Plenty of movies and news reports have attempted to shine the light on the scourge of sex trafficking, but few efforts have the immediacy and impact of filmmaker Mimi Chakarova’s The Price of Sex.
A photojournalist by trade, Chakarova was inspired to explore the topic because of her background in Bulgaria, where the trafficking of young, poor women is an epidemic. Her bold investigation takes her into the lives of women who have escaped the life, and even some men who perpetrate it. She travels around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, providing an unflinching look at a problem that often seems as hopeless as it is vast.
The Documentary Channel is airing The Price of Sex at 8pm on Saturday, March 10 as part of its “Her Take” series of documentaries by women that address issues that affect women. Chakarova spoke with us about making the film, confronting the dangers, and whether sex trafficking can ever be eradicated:
Channel Guide Magazine: This movie involved a lot of undercover work for you, and talking to people who had a lot to lose by speaking out. Walk me through the process of putting this film together, and how difficult was it?
Mimi Chakarova: 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. While doing the work, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks who 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.
CGM: Sex trafficking is gaining more notice in the media these days, but what in your mind are people still ignorant about on the subject? And what did your film hope to show them?
MC: My hope is that The Price of Sex exposes the bigger issue of why trafficking continues to exist. As long as the dire economic conditions in developing countries continue to force young women to pack up and leave everything they know behind, no documentary film or public awareness campaign will be fully effective. We have to ask ourselves, what’s the alternative that these girls have when there are no jobs or opportunities for them? The level of desperation pushes them to take irreversible risks.
The other side of the coin is corruption and demand in the countries that exploit them. And the latter is a subject very few are willing to tackle. One of the reasons we made this film was to change perceptions and elevate the public’s consciousness, and the first step is through information that is credible and lays out, in an accessible way, how the system of trafficking works.
I think a lot of people confuse trafficking with prostitution. The Price of Sex is not about women who make a choice to sell sex. It’s about slavery and a complete break down of the human spirit. Along with losing her identity, a trafficked woman loses all personal freedom. She is often locked in a room, raped, beaten, starved and threatened. After this “break-in” period, the young woman realizes that resisting is hopeless. She is made to believe that if she works off her debt — the amount the pimp paid for her in addition to her daily living expenses and other miscellaneous fees — she can return home. Often women are sold multiple times and the cycle of debt is never broken.
CGM: What did you learn about human trafficking during the making of this film?
MC: I’ve worked and thought about sex trafficking for nearly 10 years now. It has changed the way I perceive not only individuals but governments and justice systems. Traffickers prey on the most desperate and vulnerable, because no one would look for them once they’re sold into prostitution. The system is ruthless, and what makes it even more disturbing is that the supply of women is abundant. There is no shortage of people seeking a better life and willing to take their chances.
But I also think that the making of the film was my own personal protest against hypocritical and corrupt systems that exploit their most vulnerable. And it’s no longer my own burden to carry around. I am sharing it with others and urging them to join me by doing the same. I have the feeling that a number of people who watch The Price of Sex will be changed as well. I don’t think that this is a film that will leave your mind an hour or two after you’ve seen it. It should linger for days, and hopefully even longer.
CGM: Have you had the opportunity to follow up with any of the women you profiled in the film?
MC: Yes, getting to know the women in the film took a long time. For example, I photographed one of the central characters in The Price of Sex over a four-year period before she agreed to a video intreview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. I encourage your readers to visit http://priceofsex.org/, a site and multimedia series I co-produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting, to find out more about the individual profiles.
CGM: It’s such a daunting problem. Do you think it can/will be solved? How does the world go about changing things?
MC: I wish I could be optimistic and say that we can eradicate it. I don’t think we can completely stop human trafficking, but I absolutely do believe that we can significantly reduce the numbers. The first step is informing people and starting a discourse that can influence behavior change. The second is providing opportunities for women — through education and work — so they don’t have to leave their communities and risk being trafficked. The third, and by far the least talked about, is reducing the demand by educating young men about the social and devastating consequences of purchased sex.
CGM: Your film concentrates mainly on Eastern Europe, but how widespread is it across the world? Is it even worse in other places?
MC: In terms of numbers, if you were to focus on a region that is currently most problematic, it would be China. Asia is leading in numbers in both sex and labor trafficking. But I also think it’s very important for people to realize that trafficking is not a remote problem in faraway places. It exists in every country in this world and the primary factors and patterns are remarkably similar regardless of nationality.
CGM: You tackled this subject, as well as wars. What compels you to cover these kinds of topics? How do you balance your concern for personal safety against your professional fulfillment?
MC: I don’t even know if professional fulfillment is a driving force for the work. I do it because it matters to me and I have this stubborn notion that it ought to matter to the rest of the world. I do it because I want to see viable change in my lifetime. And I also do it because I want to inspire young people, to be a positive role model for them.