is no art, no erotica – it’s exploitation. You are viewing a child abuse image.”

As John Bird of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) said after the screening, child pornography should be looked at as photographic evidence of a crime.

The footage the abusers distribute is a forensic record of a crime scene.

Kaliana’s film is an adaptation of her successful play of the same name.

Her company Puppet (R)Evolution has been performing the live theatre version of Hooray for Hollywood since 2008, most recently in well received sold-out shows at the Charleville World Puppet Festival in France.

An integral part of each performance, whether live puppet theatre or film, is a question and answer session with the audience. Kaliana usually leads this herself, with support from a panel of workers from organisations like Childline.

Going over such deeply personal trauma with a room full of strangers must take an immense amount of courage, but Kaliana says she is happy to be able to talk about it.

“I really love the Q and A part,” she says. “One really useful thing about the show is it gives people a chance to discuss the issues. People are really moved by it.

“Nice people don’t know what child pornography is – it’s a way to show them why they should be concerned.”

It’s a topic which, understandably, many would prefer not to think about, and to pretend didn’t exist.

But the statistics are a wake up call to the prevalence of the crime.

Research from the NSPCC found one in nine young adults in the UK have experienced some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

Children’s charity NCH (now Action for Children) reported that child pornography crimes in England and Wales went up by 1500 per cent from 1988 to the end of 2001.

The massive surge in child pornography crimes has been attributed to the internet which has made it so much more accessible.

When Kaliana was being abused everything was analogue – taking weeks to secretly develop, package and distribute the material. But now the films can be distributed within minutes of the abuse taking place.

Its production is a global industry without borders. The UN estimated its value at between $3billion and $20 billion per year.

But Kaliana does see one positive aspect to the digitisation of the criminal rings – it leaves a trail of evidence to help catch the abusers.

“It really needs a lot of awareness. But one thing about the internet is everything is now traceable – it’s a matter of putting money into policing this.”

There have been successful examples of international co-operation between police which has busted some of these rings. In Europe just this month 112 people were arrested, spanning 22 countries, after a year long Europol investigation into online child sex abuse.

But it’s the tip of a massive iceberg.

Kaliana hopes her DVD will be shown as part of a specially developed training package for people working with children, in places like charities, schools and hospitals. As she says, “these things don’t happen in a vacuum”.

She believes it is important to lift the taboos and educate adults to recognise the signs of abuse in those around them.

Not being listened to is one of the biggest issues for children being abused.

“As a child I was so silenced – like my whole experience was invalidated. My family went on like everything was normal. I may have had bruises all over my body, but I just went to school like everything was okay, when it was not okay.”

One of the many shocking aspects of Kaliana’s experience was the extent of the criminality surrounding her.

The network infiltrated her local police, making it even more difficult for her to find a way out.

When Kaliana did manage to escape as a teenager, at first she found it almost impossible to get the police to take her seriously.

“I witnessed a murder, escaped and could see the studio from the police station,” she tells me. “But when I first went to the police they laughed at me. They wouldn’t take my report.”

Kaliana’s story is appalling, but she remains positive that things are improving, and awareness of the issue has increased.

“I like to think society as a whole is working towards change, building a groundswell of people saying ‘that’s not right’.

“Social change comes in layers and waves – it’s like unwrapping a package and what’s underneath can be more difficult.”

In the meantime Kaliana continues to create moving pieces of theatre to help unwrap that package.

“How much do you relate to a dry news article full of statistics – do you take that into your heart?”

Art can be a very powerful force for change.

Read more about Hooray for Hollywood at

The film will be made available to view at

  1. What a powerful, excellent piece. I’m sending it to everyone I know.

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