After returning to her childhood village in western Bulgaria, where she lived until the age of 11, Mimi Chakarova decided to investigate the devastating effects to Eastern European women who have been forced into the underground sex trade. She has devoted the past 10 years of her life to making her heartbreaking documentary The Price of Sex. Chakarova traveled from Eastern Europe to Turkey, Greece and Dubai to interview women who had been trafficked and worked as sex slaves. Her poignant documentary has given these women a collective voice to expose the nightmare they endured. To learn even more about what they experienced first-hand, Chakarova went so far as to go undercover as a prostitute in a brothel in Istanbul's red light district. Her harrowing film takes an unflinching look at the very real price of sex for these women who have suffered unimaginable pain and suffering.
Nicki Richesin: Congratulations on your brilliant film The Price of Sex. I was impressed by your commitment to bringing attention to trafficking and its hideous effects on the women being exploited and the survivors. Your film begins in your former home- a small village in Bulgaria -- much changed now. How did it feel to return to your home country and see it poverty-stricken and nearly abandoned? Did this experience first inspire you to investigate trafficking?
Mimi Chakarova: Yes, very much so. The experience was heartbreaking for me. I grew up in a village of 5,000 people. Twenty years later, there were hardly even 500 residents left. And most were the elderly and those without the resources to leave.
NR: The stunning images you've produced of the women who have been trafficked are haunting and yet quite beautiful. You were able to preserve their dignity within the photos and your interviews. What impact do you believe it has had on these women to be able to share their stories and no longer remain silent about their abuse?
MC: You have to keep in mind that it took many years to gain the women's trust. I couldn't take photos or interview them on camera until I was certain that the trust was solid. In the beginning I would listen to what they went through, spend time in their homes, get to know their day-to-day routines, etc. And I would often ask the women why they told me details of their trafficking experience in such detail. Sometimes they would disclose information I didn't even ask them to. The answer was consistently the same: "I am telling you all this because you're not judging me. I have no one else to tell." Their courage to break the silence and stigma of trafficking is truly remarkable and heroic. And I was determined to show their faces and provide a platform that would chip away at the silence and shame so many of them live with.
NR: Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the film is when you are granted an interview with two Turkish police officers who brag about paying for sex with Eastern European women abroad. Their lack of respect for women as nothing more than sex objects is shocking. The viewer is left wondering how they must regard their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. Were you stunned by their responses and that they even agreed to meet with you and act in such a morally reprehensible manner?
MC: Yes and no. Throughout the years of reporting on sex trafficking, I had met men who were pimps, clients and traffickers. I wasn't able to film them on camera but I already understood their way of thinking. To them, the trafficked women are nothing more than a commodity. It's like purchasing meat at a market. They don't see how they destroy lives. They simply don't care. I was shocked when the two cops started bragging about how many girls they've had abroad and for how little money. This is the reason that I re-stated the premise for the interview. I wanted to remind them what the film was about to make sure there was no misunderstanding on their part. And there wasn't. They continued to brag about how many women they've had. When I asked them: "And what if you have a daughter?" the response was, "Ah, but we don't." It's impossible to restructure someone's thinking, especially when there is power involved. But having their perspective on camera was vital -- it shows the banality of evil.
NR: Living with such deep shame and humiliation has left traumatic scars on all of the survivors you interviewed. This shame is palpable especially when Jenea from Moldova, partially paralyzed from having fallen three stories in an attempted escape from a brothel in Istanbul's red light district, could barely admit why she's no longer close to her mother. She pretends she doesn't know, but it seems she is incapable of confessing. The impact of her emotional suffering is so great it's difficult to witness. What sort of an effort is being made to help survivors recover their identities in Eastern Europe?
MC: There are numerous organizations throughout Eastern Europe that assist trafficked women with reintegration in society, job training, legal help, psychological counseling, etc. But that barely scratches the surface. Young women will continue to be sold for sex because there are no economic opportunities for them back home. The level of desperation, as you can see in the film, is beyond what words can describe. Add corruption, demand and stigma to that equation and you can see why the cycle continues to exist.
NR: You met with young girls in a local school from your village to educate them about not trusting people who promise them money for work abroad, but with so few prospects they seem easy targets as the next victims. Most often women they may know (aunts, sisters, family members or friends) are the ones who may recruit them with promises of money or a job. It stands to reason that the survivors should be the ones sharing their stories with them. How might they be encouraged to tell their stories to innocent young girls?
MC: Well, that was very much my hope for the film. I wanted to use it as a tool to reach young kids throughout Eastern Europe and other vulnerable regions. Education is the first step. And what better way to reach the youth than through visual media that gets them to discuss and react to what they see on the screen? I visited a school in Harlem, New York a few months back and was talking to American teenage girls who had also been propositioned on the street and had close encounters with trafficking. This is a global issue that isn't going away any time soon unless we really target the core factor of why it exists and what perpetuates it.
NR: As explained by the Greek official you interviewed, corruption exists at all levels and ensures that once a few traffickers are arrested the group that operates another part of the ring (passport, managing the women, trafficking) will not be discovered. Do you think the governments in these countries should enforce tougher punishment on the policemen involved with traffickers or frequenting the brothels?
MC: Absolutely. The lack of accountability and ignorance around understanding the impact of trafficking are mindboggling. Police officers and investigators must receive better training. How is it that so many of the women I've interviewed recognize their clients in the police stations they escape to? How is it that the very same officers that are supposed to protect and serve the community are the ones who call the pimps to come and collect "what belongs to them"? It's appalling. How is it that UN personnel in the former Yugoslavia were the ones purchasing slaves? Trafficked women don't trust anyone for a good reason. How could you when those who were supposed to rescue you end up exploiting and profiting just as much as those who enslaved you in the first place?
NR: I thought it was very moving when one of the survivors confessed she would tell her son when he is older that she had been forced into prostitution. She bravely promises to face the truth and be honest about her past despite the humiliation she has suffered. Do you believe her courage could inspire other survivors to speak openly about their experiences?
MC: Absolutely. I've received countless emails since we released the film in 2011. The voices of these women are clearly heard and are impacting the lives of many on both a domestic and international level.
NR: You chose to go undercover and pose as a victim. What did you learn about trafficking by assuming the role of the prostitute?
MC: I learned what it feels like to be priced and treated with no regard to my life. I experienced fear I had never felt before. And I'm glad I did it. It informed me in ways that were important for me as a journalist. I was able to ask better questions after doing the undercover work. I had a point of reference that I could share with the women I filmed. They knew I knew. It makes a huge difference, especially when I didn't have to put myself in the red light districts, sex clubs and brothels.
NR: One woman from Moldova was forced to work in Dubai while pregnant and then leave her newborn behind when she was deported. Do you think it would be possible for her to ever be reunited with her child?
MC: One of Vika's regular clients, a police officer, helped her escape from the last brothel where she was sold as a slave. When Vika's daughter was born, he put his own name on the birth certificate. The child still remains with him and his family. My initial reason for going to Dubai was to find Vika's daughter and help her get reunited. Before leaving for Dubai, I spoke with Vika. She no longer wanted me to go on this search. Vika felt that her daughter will have a better life in Dubai than in Moldova. I had to respect her wishes.
NR: It's very troubling that many perpetrators (pimps, clients, and government workers who collude with the traffickers) remain largely hidden. How do you think they could be held accountable for their actions?
MC: Henry Ford said, "Show me who makes a profit from war, and I'll show you how to stop the war." The best way to hold the perpetrators accountable is to go after what would hurt them the most - the money and property they purchase off of the women they trade. But if someone is arrested and then bailed out two months later because he or she is well-connected, what example of justice is that? The other issue is that there is such lack of collaboration between countries of origin and countries of destination. One thing I'm proud of is that the U.S. State Department is using "The Price of Sex" as a training tool throughout embassies in the world. And I've also had the opportunity to discuss this issue with policy makers and law enforcement agents. My hope is that the more awareness and credible information we present, the sooner we can affect change.
NR: The hypocrisy of Dubai's ban on prostitution and the morning prayer call alerting the women that their shift is over was such a terribly sickening moment in the film. As long as the demand for women exists, how do you suggest we fight trafficking?
MC: You are correct. It's very much an equation of supply and demand. The supply is steady. There are many impoverished countries where the level of desperation for employment provides a constant supply of slaves. The highest numbers of trafficked women right now are those coming from rural China. But the other side of the coin, the demand, is rarely discussed. I keep hearing responses such as, "Boys will be boys" or "Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world," etc. And it really frustrates me. We are not talking about willing prostitution here. This is sexual slavery and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit. And men who frequent the establishments that keep women enslaved must be reached. We made this film to honor the stories and courage of the trafficked women but also to educate men about who these women are and how trafficking works. I am far from naïve but I strongly believe that we can change perception and alter social behaviors. And targeting the demand should be in the foreground of any discussion about reducing sex slavery.
NR: Of course, as you well know, trafficking is a huge problem in the United States as well. There has been a massive campaign here in California to raise awareness of this issue. Do you think it's conceivable similar initiatives/NGOs could be launched to help the women trafficked in Eastern Europe, Turkey, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates?
MC: Yes and I think such initiatives should be global, not only in the state of California. The deception and manipulation that traffickers use is the same throughout the world. So is the violence and trauma that women endure regardless of nationality, race or age.
Photos by Mimi Chakarova © 2011/Price of Sex: http://priceofsex.org/
Nicki Richesin is the author/editor of four anthologies Because I Love Her, Crush, The May Queen, and What I Would Tell Her. Find her online at www.nickirichesin.com