Skin trade exposed

Harry van Versendaal

Shortly after communism came crashing to the ground in Eastern Europe, Mimi Chakarova, then 13 years old, left her small Bulgarian village to start a new life in the United States with her mother.

As she found out during a visit back to the place a few years later, other girls from her village had been less fortunate. Lured by promises of well-paying jobs abroad, many disappeared into the dark world of sex slavery as they were actually sold to gangs who confiscated their passports and held them captive in brothels and nightclubs, forcing them to work as prostitutes.

A teacher of visual storytelling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Chakarova’s curiosity surrounding the circumstances of the girls’ emigration prompted her to embark on a photo-reportage project in 2003. The venture culminated in a well-crafted and deeply disturbing 73-minute documentary feature which combines still images with video footage.

In her award-winning film, “The Price of Sex,” showing at this month’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chakarova follows in the footsteps of Eastern European women forced into sex trafficking and abused by their captors. Along the way, she conducts interviews in Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey and Dubai.

Chakarova interviews recruiters, pimps, police officials and a couple of sex-starved clients. She does not hesitate to pose as a prostitute, using hidden cameras to film inside a Turkish sex club — a feat that is unfortunately not as cinematically revealing as it is bold. And she has no qualms about occasionally drifting away from unemotional objectivity, cherished among doc traditionalists, to step into more activist territory.

One of the women describes how she jumped out of a three-story-high window to escape her captors. The attempt left her partially paralyzed but she was still brought back to continue working until a replacement was found. As Charakova puts it in the film, “one kilo of cocaine, one AK-47 or one Moldovan girl — it’s all the same.”

An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into the sex trade every year, according to the United Nations. A large number come from the countries of the former communist bloc.

“If you want to fight sex trafficking, you first have to combat the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, rampant corruption and poor access to justice,” a NGO worker tells Chakarova. Too tall an order for a documentary maker, perhaps, but if knowledge is power, then this doc can provide some of the necessary spark to get things moving in the right direction.

The 35-year-old Chakarova spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her experience and hopes for the future.

What made you decide to make this particular documentary?

What motivated me to make “The Price of Sex” changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I knew I had to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making the film? Do you still run into trouble because of it?

I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn’t have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can’t show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it’s “safe,” you can’t turn it off. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations, no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks that don’t want their operations exposed. There are too many variables beyond your control when you enter high-risk situations. I always tell my students that staying alive in this line of work is a combination of common sense based on experience, instinct, your powers of observation and the rest is really luck. Once it runs out, you’re done.

It must have been difficult to win the trust of these women. How did you go about it?

I gained their trust over time. I photographed one of the women in “The Price of Sex” over a four-year period before she agreed to a video interview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. And in every place you document, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only reporting, taking a photo or shooting video; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even do the work. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcome. The people we make films about should never be referred to as “subjects.” And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.

Do you feel you kept the necessary distance from the women while shooting the film? Or did you perhaps find yourself getting more engaged than you should have?

I don’t think it’s possible to keep a distance when working on a subject matter like sex slavery for almost a decade. This work affects you profoundly.

Did you help any of the victims in any way, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I’ve been able to help some of the women through the work I’ve produced, but my bigger challenge is how to ensure long-term change and, most importantly, how to prevent this from happening to other young girls. One positive outcome is that the US State Department will use the film to train its employees at embassies throughout the world. But there is still a lot more to be done.

Did opening up to you have a cathartic effect on the women?

There were many times when I would ask, “Why are you telling me all this?” — especially when a woman would disclose really graphic or gruesome details of what she went through. And the answer was consistently: “Because you won’t judge me. I have no one else to tell.” So, yes, I think many of these conversations were painful but also cathartic.

You only mention a few numbers in your documentary. Is it because you feel the personal stories you present are more powerful than figures?

The numbers vary so greatly depending on the source that I was wary of focusing on estimates. For example, the US State Department estimates the number of trafficking victims at 800,000 per year. But the UN’s estimate goes up to nearly 2 million. These numbers also include labor trafficking, so rather than focus on data which is very difficult to substantiate, I decided to make a film that tells the women’s stories and also reveals the widespread, systematic corruption across borders.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

I hope that people who see it can leave informed but also with the urgent desire to do something. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. The more you know, the more responsible you become about changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable. I would like to encourage people to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more about the film and the multimedia series. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It’s through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that’s always an important first step before taking action.

Are you working on a new project?

I am currently traveling with the film and speaking about “The Price of Sex” to as many people as I can. Once I feel that the film has a life of its own and no longer requires my presence, I will start working on my second film, which takes place in the US.

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