Documentary explores UCLA alumna’s past as a child prostitute

In David Sauvage’s documentary short, “Carissa,” a 31-year-old graduate of UCLA’s law and business schools visits a rundown hotel on Fresno’s “motel drive,” where underage girls work the streets. “I feel so torn up that I come back here and it’s still the same, or worse,” Carissa Phelps says. When she herself was 12, and homeless and hungry, a man brought her to this motel after buying her a hot dog and a Pepsi. So began her life as a prostituted child, when she was exploited by a number of men, including a pimp who brutally raped her.

The 23-minute film, which screens with other shorts during DocuWeek Aug. 22-28 at the ArcLight Hollywood, also recounts how a juvenile hall counselor saw potential in Phelps and encouraged her to keep a journal. It recalls how the counselor and other teachers praised Phelps when she taught herself algebra from a textbook and how they encouraged her to turn her life around. The short also describes how Phelps eventually earned an MBA and a law degree in order to help prostituted children and how she now works as an activist and fundraiser to clean up motel drive and transform the surrounding neighborhood.

The powerful but unsentimental movie, which was executive produced by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), is one of four shorts to screen at DocuWeek, the International Documentary Association’s showcase of qualifying films for Academy Award consideration. Another short, “Baghdad Twist,” chronicles a Jewish family’s past in Iraq.

In a phone interview from Fresno, Phelps — whose mother is of Jewish descent — said she had never told the entirety of her story to anyone before she met Sauvage in a study group at UCLA’s graduate business school three years ago.

“I would start shaking, and couldn’t speak,” she said of past efforts. “But I knew I wanted to go back to motel drive with a camera. Somehow, I needed to have my story documented.”

Her chance came when she heard Sauvage say he intended to create financing for a movie as his summer MBA project in 2005. “You should make your movie about me,” she told him. Sauvage, who at the time did not know she had been abused, cavalierly replied that unless she had been a child prostitute, he wasn’t interested.

It was a flip response, but Phelps said, she nevertheless intuited that Sauvage was the right person to tell her story.

“I thought David was essentially kind, a great storyteller, and that he was coming from the right place,” she said. “And a big part of that had to do with his family background.”

The director is the son of filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, whose 1988 documentary, “Weapons of the Spirit,” describes the town in France where 5,000 Christians saved 5,000 Jews from the Nazis, including Pierre and his parents. When David was growing up, the Holocaust and rescuers were frequent topics of discussion at home. As a teenager, David found the conversations all too frequent, which gave him a kind of cynicism but also a moral prism through which to view the world.

The childhood discussions “awoke me … to the horrors of which people are capable, [and they] probably had a lot to do with my reaction when Carissa came to me with her story,” Sauvage said. “I was moved, yes, but I was not entirely shocked. In fact, it was my nonchalance that I think enabled us to move forward. Carissa knew she had in me someone who could understand the darkest parts of her story without flinching.”

Phelps said that because her mother was “adopted out” to a non-Jewish family, getting to know the Sauvages “was a chance to connect to a culture I never got to be a part of.” Going back to Fresno for production, however, proved challenging for Phelps. She said the film’s cinematographer had to drive her to the motel drive location because she physically couldn’t force her body to steer in that direction.

Eventually, she was able to speak on camera (Sauvage said he modeled his interviewing techniques on those of his father, “who knows how to let a moment breathe”). Phelps described how her mother dumped her at juvenile hall when she was 12 and how caring staff at another facility helped her start to believe in herself.

Sauvage also interviewed one of Phelps’ pimps, who said johns didn’t care that Phelps was 13; as well as the woman who recruited Phelps to work for an even more violent pimp (who is now serving 144 years in prison).

Both Phelps and Sauvage believe the film focuses less on Phelps’s victimization than her rescuers and her own desire to help at-risk girls. “In a very real and strange sense, I was tackling my father’s theme on a much smaller scale,” Sauvage said.

For more information about “Carissa,” which screens as part of the Program B Shorts at ArcLight Hollywood, and DocuWeek programs at the ArcLight Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, visit

The trailer