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St. Louis filmmaker looking to expose crisis that often goes unseen

"I used to see young black males on the streets late at night, I thought drugs, some other criminal activity. I never thought sex work."

ST. LOUIS — The City of St. Louis is not immune to a crisis in America.

“This is a national problem. It’s real and it happens in plain sight,” St. Louis filmmaker Kevin Coleman-Cohen told 5 On Your Side.

The problem is at-risk teenagers taking part in sex work. Coleman-Cohen saw it first-hand while working for the local nonprofit Youth In Need.

“I was their outreach manager. Went to our hot spots and I discovered young black males, teens, engaging in sex work,” he said.

What he witnessed went against a stereotype he had in his own head.

“I used to see young black males on the streets late at night, I thought drugs, I thought some other criminal activity. I never thought sex work,” he said.

He has since produced a short film called "Pretty Boy" based on his efforts to help a boy change his lifestyle. 

“He ran away from home and was in a different shelter program and then on the streets then got into foster care. But the whole system failed him,” Coleman-Cohen explained.

Years later, Coleman-Cohen stills as if he failed him too.

“I didn't help him. I didn’t get him off the streets,” he said.

Now, he is telling the boy’s story in his film.

“My heart dropped and so I wrote a screen play about his story,” he said.

Coleman-Cohen shot his film in St. Louis. They went on location to the places the subject of the film would hang out. He believed the backdrop would keep the film real and authentic.

"Stay true to that young person I met all those years ago and not Hollywood it,” he said.

Hollywood is taking notice of his work, though. He’s been invited to show it at film festivals around the country.

“We’re in Martha’s Vineyard later this summer and why that’s such an honor is it’s an Oscar qualifying festival,” Coleman-Cohen told 5 On Your Side.

While winning awards would be nice, the awards are not what motivates him. 

“I see my job as the artist is to bring attention and awareness of an undervalued and underexposed group of people that are often invisible. We are a movement more than just a movie,” he said.

While he could not save the  teenager he met long ago, he hopes his film will save someone in the future by motivating people into action.

“I believe that my film will start a conversation,” he said. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of human sex trafficking, there is national hotline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is set up to provide help and resources. The number is 1-888-373-7888.

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