The car wouldn't start. We were off to film a raid on a brothel, weeks in the planning, and the car wouldn't start. It was a two-hour drive from Siem Reap. Somaly Mam, Nicholas Kristof and the police had left already, and here we were: Me and Richard Fleming, the soundman, and Jeff Dupre, the producer, in a bum car anticipating a showdown with an armed hostile brothel, and possible skirmishes with the military. And at the center of it all: five girls and one woman sold and imprisoned and raped.
The story began with an image. Somaly Mam had snuck into the brothel and took a snapshot of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl. The picture would be the catalyst in motivating the police into action. Prostitution and sexual slavery are common in Cambodia, and it takes something as stark as that photograph and someone as ferociously determined as Somaly to force the issue. Somaly, for her part, has been threatened and shot at, yet she doesn't hesitate to charge in alone like some brazen swashbuckler.
We filmed Somaly first in Phnom Penh with Meg Ryan in the back of a rickshaw. Somaly told how she had been threatened for her activism, how she had been sold as a child herself. I had heard the story before and had my own shocked reaction, but there was something startling about seeing Meg's speechless horror. Maybe it was just the externalization of my own feelings, or maybe the realization, seeing her next to a Hollywood superstar, that Somaly belonged to a world far different, and more cruel, than my own.
A couple days before the raid, we visited Somaly's center where she shelters former victims of the brothel industry. They have forged a refuge out of the wet farmlands. The girls live together and weave merchandise to help raise money. Filming there felt like a calm before a storm. Somaly played games outside with the girls. She comforted and checked up on them like a loving mother. They ate dinner as a family, and slept in rooms that were not locked from the outside.
And then here we were in Siem Reap failing to convince a car to start, about to miss a raid. But we hustled off to another car and drove at psychotic speeds to catch up. We got lost several times along the twisted backroads, desperately U-turning and zigzagging until finally we arrived at the scene.
Somaly Mam and the police had already surrounded and entered the brothel. The girls had been found and were safely talking to social workers. In the aftermath, I snaked my camera through the ramshackle building. The police, accompanied by the female brothel owner, hammered the padlocks off every door looking for evidence or people. There were 10 rooms in this human stable, each equipped with a rickety, dirty bed -- colorfully upholstered -- and a trashcan filled with used condoms. We found some photographs of one of the girls, taken before she had ended up here: a happy, normal looking girl, smiling at the camera. The photos were not evidence for the police but evidence of another time for her. They had already begun to fade, the chemicals degraded and weakened.
I saw most of this through the lens of a camera. And even as I tried to frame the best shots, and not to trip over various obstructions, and to find a drivable car, I was overwhelmed by Somaly Mam's story and inspired by her courage. Seeing this harsh environment through my lens was intensely disturbing. I saw a hopeless place ruled by the darkest depths of human nature. And yet the shot that stands out to me the most is of Somaly throwing a ball around with the girls on the flat greens of Cambodia. The girls -- who have lived through all the horrors of a millennia concentrated in a few years -- allowed to play as children again. That is an image worth fighting for. And so is the image of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl. She may become the next Somaly Mam, or she may merely discover that there is some decency in people.
To help eradicate slavery, donate to the Somaly Mam Foundation.