Photo of Filmmaker Mimi Chakarova by Bryan Shih © 2011

By Paul Freeman

The cost of sex? When youíre talking about trafficking, the cost can be incalculably catastrophic, in terms of human suffering. Thatís revealed wrenchingly in filmmaker Mimi Chakarovaís riveting documentary, ďThe Price of Sex.Ē

The investigative film focuses on devastated Eastern European women who have survived sex slavery. The young women, barely existing in desperate, post-Communism poverty, are deceived, whisked way to locales such as Dubai, and trapped in nightmarish circumstances. They vanish into an unspeakable world of sexual abuse.

Photojournalist Chakarova, who teaches at U.C. Berkeley, is originally from Bulgaria. So she relates closely to these victimized women.

Initially, Chakarova didnít realize how difficult it would be to capture images of her physically and emotionally shattered subjects. Eventually the women trusted the compassionate Chakarova enough to bare their souls on camera.

Their tales of torment are profoundly poignant. Even those who escape from sex slavery donít escape from the fear. They know they could be caught by their pimps and murdered or resold.

These crimes against humanity are perpetrated globally, with the complicity of many politicians and law enforcement agents. Hypocrisy runs rampant. Chakarovaís film is a step towards remedying the situation. The U.S. State Department is now using it to train its employees.

Chakarova, with her family, left Bulgaria and moved to Baltimore in 1989. Photography soon became her primary form of self-expression. She earned a degree at the San Francisco Art Institute.

A brave and sensitive artist, Chakarova traveled the globe, revealing tragedy and injustice in South African shantytowns and Jamaican slums. She also told, in photos, the stories of mentally, emotionally or physically challenged residents of Oakland, Californiaís Creative Growth Center.

She returned to Eastern Europe to rip the cover off of epidemic sexual enslavement. For her extraordinary work, spending seven years on ďThe Price of Sex,Ē Chakarova, 34, received the Human Rights Watch Festivalís Nestro Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking. Risking her own safety, she had dared to go undercover, interviewing violent pimps. Chakarovaís deeply moving, disturbing film is drawing fervent response.

Those who view Chakarovaís haunting film and absorb more information through the post-screening Q&A, may feel compelled to help. The website, www.priceofsex.org, offers links to many human rights organizations fighting human trafficking.

Did you view this as not just an important subject for a documentary, but something you felt compelled to find answers to?

Yeah. So much of it was a personal journey, wanting to know what happened after the collapse of communism and, in the early Ď90s, we were getting stories written about this hear and there, but a lot of those of us who immigrated, who left Eastern Europe, looking for jobs, and then 10 or 15 years later started reading about this phenomenon in the press, didnít really believe that it was happening, thought that it was just an exaggeration of reality, that women must have known what they were getting into. There were a lot of stereotypes with the subject matter.

As I was looking at coverage and at images, the way they were portraying the women and the way these investigations were conducted, the idea was, instead of me complaining about how the press is covering this in Europe, as well as here in the States, why donít I try to do it in a different way?

And the primary idea was not to make a documentary film. The primary idea was to go to the places where I come from, as well as nearby countries, and figure out, what are the conditions that really drive women, in particular, to leave, and why are they so desperate for employment in the West?

That started out as a photo reportage. What I didnít relaize is that it would be incredibly difficult to take images, photographs of these women, because most of the women who were trafficked, associate the camera, whether itís a video camera or a still camera, with their trafficking experience, because, often, when theyíre going through the break-in period, when the pimps are breaking them in, they use such devices to record them being gang-raped, being tortured, and they use the tapes or still images that they have as evidence, so they can keep them in check. They would often say, ĎIf you ever try to run away, weíll send this to your family, back in your village.Ď

So, as someone with a camera, even though Iím a female, it was really difficult to convince women. Plus there is also the shame and stigma, there are all these layers of difficulty with ĎLook, Iím here to take your picture.í So because of that, I realized that, if I wanted to continue working on something that deals with sex trafficking, I would have to spend a pretty big chunk of my time establishing trust, before I could even pull out a camera.

So, as you see in the film, someone like Vika, who is one of central characters, it took four years before she agreed to go on camera. Itís a pretty long process.

Did this help them, in terms of catharsis, to be able to finally speak to somebody about it?

Thatís a great question. Often, they would give me details of their trafficking, that were so grotesque and also incredibly personal and I would look at them and say, ĎWhy are you telling me this? Why do you feel comfortable to give me such intimate details of what happened to you?í And the answer was consistently the same, which was, ĎI have no one else to tell. And I feel like telling you, because of your job, and also because of the way you listen, because you are not judging me. So I could tell you these things without being judged.í

And in a lot of the villages and small towns where I was reporting, these young women had not told the truth to their famililes, because of the stigma of having been a prostitute. Even if you were forced, even if you were sold into sexual slavery, a lot of the family members would disown a girl like this, or they would treat her terribly. So itís the cultural aspect, that was another reason for making the film. I felt like we needed to really attack the stigma, in that region, in particular.

And itís not only in Eastern Europe. Itís a global sense of shame, which is why so few people talk about this. Even those who survive would rather return to their communities and just keep quiet. And there is also fear, fear that they will be resold, fear that the pimps will find them, punish them, kill them. And a lot of women are killed. And none of us know what the numbers are. Itís very easy for traffickers to find women who can easily disappear.

What I mean by that is, is women whose families are not going to have the resources to hire lawyers or investigators or detectives or cops to find them. So they just go on missing, year after year, and no one really knows whether theyíre alive or dead.

Given the issue of the stigma, how much hope is there for women who do survive to return to some sort of normalcy in their lives afterwards?

Well, there are non-profit organizations that help the women to a certain extent, with for example, shelters. There are secret shelters in a lot of these countries after a woman is deported from the place where she was trafficked. And you see that in the film. She is arrested, there is a raid, where she manages to call for help somehow and then she spends time in prison in that country, before her deportation. Then sheís deported back home and this is where there are agencies, as well as NGOs that provide shelter and some therapy.

But keep in mind, the numbers of women who are deported are much higher than the staffs can handle. For example, I met with a psychologist, a therapist, in Moldova, who was working at one of those secret shelters for women, actually the only one in Moldova, and she had counseled 3,000 women that year. And itís just one person. That was it. One psychologist for 3,000 women. So you can imagine how little time she could devote to every single woman. And most of these women experienced deep PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of them are unable to work. Most of them donít have the training to work. Some of these NGOs provide employment training, but some of the jobs that theyíre training women to do are not necessarily jobs they could get back in their villages, because there are no infrastructures in those villages. So a lot of them, after spending time in the shelter, end up going back home, after two weeks, three weeks, sometimes a few months. And then their life is back to the way it used to be, before they were trafficked, which is no opportunity whatsoever.

And whatís even scarier, is that a lot of women end up being re-trafficked. And the second time or the third time, they already know what they would be doing abroad, because theyíve already been sold into sexual slavery. And you ask them, ĎWhy would you choose that?í The answer is, ĎBecause Iím already broken. There was already nothing left of me and when I got back to my hometown, I really had no place there. I was depressed. I was sad. I couldnít tell anyone the truth. I feel like Iím nothing. I might as well leave again and at least try to send some money money home, knowing what I know now, that there is this debt, that I would be accumulating on a daily basis. And maybe, down the line, I could pay it off and actually start making money with my body.í So itís very complicated. I hope you could see that in the film, that itís not a black-and-white story. There are many, many shades of grey in between.

Going in there with some amount of knowledge about what was going on, and then encountering so many of these horrific things, what did you find to be the most devastating part of this entire tragedy?

Thatís a great question as well. The most devastating is the cycle. You see it so clearly, how difficult it is to break out of the cycle. Itís nearly impossible. You see a girl and you see how she grows up. I come from this place and grew up in a village, as well, so Iím constantly thinking, ĎWait a second, if this were me, and I were faced with the opportunity to work in the field, and Iím 18 and this is all I have, and my mom has lost her fingernails, working in the fields, because of the harsh winter conditions, and my father is an alcoholic, and my little sister doesnít have school supples - what would I do?í

And there is not a single moment where Iím thinking, ĎOh, I would be smarter than to trust someone.í I mean, someone you knew, a friend of a relative, comes to your village and says, ĎListen someone opened a restaurant in Turkey and they need waitresses and you can make 200, 500 U.S. dollars a month, when at home, youíre receiving $60 a month for your whole family in social services. Of course you would go... without a doubt. Youíve got to take that step, because you feel that you have no choice. And then the system chews you up and spits you up and youíre back to that same Point A. Thatís whatís most devastating - that after everything theyíve been through, they return to the same type of reality. So they were escaping one type of hell, just to go into a worse type of hell, to return to that initial type of hell.

And you can say, ĎWell, wait a second, what do we do?í There are solutions. Making a film only to expose this and then feeling like youíve washed your hands of this is not enough. The solutions are multi-layered, multi-leveled. Itís about as simple as supply and demand. Do we have the supply of these women throughout the world? Yes, we do. What about demand? Is the demand being reduced? No, itís not. So both need to be targeted.

Men need to be educated about what it means to pay for a woman. Just because these women may be high or have makeup on or are in some hotel room or some nightclub, does not mean they are there by choice. They need to understand what sex trafficking means, what it involves, how complex it is and who are the main players, who controls the women. And get involved.

At screenings, audiences must want to know where to turn to help to change the situation.

Absolutely. And when you say change the situation, Iím not naive, thinking that we we eradicate this overnight. But I do think we can build a movement around this to really educate people, to use information thatís credible, thatís been reported over an extensive period of time, to put that information into peopleís hands and have them make their own choices as to how they want to be involved.

The answer to their question is, something that we, the Center for Investigative Reporting, here in the Bay Area, and I, have been building for the last three, four years, is the website, called priceofsex.org. And putting not only resources, pages of different organizations, but connecting the dots. Here is the information. Here are the places we are talking about. Hereís how you can get involved. Here is a place where you can react to what youíre seeing and really create more of a discourse.

Some people say we should legalize prostitution. Wait a second, letís talk about this. How many countries have legalized it? Is trafficking still relevant in those place? Yes, it is. So is legalizing prostitution the right solution? Really, connecting the main dots, which is media to law enforcement and justice systems, the court systems. The courts, not only in the U.S., but globally, how are they treating these women? Why are they not pressing charges? What is the fear factor?

So you have media, law enforcement and courts and jails that are dealing with this issue. We need to be able to work together, to be all on the same page. I think that has been the main issue in the last 20 years, is that weíre not all on the same page. People are very disconnected. I can do a film and travel with it for year. Is that enough? Absolutely not. I need to put this film in the hands of people who can take it to cops and train them. Iím putting it in the hands of the U.S. State Department, who are using this on their internet, in embassies throughout the world, to train their employees, to show that, ĎLook, this is a documentary about sex trafficking and these are the women telling their storiesí. So these are all steps, in my mind, connecting those dots. People come and watch this film. weíve had 11 screenings so far since we released it in April - and each one has been sold out. So, to me, thatís an indication that people want to know. They have questions. They stay for the Q&A hours after a screening, not only in the U.S., but in places like London, Denmark, people are staying and being active participants, saying, ĎWait a second, now what? We care. We want to do something.í

And now I can say to them, ĎGo to priceofsex.org. See what you can do. Post something as a reaction. Allow me to respond to it. What are the questions? Go home. Think about this. Three days later, whatís the main question that pops into your mind? The questions youíre asking me right now, these are questions based on the film that you saw. Theyíre intelligent questions, because the film moved you.í So if you have 100 people at a screening and then you multiply that, town after town, city after city, that, to me, is actually creating a movement.

It must have such a greater impact, instead of hearing about numbers and facts, audiences are able to actually get to know these women, through the film.

Thatís why there are no numbers in the film.

What about the complicity of cops and politicians and societies in general? How do you deal with the frustration and outrage that must stir in you?

I was in New York at the Lincoln Center for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. And it was such an honor - they wanted to award me the Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking. And I was thinking about, what will be my acceptance speech. I didnít say this on stage, but I felt like I should be getting an award for anger, not for courage, because I feel so frustrated by this and so much of the time commitment, so much of the reporting, which I kept returning again and again, even times when I promised myself, ĎThis is my last trip and I cannot go back to these places.í Because I was exposing myself more and more, especially when shooting with hidden cameras. But I felt like ĎNo, I need to go back one more time, to see if I can get some of these people on camera, because itís the only weapon that I have, is my work. I have no other weapon but my camera and my ability to report on something like this. Thatís it.í

Do I feel frustrated? Absolutely. Do I understand how corrupt people can be, how greedy they can be? How complacent? You canít even say that theyíre evil. Itís the banality of evil. Itís the banality of evil thatís scary in this, because you see normal, regular people who are involved in this - little old ladies selling girls. You see guys who can be the guy working at the farmerís market or the politician thatís smiling and everyone loves. Look, we have examples here in this country of people involved in this.

The hypocricy, as well as the cruelty, is simply unfathomable.

Yeah. But itís also human nature. Itís the dark side of human nature. And I think this film is really about that. Itís about women who survive it, talk about it, but also about those who participate in this.

Jumping into the dark side, enterting the Ďmouth of the wolf,í as itís referred to in the film, do you try to just put the sense of personal danger out of your mind? How do you handle all of that?

You feel like you have no choice. You feel like youíre standing in front of this door and people are telling you, your family and loved ones are telling you, ĎYou donít have to go through this door. You can turn around. Weíre here. You donít have to do this. Let someone else do this.í And believe me, Iíve heard this time and time again - ĎLet someone else do it.í But then Iím thinking, ĎWell, who else would want to do it?í

I would be in situations in Istanbul and I would talk to male colleagues of mine and I would say, ĎGuys, can you go in and get certain kinds of footage?í They would look at me like Iím crazy. Theyíll go, ĎDo you know who youíre dealing with? These are mafia guys. Itís the Kurdish mafia. Theyíre going to kill us. I have a girlfriend, a wife, children. Iím not risking my life for this.í So, at a certain point, that question of having someone else do it, it becomes clear that, if I did not walk through that door, I could not rely on someone else.

It wasnít that it wasnít an important subject for people. It was just that it was my journey. And my journey is very much starting from a place of... you can call it Ďsurvivorís guiltí or guilt or coming to the right place at the right time, this didnít happen to me. But I donít feel that Iím any different from the women who Iím interviewing. So itís a quest to find out, ĎHow is it that we grew up in the same conditions, but this happened to her and it didnít happen to me.í Or hearing the story about ĎYes, we were taken to this brothel and this is what it was like and there were so many guys there and theyíre constantly watching you and you canít do anything,í because youíre asking the woman, ĎWhy didnít you escape? Why couldnít you just leave?í And she looks at you like youíre crazy, like, ĎLeave? Thatís not an option. There are all these guys watching you.í And for me, wanting to see that with my own eyes, wanting to verify it for myself. And also for the people who are going to watch this film. I cannot only go with a story that a woman is telling me. I have to go and see with my own eyes and document it.

How old were you when your family came to Baltimore?

I was 13.

And the discovery of photography, how important was that, in terms of your personal transition and development?

Hugely important. And I give credit to Baltimore for my choice in pursuing photography and journalism, because Baltimore was a very harsh place, at that time, in the early Ď90s, for immigrants. And I didnít speak English. So I needed a new language with which I could communicate.

And the other aspect to this is, we would write letters home and no one would believe that the conditions that we were facing in Baltimore city were worse than back home, that we were really poor. We grew up in communism and we had this very different image of the West. Very naive image of the West. And if you said that there is poverty in the United States, that there is struggle in the United States, they thought you were making that up. How could that be? This is the United States of America - there could not possibly be poverty. So, in a way, the camera, which was the first thing I bought, after I started working, it was my evidence. It was, ĎSee, this is what it looks like. This is where we are. Here are the pictures to prove that.í

And your pictures, in terms of trying to capture the heart and soul of the subject, was that something that inherent in you? Or were you able to find keys to how to bring that to your craft?

Without this sounding too esoteric, I think the person thatís in front of your camera, by the way theyíre looking at you and also, by how much you know about them, they tell you what the picture needs to be. Itís something thatís not even easy to describe in words. Itís a very intuitive feeling of capturing someoneís essence, the essence of their soul. And with these women, I was always looking for that. I was always looking for whatís left of them. And it was remarkable how, as youíre looking through the viewfinder, you see glimpses of it. Itís not always there, but you see glimpses that tell you, sheís still alive in there. And thatís when I would click the shutter, when I would see that that little spark of, ĎSheís in there. Sheís not hollow. They havenít taken everything away from her.í

When did you move to the Bay Area?

I came as soon as possible. I came at the age of 17. So I finished high school in Baltimore. I finished a year earlier and then I moved to go to school here. I went to City College of San Francisco. And I continued on.

Where are you based now?

In Berkeley. I teach at U.C. Berkeley.

As a photojournalist, are you naturally drawn to areas of suffering in the world? Do you feel compelled to reveal that dark side to people?

I started off with conflict photography. So before the sex trafficking work, I was photographing in places like Kashmir and also doing a lot of social documentary projects in Central America on the gang culture and South Africa in violence in the townships, in Cuba on living conditions, as well as an amazing program in a small town that was taking Chernobyl kids and providing free medical care for them.

So, I would say, if you were to generalize what type of work I have done, before the sex trafficking work began, I would say itís social documentary, social justice, and conflicts.

But do I see myself doing this for the next 30 years of my life? No, I do not. And doing ĎThe Price of Sex,í people come to me and say, ĎYou should do a photo project or a documentary on women taken from West Africa and being trafficked to Europe or women in Florida and how they end up in New York or in Texas, or you should do a project on organ trafficking or trafficking of children or trafficking of AK-47s, because you know how to ask the right questions, you know how to get access to that world.í And you know, I am filled beyond capacity, after 10 years of this. And I think, if I were to make another film, on a similar subject matter, I would only be repeating what you already have seen in this film.

So the challenge for anyone who is a journalist or an artist, is how do you recreate yourself? If you were a sponge and you were filled with all of this stuff, how do you cleanse yourself and start over? And the next project that I do will be a documentary and itís going to be everything that ĎThe Price of Sexí is not. Thatís my way of cleansing my soul and being able to continue producing work, because you live with these stories.

You donít close your eyes at night and forget that this exists. You hear these womenís voices. You remember these places. You hear a loud noise and you jump, because you feel that youíre in danger, even when youíre in a place of safety. It affects you. It changes the person you are. It changes the way you preceive the world. It changes the relationships you have with people. You donít trust people as much anymore, a fter you have seen what I have seen, what these women have seen. You canít. You would be a fool to.

So my challenge, on a personal level, is how do I get to a place of purity, of being able to look at the world and focus on the wonderful things that the world has to offer? And I think, if I were to continue doing stories on conflict and human rights abuses and humanitarian disasters, I would only be digging a deeper hole for myself and also not being able to show people new type of work. And I think, being 34, I still have time, I can still come out of the box that I have created around me and do something else thatís creative and thatís inspiring for young people.

Do you have any idea at this point, what direction that might take?

I teach full-time at Berkeley, so thatís one wonderful outlet that I have, is working with young people who want to be journalists, who are journalists. But the other direction of my creative work would be, as strange as this sounds, at this point, I feel like I have been able to make people cry with the work that I have been doing, not only with ĎThe Price of Sex,í but with other projects, with other exhibits Iíve had, other publications Iíve done. People have been deeply moved. I have the ability to reach people on a deep, emotional level and make them sad and make them cry. So my question for myself is, ĎCan I make them laugh?í I would love to try to do something thatís a comedy, still has a social documentary component, still have a critical element of thinking and analylzing whatís around us and the people who surround us, in a critical way, but make a documentary that addresses the material in a different way, through comedy. And Iím only in the initial stages of this.

What about people who are apathetic - is that something thatís difficult for you to comprehend?

I donít even think of them as apathetic. I think of them as not feeling comfortable to step outside of their comfort zone, because itís just too burdonsome. Itís much easier to live your life and have blinders on. And I donít think of them as bad people at all. I think of them as just not being comfortable. So I feel those people need the most hand-holding... and Iím willing to do that job. So, if someone comes to me and asks an ignorant question, says - you cannot imagine how many people say this to me at screenings and lectures that Iíve done on the subject - ĎProstitution is the oldest profession in the world. Why do you think you making this or committing this much time to the subject is going to change anything?í And that, to me, is a statement, which shows a lack of sensitivity to these women.

First of all, this film is not about prostitution. This film is about slavery. Secondly, making a statement like this is like throwing your hands in the air and saying, ĎThereís nothing we can do about this, so letís just walk away.í Thatís a terrible way to live through life. Itís like saying, ĎWar has always existed, so thereís nothing to be done about it. As long as itís not here, as long as it doesnít affect my happiness or my little bubble, I donít have to worry about all these other people dying.í That is just a terrible way to be, I think.

So for me, Iím much more willing to engage in a discussion with people who make such statements, because then I can pose a question like, ĎDo you have a daughter? Do you have a son? Do you have kids? Do you have a sister? Do you have a brother?í And then, really get them to start thinking. Well, now, wait a second, what if that happened to your kids? What if your daughter was sold into slavery? How would you feel about this? Do you still feel like prostitution should be legalized? Do you still feel like itís the oldest profession? Men are just men? Boys will be boys? Using all the cliches we have in the language, itís demeaning to the women, demeaning to other human begings, regardless of whether itís male or female.

Same for women who stand up at these screenings or lectures that I do and say, ĎWe should cut off their penises, then thereís going to be no problems with this.í And thatís just as ignorant as someone saying, ĎProstitution is the oldest profession. Boys will be boys.í Itís just the other end of that spectrum. Because the solution is not mutilating anyone. Itís not brutality. We already have enough brutality that we are surrounded by.

The solution is asking, ĎHow can we create this dialogue? How can we influence perception? How can we change perceptions? How is it that a father takes his son to a brothel at age 12 or 13 or 14?í I say this to people and they say, ĎWhat kind of culture is that?í I say,í Why do you think that your culture is so superior to the example I just gave you? Donít men go to strip clubs here, all the time? Isnít that part of this culture?í There are so many examples I can give you of the hypocricy in which we live, the way we treat women. Think about what it means to be female here. What does it mean to be beautiful? All of this that we teach our children, our young boys and girls... So this is education that needs to start a lot earlier, by the parents, by the schools, as well, in order to change those perceptions and the way men treat women and the way women treat men.

With all the challenges youíve faced as a photojurnalist, what have been the greatest rewards, that have made it worthwhile for you.

There are several wonderful rewards. Being able to assemble your own team of people who you respect and admire, having an editor [Stephanie Challberg] who is extraordinary, having a d.p. [Adam Keker] this last trip who is so professional and such a craftsman. To be able to work with such people and feel that youíre all sharing the responsibility of storytelling, that itís not just on my shoulders, but that we are a team and we can sit down and think about how to best structure this film. As a photojournalist, this is very new to me, because, in photography, we are alone. Weíre solitary creatures. With film, youíre relying on many, many different people. Youíre relying on people to fund-raise, to help you with the narrative structure, to help you distribute the film, so itís a constant collaboration. And that has been incredibly rewarding.

Another reward is to actually be able to finish something, when, along the way, you have so many walls that youíre hitting, and so many periods of doubt, where you think, ĎI can never overcome this. I can never continue on this. I am tired, too spent, or too sad or too... you can just in the blank, to finally feel that you have something in front of you that you can show to people and that they are actually recognizing it, talking about it, being moved by it. That is the most wonderful reward.

The response from audiences must be incredibly dramatic.

Iíll be honest with you. I never expected this. I thought that it would do okay. But I thought it would be too heavy of a film. I thought most people would not want to see this. I never expected to see people, on a Friday night, filling out a theatre, 300 seats, all different age groups, from high school students to 80-year-old men with walkers. That is remarkable, that so many people would commit a Friday night to go and see a documentary about sex trafficking and stay afterwards to ask questions, and then, after the Q&A, stay to ask me questions one-on-one. That is remarkable. That is a sign to me that people really do care. People are not as detached and disinterested and desensitized as we like to think they are.

Visit www.priceofsex.org to find out how you can help and to see a list of upcoming screenings.