UN.GIFT sits down with filmmaker Mimi Chakarova: one year later
A year after UN.GIFT interviewed filmmaker Mimi Chakarova - and two years after the release of "The Price of Sex" - her film continues to be screened around the world, raising awareness about human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The feature-length documentary exposes the netherworld of sex trafficking and abuse that so many women find themselves enslaved in. UN.GIFT caught up with Ms Chakarova to discuss where her film has taken her over the past twelve months and the impact her film continues to have on viewers, policymakers and the women featured in her movie.
UN.GIFT: We last spoke just over a year ago. Can you fill us in on how your documentary "The Price of Sex" has been received since early 2012?
I would love to. What I find absolutely remarkable is that even two years after the release of "The Price of Sex," the film continues to have tremendous impact on a global level. When we first released this documentary, it touched a lot of viewers in North America - particularly in the United States and Canada. I attribute this to Women Make Movies, my distributor in New York City, as well as to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and its outstanding touring program in cities and universities throughout America. But it didn't take long for international festivals and television channels to recognize the importance of the subject matter. What's different since we last spoke is that the film has been shown not only in cities throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Central and South America but also in the Middle East - in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel.
I've been on the road for more than two years now. Just to give you an example, I am giving a lecture at Stanford University this week and a few days later will be traveling to Norway for screenings and meetings with the Police Academy and local NGOs in Oslo and Bergen. The impact is cross-lateral. What I mean is that it's reaching young minds through education and exposure, but I am also very pleased that law enforcement and policy makers are paying close attention and using the film as a tool for training in order to encourage a deeper understanding of how corruption, organized crime, government complacency and sex slavery co-exist.
A Canadian couple watches "The Price of Sex"
UN.GIFT: What have been some of the highlights over the past year?
I can tell you of my most recent highlights - I was invited to present my work and reporting practices at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna and had the unique opportunity to discuss the Convention against Corruption with colleagues from around the globe. I then travelled to Kyiv, Ukraine on behalf of the U.S. Embassy and spoke to university students as well as to ambassadors and Washington D.C. policy makers about trafficking and what should be done to affect change.
UN.GIFT: What have been some of the greatest challenges you've had to overcome over the past year, and in the production of your film?
The greatest challenge for me is the knowledge that no matter how much I do, it's still only scratching the surface. While I was in Vienna last month, I counted how many screenings I have personally attended in the last two years - over 57. This doesn't include all the university lectures I've delivered. But I still get emails, almost on a daily basis, from victims of trafficking or from men who've engaged in the sex trade as clients. I read and listen to personal testimonies and confessions. And it's hard for many reasons. I've looked into the faces of too many young women who've endured tremendous pain. In a way, the film is like a gateway for people to release their own secrets and pain. I met a woman in London last year, after the film's premiere there at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. This woman attended the screening with her husband and told me how she was forced into prostitution in Australia at the age of 16. And it's very emotional. Her husband was the only one who knew. I was the second person she told her story to. I've come to realize that trafficking and violence against the female body knows no borders, no race or nationality. And no age. It destroys the spirit with equal brutality.
UN.GIFT: Have you seen any tangible effects of your film?
Yes, most definitely. The film has contributed to a greater discourse of why trafficking continues to exist. It's also effected policy change in certain countries. I am afraid I can't say more about the latter but it makes me very happy that my team and I made a film that's truly served as a tool for social change.
UN.GIFT: What is the desired impact of "The Price of Sex" and other documentaries exposing the sex trade and human trafficking? How important is consciousness-raising in efforts to fight this crime?
Making people aware is always the first step. But it's not enough by itself. Anti-trafficking movements depend on law enforcement, cross-national collaborations between governments, judicial systems that hold criminals accountable and NGOs that not only shelter trafficked women but also implement prevention tactics.
I received an email from a young woman a few days ago. She is from Ukraine. And she was offered work, she wrote, by someone she had never met - a man in Lebanon. He promised to take her to Egypt, Turkey and Dubai. And he sent her money for her passport. She saw "The Price of Sex" right around that time and realized that the story of the women in the film were similar to her own current situation. It altered the course of her life. She didn't get on a plane. And this is just one person who reached out and told me. I believe that there are many others as well. And that's the power of documentary film. It not only informs; it can also alter consciousness and provide the right tools for young people at a cross-road.
UN.GIFT: Have you followed up with any of the women whose stories you told in your film? Can you fill us in on how they're doing?
Yes, one of the women in the film continues to receive support from a donor in Canada who has been incredibly generous and concerned with her medical needs. She's needed multiple surgeries in the last three years. Jenea jumped from a five-story building in order to escape her captors and sustained serious injuries to her spine. I put the donor in touch with an NGO in Moldova and Jenea has been able to receive the help she needs. She recently wrote to me how grateful she is for the support and how she has another surgery coming up soon.
UN.GIFT: You have been documenting the international sex trade for over a decade. When we last spoke you said you doubted that it would ever be possible to eradicate slavery, but we can reduce the number of victims. Have you seen the situation change at all over the past year?
I think the situation is indeed different because more people understand what sex trafficking means in comparison to five years ago, for example. The media is paying attention. There is CNN's Freedom Project; there are documentary series produced for Al Jazeera English; there are narrative films that the general public can use as a point of reference; the U.S. State Department is shedding more light on trafficking as a human rights violation and on modern-day slavery, as an unacceptable crime. But again, it will take more time, more resources and more action. Words are not enough. And extreme poverty continues to persist. People are desperate to escape their conditions and many fall prey to traffickers because the alternatives of survival in many communities are dire or non-existent. And then there is also the ever-growing demand for cheap sex. We can't look at trafficking as one-dimensional. It's fuelled by disregard for the human life, by corruption, by lack of opportunity and protection for the most vulnerable, by government hypocrisy and by all the other factors we explore in the film.
UN.GIFT: Where is your film currently showing?
"The Price of Sex" continues to show on the Documentary Channel in the U.S.
And for all other screenings, please visit: http://priceofsex.org/screenings
UN.GIFT: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
It would be my pleasure. I directed and produced a short film called "Her War" for the Center for Investigative Reporting on homeless women veterans in Southern California and the reasons behind why so many end up on the streets. And I am currently working on another feature documentary film about men.