08/16/2010 06:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stolen Dreams: An Intimate Look Inside Rio's Slums

New York has just played host to a unique film -- part social commentary, part an alert, part tragedy, part hopeful -- about three teenage girls in an economic and moral morass that leads to prostitution. At first I was shocked by the girls' brazen choices. But due to sensitive story-telling by seasoned Brazilian producer/director Sandra Werneck, Stolen Dreams will summon your compassion as the girls' backgrounds unfold. These are motherless, fatherless girls filled with suspicion and anger on the one hand and hope on the other.

Werneck holds nothing back as her three young actresses show us every wrenching bit of the self-destruction that happens when kids are unloved. Yet the film is not altogether sad. Two of these fragile teens find caring people who help them. If they make better choices, these two may turn their lives around. I found myself rooting for them, and you will, too.


Filmmaker Sandra Werneck / Photographed by Leslie Hassler

This grabber of a film had to be hard to make. Werneck takes us inside Rio de Janeiro's low-income slums, following the girls' banal lives over two years. There's a dearth of role models. Teachers strike for months, and the saintly Catholic Church disapproves of everything fun-seeking youths want -- drinking, smoking marijuana and cigarettes and wearing skimpy clothing. But despite these handicaps, the girls miraculously believe their lives are OK. They find happiness shopping together or cruising a party. They bond around their dreams, supporting each other against all odds.

Where are the girls' mothers? Jessica, 17, lost her drug-addicted mother to AIDS five years before. She now lives in a shack with her ailing grandfather and her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, whom she both loves and resents because she wants to go dancing at night. She is their sole support.

Daiane, 14, lives with an aunt and an uncle who regularly molests her. She never knew her "crazy" mother who had many children by different men, then was institutionalized. Her number one dream is for her father to claim her, something he refuses to do. Pursuing this dream, she regularly visits him at his welding shop calling him, to his horror, "dad."

The third girl, Sabrina, 18, lives in a squalid rented room, supporting herself as a sales clerk and by giving sexual favors. Trying to go home once, her pregnant mother slammed the door in her face. She falls for a rich local drug dealer who rejects her when she gets pregnant.


Stolen Dreams Official Poster

While the two older ones sell themselves, they hide nothing from the younger one. You'll surely flinch, as I did, watching the 14-year-old heading for the same life. When the two older girls are starving, they flirt with two men who first buy them pizza, then buy them for a quick trick in a nearby cabin. The youngest girl is given look-out duty and part of the take afterward.

Soon after, this child dyes her hair blond, dresses provocatively, demands her uncle pay for her favors, and wanders the streets feeling cool. Werneck's camera relentlessly rolls right over all this rawness, making us wonder how these young actresses actually handled what they had to do. Werneck says,

Women (in Brazil) aren't talking about this yet. No woman had made a true film about the life of young girls in the slums. Yet it is women who are sensitive to women's issues. We, including the three actresses, stayed in the communities to see how these girls speak, dress and act. It was intense preparation for the actresses. For the public, we see these lives as tragic. But they don't see it that way, so I show their views of themselves, too. For them, it's just about smoking, new jeans, being like middle class girls. For the older girls, there are no parents to feed them. No pimp, as they don't do this behavior every day, just to get something they want or need.

Many people in Brazil don't want to see this kind of film. They want romantic comedies. But we have national and international distribution, and the film won the audience award at Rio's Film Festival last October. It was the red carpet finale at New York's Latino Film Festival nine days ago and will appear August 19 at the Brazilian Film Festival of Miami.

Werneck has many other films to her credit. She co-directed the 2004 Brazilian hit, Cazuza, and has had her own Rio-based film studio, Cineluz, since 1992. Is there government help for young girls who get pregnant without support for their child? "No, the Catholic Church disapproves and also forbids abortion. I'm very worried about that, having babies, it's a vicious circle. I'm worried about Brazil. It's more a future problem, an education problem. Fifty years ago, it was a no-no, having babies at 15."

Brazilian Film Festival of Miami: