The shocking masterpiece of Bulgarian filmmaker Mimi Chakarova explores the seedy world of sex trafficking through the eyes of survivors. Hazel Pfeifer reviews The Price of Sex.
The documentary begins in an unconventional way, featuring grainy home footage of filmmaker Mimi Chakarova herself growing up in her home town in Bulgaria. Filled with sepia-toned nostalgia, the colourful, carefree pictures from before the fall of Communism are a haunting contrast to the fate that will befall many from Mimi’s generation of Eastern European women.
Mimi moved with her mother to the US when she was still a child, but terrible stories about her peers being sold into sex slavery filtered across the world to sunny East coast America. Determined to discover the cause of this epidemic across Eastern Europe, Mimi booked a plane ticket and embarked on what would become ten years of her life dedicated to exposing the violence and trauma of sex trafficking. The Price of Sex is that story.
Her previous experience as a photojournalist across the world helped Mimi construct a narrative that is not only journalistically arresting but visually stunning, with stills and carefully composed portraits interlaced with undercover footage and beautifully captured scenes from the poverty stricken post-communist countries of Moldova and Bulgaria.
It opens with the story of Vika, a pretty brunette with haunted eyes who was promised a job as a waitress in Dubai for $500 a month. It took Mimi four years of contact with Vika for her to agree to the interview on camera. The first words she learnt in English were “How much?”. She became pregnant from her first client and was subsequently sold three times in the nine months of her pregnancy. Men pay double for pregnant girls apparently.
The horror of the experience is communicated through a number of survivors, girls that have escaped or been returned home after months or years of rape and abuse, locked in small rooms, forced to have sex with up to 50 clients a day. Some jump from high windows to escape. Stills of filthy cell-like spaces with torn mattresses and little daylight give a glimpse of their surroundings.
Promises made and broken
The UN estimates that 2.45 million people are trafficked each year across the world, with the vast majority of those sold into sex slavery. The business is second only to the drugs trade in the organised crime stakes. Traffickers target young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds – girls are promised jobs as waitresses or maids abroad, usually by people they know. Their families don’t have the means to search for them when they disappear and many are too ashamed to speak of their ordeal upon returning home.
The undercover footage and interviews with various officials across nine countries, including Turkey, Dubai and Greece shows that corruption is rife, and key to fostering the sex trafficking trade. As a lone female, Mimi’s consistent courage at investigating this sleazy underworld without the support of a large organisation is constantly apparent. The ineptitude and sometimes complicity of the authorities, along with cultural differences in attitudes to women, go some way to explain how such gross abuses of human rights can continue largely unchallenged in Europe and the Middle East.
Both a triumph of filmmaking and a personal journey in the pursuit of justice, Mimi Chakarova’s shocking film is nothing if not powerful. It leads one to believe she is one of the very few who could do this story justice and cared enough to give voice to the voiceless.