Award-winning investigative filmmaker and photojournalist Mimi Chakarova paints a very bleak picture indeed of the seemingly inescapable world of the global sex trafficking trade, not that I can imagine anyone thought it could be portrayed otherwise. Chakarova is originally from Bulgaria, a country which itself sees many of its young girls and women sold into sexual slavery abroad, and has spent the past seven years documenting the lives of women and girls forced into prostitution, as well as the lives of the women and men who buy and sell them like mere commodities, trading them for money, drugs or guns and viewing them on the same level of materialistic value.
At times risking her own safety including going undercover as a prostitute and filming covertly, Chakarova has dedicated the past few years to creating not just a feature-length documentary on the subject of sex trafficking, but an entire multimedia project including photographic exhibitions and a website which contains a wealth of information on sex trafficking help lines, organisations that are working to combat the global trade in forced prostitution, and opportunities for those who want to help. All this information and more can be found at priceofsex.org.
I am sure the The Price of Sex is powerful enough to shock, anger and upset most who watch it, and it affected me on a more personal level too – not just as a young woman (though still older than many of the victims when they were first trafficked in their early to mid-teens), but also as a young woman who was fortunate enough to have reaped the benefits of life in a prosperous society, of a good education and the luxury of choosing a career. I have never had to experienced the poverty, mass unemployment, isolation and complete lack of opportunities prevalent in parts of Eastern Europe that pushed so many of the women featured in the film into forced prostitution.
Tricked by neighbours, acquaintances, strangers, often women themselves, into journeying abroad on the lure of a better life with a paid job in another country, the victims portrayed in the film soon find themselves quite literally held prisoner and forced to work as prostitutes in order to pay back a ‘debt’ to the pimp who bought them. Sold, beaten, raped, made to have sex with up to fifty men a day, the women are ground down until they consider themselves so utterly worthless that they may not even try to escape when they have the rare opportunity.
One woman featured in the film who does try to escape jumps from a third-floor balcony, partially paralysing herself. She is hospitalised, but before she can have surgery, she is taken back to the brothel by her pimp, and forced to continue working. Her clients did not seem to care that she was paralysed from the waist down, nor that she defecated on herself as a result of her injuries. As Chakarova’s narration in the film remarks, “it was business as usual.”
The bravery, strength and warmth of the women featured in The Price of Sex is truly humbling, as they tell their horrific stories in simply-shot, uncluttered interviews that allow space for the shocking and distressing content to resonate with the viewer. These intimate interviews, often filmed at the women’s homes, serve as a contrast to the unrelenting bustle and noise of the cities and streets we are shown in the film, through chaotic undercover filming and dizzying pans of darkened streets, illuminated by tacky neon signs at the clubs where women are touted, and at the hotels where they are imprisoned.
The whole aesthetic of the film is often bleak, reflecting the nature of the stories being told. We see Chakarova’s dark, grainy undercover footage of low-lit, seedy sex clubs where a man barters with her to lower her price, and the images of street prostitutes wandering down murky alleyways, lit by the harsh glare of streetlamps. Back in Eastern Europe, where most of the women originate from, we see ghost towns and neglected villages – an elderly woman closes her shutters on an empty, dilapidated street; the paralysed woman’s parents sit grimly in a run-down yard, drinking away her disability allowance.
Generally I found that the aesthetic of The Price of Sex was appropriate and strong, and that it was mostly a technically well-made film, yet sometimes it felt a little rough around the edges, leaving a little to be desired with regards to composition, and quality of the audio for some of the interviews, which occasionally distracted me from a compelling story. Music was often used well to haunting effect in the film, yet at times it also felt a little overbearing, a little unnecessary; the content of the story and interviews was compelling enough without the need for an emotive musical soundtrack over most of the film. However, these are minor criticisms of what is overall a powerful film and a strong piece of investigative journalism.
The film ends with an interview with a formerly trafficked woman, who lambasts the naivety and desperation of her younger self, and of so many young women and girls in similar situations. The film closes with her pausing for a long time, before saying quietly to Chakarova “ask the next question”. For me this was a slightly unsettling ending, seemingly devoid of any hope or solution.
When we interviewed Chakarova a few days later, she seemed to disagree – she felt that the ending of the film posed the question actually to the audience of what could be done next, what could they do to help? She hoped it would stir them into action. Whilst of course more than aware of the depressing and seemingly inescapable nature of sex trafficking that she covers in her film, she seemed a little more optimistic than me with regards to hope for the future. I very much hope she is right.
The Price of Sex
Dir. Mimi Chakarova