Producer Melina Tupa investigates teens ‘Trafficked in America’ in acclaimed Frontline doc

Film has been Melina Tupa’s passion from the time she was just a child, and she knew from a young age that she was set on fulfilling her dream of one day becoming a filmmaker. Over the course of her career, she has filled many roles to get to the renowned position she holds today. She began as a production assistant on various productions, then worked her way up to associate producer at Turner Broadcasting for three years and, finally became the successful producer she is today. She says being in all those roles made her realize how important every single person in the production chain is, ultimately making her a better producer. Now, she has produced several acclaimed films that have gone to festivals all over the world, such as The Search, which won Best Short Documentary at the prestigious Amnesty International Film Festival in France. That dream she set out on as a child has come true, and her documentaries have been widely regarded as game changing.

Tupa’s greatest accomplishment has been working on documentaries that shed light to very important matters of our time and leading to a change in legislation in some states. Her work on the 2015 PBS Frontline documentary Rape on the Night Shift, which looks into allegations of sexual abuse of immigrant women working in the janitorial industry and how companies handle the problem, inspired a change in California law to protect janitors like them from sexual violence and abuse on the job. 

When Tupa once again was offered the opportunity to work on another Frontline documentary, Trafficked in America, she knew it was the type of story she wanted to tell. The directors Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, the Executive Producer Lowell Bergman, as well as the entire team at the Investigating Reporting Program are highly recognized journalists and professionals whom Tupa had worked with on Rape on the Night Shift. When Altan reached out to Tupa personally saying they needed a field producer to travel to Marion, Ohio to investigate, report and produce on this small community where Guatemalan teenagers were smuggled into the country and believed to be living, Tupa instantly said yes. It was fundamental that the field producer who would travel to Ohio spoke perfect Spanish, as most of the people who live in this community are Spanish-speakers, and as Tupa grew up in Argentina, this would be no concern.  

“I knew I wanted to work on this project because I believed it was a really important story to tell. We go about our lives everyday here in America without thinking there are people who are working against their will. I knew we needed to shed light on this very serious matter through this documentary,” said Tupa.

Trafficked in America investigates how teenagers from Central America were smuggled into the U.S. by traffickers who promised them jobs and a better life-only to force them to live and work in virtual slavery to pay off their debt. This documentary dives into a labor trafficking case in which Guatemalan teens were forced by a third-party contractor to work against their will at a major egg producer. The investigative team exposes a criminal network that exploited undocumented minors, the companies who profited from their forced labor, and how U.S. government policies and practices helped to deliver some teens directly to their traffickers.

“I like that the film ended up showcasing this super important matter of human trafficking and it was done in an artful yet journalistic way. The film uncovered abuses of power in this small town and community and I believe this is very important as people watching the film in similar communities can keep their eyes open for these kinds of abuses,” said Tupa.

Working on this project was very challenging and a huge responsibility for Tupa. She went to Marion to try to find some of the Guatemalan teens who were forced to work against their will on an Ohio egg farm. They were believed to be living in a trailer park and she started interviewing people who lived there to get some tips and leads. She also interviewed faith leaders and community leaders to find out more about the case. 

Tupa was finally able to find some people related to the case who were willing to speak on camera for the documentary. One of them was a woman who lived in the trailer park and had worked in the egg factory and knew many of the Guatemalan teens Tupa and her team wanted to interview for the documentary. This reporting that Tupa made in Marion helped open doors for many of the characters that were later interviewed and portrayed in the documentary. 

“As a Field Producer, this was one of the most challenging jobs I had in my life. The subject matter of the documentary was very serious, it involved the lives of many people, and we had to make sure the reporting was accurate and thorough,” said Tupa. “I liked that in the final product I could see all my hard work reflected and that I made a real contribution for that film.”

Trafficked in America aired across the United States on PBS Frontline on April 24th, 2018. It immediately struck a chord with audiences everywhere, and ended up being a 2019 finalist for the very prestigious Goldsmith Prize in Investigative Reporting. This was a tremendous honor for Tupa, who played a pivotal role in the film, but the critical acclaim was secondary for this compassionate producer.

“I really felt happy we gave a voice to those teenagers who are underrepresented in mainstream media and who feel as though nobody ever listens to them. They were able to tell their own story,” she concluded.

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