Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

FILM: So Much More Than Just ‘Trafficked Women’

NEW YORK, Jul 3 2011 (IPS) - Mimi Chakarova had one simple objective in filming ‘The Price of Sex,’ her award-winning documentary about sex trafficking in Eastern Europe: “I’m trying to reach millions of people,” she told IPS. “It’s kind of a big goal to have.”

The film, which documents the trafficking of young girls to countries like Turkey, Greece, and Dubai, aired alongside 19 others at the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York, which wrapped up late this week.

Chakarova is a photojournalist by training and has followed the issue for nearly a decade.

“It was more of a personal reaction to what was being covered in the press at the time,” she said in an interview with IPS.

Having moved to the United States at a young age from Bulgaria, she was deeply moved by the stories, but found the coverage to be insufficient. Most journalists were men, posing as clients, who spent an hour with the women, photographing them in lingerie, covered in make-up, and high on drugs or alcohol.

Roots of Trafficking Run Deep

After spending eight years documenting sex trafficking, Chakarova has some ideas on how to solve the problem.

"Unless we tackle the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, the discrepancy in access to justice, the high level of corruption – none of these hotlines are going to make a difference," she said, repeating the counsel of NGO worker Ana Revenco. Revenco works at Le Strada, a hotline for women who have been offered jobs abroad that offers tips on how to avoid being trafficked.

"They make a difference, but it's so minimal that we're not even scratching the surface," Chakarova told IPS. Instead, she said, real progress will result only from tackling the broader societal problems.

"You see how people are pocketing money. You see how the pimps are profiting. You see cops who are using the women," she said. "Unless you tackle those issues, Ana is absolutely right."

According to Chakarova, as long as there is poverty in the world, there will be vulnerable women, and the rich will take advantage of that. These women will take risks to feed their children, they will go abroad to work. "We know that that supply is not decreasing," she said, And we know there will always be a demand side: men who are willing to pay for sex."

The root of the problem is that "it's the governments that are corrupt; it’s the cops that are corrupt," she said.

"If governments are not involved, if the political and social… systems are not in place to protect these people, and the justice system is not in place to punish people who are engaging in this, what are you left with? You’re in the dark," she concluded.

“Those were the images of Eastern European women sold into sex. It was very much problematic because [they] are so much more than that,” Chakarova said. “You have to understand how it happened in the first place.”

She decided to “do things differently”, and through her photography, intends to deconstruct stereotypes and desexualise Eastern European women.

“They’re regular girls,” she said. “You see where they come from, you see what their mothers look like, you see what their kids look like, and you see what, most importantly, they look like.”

In Chakarova’s work, the girls “are not in the shadow. Their faces are not anonymous,” she said.

Tanaz Eshaghian, an Iranian-American filmmaker, also aims to tap into the power of telling individual stories in her documentary, ‘Love Crimes of Kabul’.

She documents the young Afghan women of Badum Bagh jail who have been imprisoned for moral crimes – from running away from home to the intention to have premarital sex.

“I think that when people see this, they really have a different sense of the people over there, because now you see them as humans,” Eshaghian told IPS.

She hopes her film will change the viewer’s perception of Afghans, “so when you hear about Afghanistan, it’s not just this big mush – which is what most people unconsciously just do to that place,” she said.

Instead, Eshaghian sought to change Western perceptions by depicting regular young women. “As you see, girls are not meek, or shy. They’re giggly, cackley, kind of fun, and their spirit is not destroyed in the least,” she said.

She noted the reaction of some Afghan boys to her film: “Finally, a film that show’s that it’s not just this poor little victim sitting there, that shows the ballsy chicks that we have to deal with!”

But the girls in Eshaghian’s film are not necessarily the poster children of female liberation. They are not trying to make a statement or assert their self-determination.

“There’s not this awareness of empowering yourself,” Eshaghian told IPS. “Each person … has made some decision for whatever myriad of reasons, and there they are, and as a result they’re transgressing societal boundaries,” she said.

They do not perceive themselves as victims or their society as flawed. “They’re just surviving,” Eshaghian said, “and trying to get what they want, one way or another.”

If these two films provide factual accounts of ordinary women and girls’ lives, Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits’ ‘Familia’ shows an ordinary family through a slightly rosier lens.

“It’s a love story,” Herskovits told IPS. “It’s a complicated love story, and like all love stories, it’s not an easy story,” he said.

The film follows a Peruvian family whose mother goes to Spain to work as a maid. It examines the broader phenomenon of global migration and its impact on the developing world by telling an individual story, and Herskovits hopes the audience will identify with the family.

“We have much more in common with them than we are apart from them,” he said.

“People usually believe that poor people, the only thing they do is run around the whole day to survive. But there’s such a richness in the social interaction between them,” he said, adding, “Many people can identify with that family, far away in Peru, [and] I think that is one of the main purposes of making the film.”

Wiström first happened upon the Barrientos family while working as journalist in the 1970s. At that time, Daniel and Nati were living and working in a garbage dump on the outskirts of Lima.

They have since made several documentaries together, and stayed in touch over the years as the family moved from landfill to shack to the small house where they live now.

But they knew they were still not earning enough to survive; that is why Nati went abroad.

“The demands are so much higher when it comes to women serving, women taking care, women educating,” Herskovits explained.

“This is an export of emotional energy that is, in a way, reflected in the migrant movement throughout the world,” he said, noting that it is equally true in areas like sex trafficking.

While North American and European women are busy with their own careers, migrant women move in to fill the void in the home. But their absence in the developing world can have grave social and economic impacts.

“It shows, I think, a big decrease of life quality for the families that are splitting up,” Herskovits said.

For the women like Nati who travel abroad, however, there is a silver lining.

“I’m convinced that each woman that is leaving for a migrant period in her life also is empowered,” Herskovits said. “It’s equally painful, but also empowering. . . [and] when they return home I think they are becoming agents of change too.”

These filmmakers cannot single-handedly change society; they can only tell stories and, according to Chakarova, “show you the bare truth.”

For her part, Chakarova hopes her work will inspire others to continue the battle – “even if it’s not on sex trafficking, it could be another issue that’s just as important,” she said.

She hopes that everyone who sees the film will take some sort of action. “I want this to also be in the viewer’s hands,” she said. “Each one of us can do something.”

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