An unprecedented and compelling inquiry, The Price of Sex sheds light on the underground criminal network of human trafficking, and the experiences of trafficked Eastern European women forced into prostitution abroad. Photojournalist Mimi Chakarova's feature documentary caps years of painstaking, on-the-ground reporting that aired on Frontline (PBS) and 60 Minutes (CBS), and earned her an Emmy nomination, Magnum photo agency's Inge Morath Award, and a Webby for Internet excellence.
Filming under cover with extraordinary access, even posing as a prostitute to gather her material, Bulgarian-born Chakarova travels from impoverished rural areas in post-communist Eastern Europe, including her grandmother's village, to Turkey, Greece, and Dubai. This dangerous investigative journey brings Chakarova face to face with trafficked women willing to trust her and appear on film undisguised. Their harrowing first-person accounts, as well as interviews with traffickers, clients, and anti-trafficking activists, expose the root causes, complex connections, and stark significance of sexual slavery today.
This film is being shown in partnership with Women Make Movies and will broadcast on March 10th at 8:00 p.m. EST on the Documentary Channel´s Her Take, featuring documentary films by female filmmakers.
Mimi Chakarova received her BFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and her MA in Visual Studies from UC Berkeley. She has had numerous solo exhibitions of her documentary projects on South Africa, Jamaica, Cuba, Kashmir and Eastern Europe. Capitalism, God, And A Good Cigar: Cuba Enters The Twenty‐first Century, published by Duke University Press in 2005, features over 75 of Chakarovaʹs documentary photographs of Cuba.
Chakarovaʹs work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., The Sunday Times Magazine, London, CBS Newsʹ 60 Minutes, PBSʹ FRONTLINE/World and the Center for Investigative Reporting, among others.
Chakarova has taught photography at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism for the past 13 years, and has also taught at Stanford Universityʹs African and African American Studies and Comparative Studies for Race and Ethnicity departments. In 2007, she became the series curator of FRONTLINE/Worldʹs FlashPoint, featuring the work of established and emerging photographers from around the world.
The Price of Sex - Saturday, March 10 at 8:00 p.m. on the Documentary Channel.
The Documentary Channel presents Her Take, featuring documentary films made by female filmmakers, every Saturday night throughout the month.
About the Project
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, millions of former Soviet bloc residents have migrated abroad looking for opportunities. These waves of migration breathed life into one of the oldest yet darkest criminal enterprises—the trafficking of human beings into sexual slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European women have been sold into prostitution. Photojournalist Mimi Chakarova, a Bulgarian who immigrated to the United States in 1990, has documented their journeys from villages in Moldova and Albania to the streets of Turkey and nightclubs in Dubai—where prostitution is an equation of supply, demand, and desperation.
How Trafficking Works - After the fall of the Soviet Union, millions of young women in Eastern Europe came of age amid economic misery. Their childhood fantasies of a better life in the West became a human trafficker’s golden opportunity. Agents and brokers arrange travel and job placements as waitresses or nannies; young women are escorted to their destinations and delivered to their employers. They quickly find that there is no café or family, but a pimp who puts them to work. Most women are trafficked by someone they know; a relative, an acquaintance, a boyfriend, or a childhood friend. More than 60% are recruited by other women. Upon reaching the foreign land, they find themselves in coercive and abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.
Destination Countries -Currently the top five destinations for sex trafficking of Eastern European women are Russia, Turkey, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Most women expect work as factory workers, waitresses, domestic servants and au pairs. After arriving in the country of destination, their passports, documents, money, and personal belongings are taken away. They become sex slaves, sold and resold to pimps at brothels, hotels, and apartments. Those who manage to escape the traffickers are deported. Back home, they rarely tell their loved ones the truth. The stigmatization of prostitution is every family’s deepest shame.
Factors - Human trafficking succeeds because of the lack of job opportunities in Eastern Europe, persistent poverty, domestic violence, and the degradation of the family unit since the collapse of communism. Lacking education and often living in villages with no running water and electricity, rural women are eager to escape their grim reality. They are desperate to work abroad to sustain their families back home. More than 30% of those trafficked have 1‐2 children, and 70% of them are single mothers. Women leave home because they see no other alternative. With an average income of $100 a month, mere survival is at the core of why women agree to go abroad.
Do They Know What They’re Getting Into? - Most are recruited by people they know. Often a neighbor or family acquaintance acts as the broker by processing the travel documents. Another factor is the level of desperation. Responsible for a child, an ill parent, an alcoholic husband, a woman may feel she has no choice but to find work abroad. “I knew about women forced into prostitution but I never thought it would happen to me,” is one of the most common responses. The age group targeted most by traffickers is young women between 18‐24; some are as young as 13. Most women I’ve interviewed had little sexual experience before they were trafficked. Some were virgins; others had one boyfriend before leaving. The majority are deceived into thinking they will hold legitimate jobs.
Why do they stay? Usually a young woman is recruited by someone she knows. She is promised a job abroad. The person who recruits her issues the paperwork (passport, travel expenses, visas, etc.) and she agrees to repay the debt within the first several months. She then leaves willingly and follows all instructions until she reaches her final destination. At this point she is sold to another person and her passport is taken away. Along with losing her identity, she loses all personal freedom. She is often raped, beaten, starved, and threatened. After this “break‐in” period, the young woman believes that resisting is hopeless. She is told that if she works off her debt (the amount the pimp paid for her plus daily living expenses and other fees) she can return home. Often women are sold multiple times and the cycle of their debt is never broken.
Interview with Mimi Chakarova, Director, by Steffie Kinglake
t21: What inspired you to make The Price of Sex?
Mimi: What inspired me changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. I found the sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubling. So, I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. It was my obligation to return and expose something that many chose to ignore, or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society. The Price of Sex is an investigation on sex trafficking that took nearly a decade to complete in nine countries throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the West. I focused on the places where the trafficked women come from, as well as my own village in Bulgaria and its fate, and then followed the trail to the cities where so many of the women of my generation ended up sold into prostitution. It's a personal journey. I grew up in the region and therefore understand the culture. I was able to build trust with the women I interviewed and photographed. but it took many years. My objective was to reveal their faces and to strip away the shame and stigma that trafficked victims have carried for decades (ironically, the only faces we don’t see in The Price of Sex are of the men who exploit the women.)
t21: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Mimi: I hope that people who see the film can leave with questions and the initiative to ask. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. Although there is this notion of ignorance as bliss, and I understand its appeal. The more you know, the more responsible you become for changing. I was walking by a mural the other day and saw a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” So once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable.
t21: How did you first connect with and gain access to the individuals you feature in the film?
Mimi: I gained access over time. I photographed one of the women 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. And in every place you photograph, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only taking a photo or conducting an interview; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even take photos or video footage. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcomed. The people we feature in films should never be referred to as “subjects” or "characters." And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.
t21: What were the major challenges in making the film?
Mimi: The most difficult aspect has always been access. No one wants to be photographed or interviewed -- not the women who've suffered, not the corrupt officials, not the pimps and traffickers. So, how do you find a way to tell a story that exists in the underbelly of so many countries? How do you connect the dots? And how do you stay safe while doing it? These were my biggest challenges and why it took seven years of reporting. 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. But at the same time, 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.
t21: Has the film been used and screened in educational settings?
Mimi: Absolutely. We've had many screenings at universities, colleges and schools throughout the U.S. and Europe. One of my most moving experiences was showing the film to a group of high school girls in East Harlem and being there to answer their questions and hear their thoughts. One of the reasons I was so thrilled to have Women Make Movies as a distributor was precisely their experience with the educational market. I am most interested in reaching young people. Their generation is vulnerable to trafficking. They are the ones who need to pay attention and change perceptions. And my hope is that by raising the public's consciousness, this film is enabling a dialog that will get many to find long-term solutions on a global and multilateral level.
t21: Is there hope that sexual slavery will end?
Mimi: Sex slavery will never end, but we can reduce the numbers significantly by enforcing laws that prosecute the criminals who sell and exploit trafficked women; provide protection and help for trafficked women rather than deporting them to communities that will only stigmatize them (one of the main reasons many end up being re-trafficked); and prevention -- creating social systems that protect our most vulnerable. But here is something that very few speak out about. We tend to focus on the steady supply of poor and desperate women and children who end up being sold for sex and labor. If we turn our attention to demand, if men were no longer willing to pay the price for sex with a slave, if women were no longer running brothels, selling and exploiting their very own neighbors and sisters, then we would attack the heart of the beast. This is what I mean when I talk about changing perceptions. And that takes time. It frustrates me that it might not happen in my lifetime, but I remain hopeful. There is nothing that gets me more upset than statements like: "Why bother? Prostitution is the oldest profession. Slavery has always existed. We can't change human nature." Yes, we can. But it needs to be a priority. And women, unfortunately, have never been a priority. Henry Ford said, "Show me who makes a profit from war, and I'll show you how to stop the war." The very same statement applies to trafficking of human beings. You can watch The Price of Sex and see how many are involved in the sex trade. No country is exempt. No town, city or village on this planet.
t21: Your source of inspiration?
Mimi: My source of inspiration is the work of artists. I watch films, lisften to music, look at photography and art. I read books -- fiction and non-fiction, but non-fiction that is as captivating as fiction. Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish war correspondent, is the perfect example of a beautiful writer who digs deep and has has a profound effect on my understanding of the world. Steve James, whose films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are both examples of immaculate storytelling, also. Studs Terkel's oral histories and ability to listen... My editor, Stephanie Mechura, who took over 85 hours of footage and crafted poetry in motion... What excites me the most is the fusion between journalism and art. How do you tell a complicated, multi-layered story but in an artistic and compassionate way? I look at the work of artists to get inspiration and the answer to that question.
t21: Your favorite thing about Eastern Europe?
Mimi: I love the soul of the people – it's pure and large and full of angst. It's a soul that is genuine but hard to get to know. It takes time and effort. It's a soul with a sense of humor that no one else on this planet can replicate. And it's a soul that endures and survives.
"The Price of Sex" is a film about sex trafficking in Eastern Europe. The women I followed over seven years grew up in villages similar to my own. Under communism, we secretly hungered for opportunities in the West, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we finally had a chance to taste raw capitalism. Many in rural villages, however, lacked the skills and education to survive it. Girls, some still teenagers, became a commodity to be sold, exploited and discarded. Some call them foolish and unfortunate; others call them sex slaves, but they share the same story: desperate to leave, they were promised work abroad and instead sold to pimps to work in brothels and sex clubs. Over time I found young women who had survived, and for seven years followed their stories to the countries where they were trafficked and back to their villages. This film is a testament to their courage – their willingness to expose the darkest and most haunting inner‐workings of sexual slavery. The women tell their own stories. My hope is that hearing them will bring change. I also found ways to expose the corruption among police, clients and pimps. I spent nearly a decade connecting the dots between the countries of origin – where the girls come from – and the countries of destination in the West and the Middle East – where they end up sold into prostitution against their will. Sex trafficking is not a sheer equation of supply and demand. Add desperation, poverty, abuse, no access to justice and high levels of corruption and you’ll be a step closer in understanding why sex slavery continues to thrive. By breaking down the price of sex to its most human elements, the viewers become witnesses. And the women end their silence. ‐ Mimi Chakarova