Since the fall of the Berlin wall roughly 8 million Eastern European women have gone missing. Most have been trafficked into sexual slavery in North America, Asia and the Middle East.
In the former Soviet Bloc, salaries average the equivalent of $2200 a year. Traffickers find many women willing to risk everything for the opportunity to earn a better life and support their families from abroad. Instead of the promised jobs as nurses, caregivers to the elderly and nannies in first world countries, these women find themselves sold, beaten, drugged and raped before being forced into a life of prostitution. After drugs and arms smuggling, human trafficking is the second largest and most lucrative organized crime.
Living a Nightmare
In the remarkable documentary Sex Slaves by Canadian film-maker Ric Esther Bienstock, the overwhelming statistics of a global issue becomes the story of two people living a nightmare and how they emerge. The picture of global prostitution that results from this very personal journey is far scarier than the almost glamorous world of “pimps and hos” portrayed by hip-hop artists in popular culture.
Viorel is the kind of husband every woman should want. When his pregnant wife is trafficked and sold to a series of pimps, one after another, he follows the trail to a Turkish brothel where he eventually buys the pregnant Katia out of bondage.
Here the ethics of documentary film-making are challenged and exposed. Hidden camera footage reveals how transfers of human cargo take place under the gaze of corrupt police and complicit, or just indifferent, officials. The camera is often hidden on Viorel himself as he meets with the pimps who have bought and sold his wife.
It isn’t only the criminal traffickers whom Viorel and the film makers need to fear. In one scene, subject and crew argue about whether the footage should be turned over to authorities and, if doing so, would even help to secure Katia’s release.
The footage is so incriminating against individual Turkish officials that, Bienstock says on the production company web site, its very existence had to remain a secret to ensure it would be transported out the country and not confiscated to cover-up what had been exposed on film. Eventually, it was the threat of international viewers that results in the identification, arrest and trial of Katia’s captors.
Interviews with former victims of trafficking show both the powerful urge to escape poverty and a shocking naïvèté regarding the West inspires these women to trust strange “recruiters.” Even more chilling are the confessions of Katia’s traffickers and their detailed explanations of how the process of human trafficking works. In these coldhearted explanations, however, are the seeds of how trafficking can be stopped. If there were the public pressure to create the political will to do so.
The documentary Sex Slaves is due to air on PBS Frontline on February 7. Local listings can be found at the PBS website.