by Ric Esther Bienstock, the Toronto-based director, producer and writer of "Sex Slaves."
I've been involved in some investigative pieces -- "Impact of Terror, " about suicide bombing; "Boxing: In and Out of the Ring," about corruption in the boxing world; and "Ebola: Inside an Outbreak." And I swore that I wouldn't embark on a crazy, open-ended, intensely dark subject ever again. I have two children and simply don't want to bury myself in the world's underbelly anymore. But something changed that.
I was in rural China three years ago with one of the other producers of "Sex Slaves," Felix Golubev. We were filming a documentary series for the CBC on the comedy/magic duo, Penn and Teller. We booked ourselves into the best hotel in this little town -- which also turned out to be the local brothel.
The hotel was populated with many young, pretty Chinese girls, and amongst them were two blonde-haired, Caucasian women. Felix and I approached the two girls wanting to find out how they had ended up in a brothel in the middle of China. Both women turned out to be Russian. Felix happens to be from Russia, so we were able to sit down with them and listen to their story.
To our shock, we discovered that the women had been trafficked -- tricked into sexual slavery. They told us that they were recruited by a Russian-speaking Chinese pimp from a town near the Siberian border and lured to China with promises of employment as waitresses. Once they crossed the border, they were brought to a village where they were broken in -- beaten with bamboo sticks, raped and told that they would have to work as prostitutes. They were moved from hotel to hotel every two weeks, not only so that clients could sample the "fresh meat," but also to ensure that they didn't cozy up to anyone who might help them escape.
Since then -- long before the issue made headlines -- their story haunted me, and I knew I had to make a film about these women's lives.
We really wanted to get deep inside the world of trafficking and follow at least one unfolding story, verité style. I didn't want to make a "victim" film that told someone's story in retrospect. We all know that trafficking is really terrible. What we don't know is how it really works, how do people numbering in the hundreds of thousands end up all over the world literally enslaved by their "owners." I started asking myself some very basic questions about trafficking that I knew had to be answered in this film: How do these girls end up as slaves? Why don't they run away? Why don't they go to the police? Wouldn't they be noticed crossing international borders? If not, why? And how did they get lured into the world in the first place? I realized that the only way to really see the world, and not just hear people telling us about it, was to go under cover. And that was a new challenge for me. I wanted to talk to traffickers, I wanted to see them in action and I wanted to try to help someone who was somehow still inside the trafficking world. Being a non-Russian speaking woman, this was going to be challenging, but not with Felix Golubev at my side. Felix speaks Russian and is fearless and tireless and game for anything. There is no one better for this kind of project.
We went to Russia and to Ukraine several times trying to lay the foundation of access that we needed. We ultimately decided to film in Ukraine and Moldova since they are the largest suppliers of Eastern European and former Soviet bloc women into the global sex trade. We met with secret service, police, social workers and victims and elicited their trust, and then we got the access we needed. But there were twists and turns before we really found our stories.
What we thought we'd be shooting:
We were supposed to have access to an investigation of a trafficker in Ukraine. Two prostitutes who were also informants tipped off the police, and they were the lead witnesses in an active case. The police spoke to them about our film, and they agreed to talk to us. The women were going to set up a meeting with the traffickers and an undercover agent who was to have our hidden camera, so that they could record the traffickers making a deal with them. This was hopefully going to lead to their arrest, which we also had access to shoot. Unfortunately, the two prostitutes got drunk a couple of days before the meeting and killed someone (if you can believe it). The whole investigation fell apart because the credibility of the witnesses became questionable and the women landed themselves in prison. I know this sounds like something out of a feature film, but it just reinforces the notion that reality is often stranger than fiction. The counter-trafficking unit was confident that something else would be possible at some point during our shoot in the Ukraine, but ultimately they failed to deliver even a frame of footage. No arrests, no investigations, no cases. Basically, they crapped out on us.
However, some of our other contacts paid off. We got a tip from the Ukrainian secret service about a recruiter who trafficked women to Turkey. After several meetings with the secret service who wanted to check us out to see if we were trustworthy, they provided us with the information we needed to prepare to follow her across international borders to Turkey.
One Saturday morning we got the call: She was at the port of Odessa with a group of girls and had bought tickets to take them all to Turkey. With no lead time, we threw our gear and some clothing together and took off for the port of Odessa. We all had some kind of hidden camera (there were four of us) and we filmed her at the port.
We had to split up if we were going to get the footage we needed. Felix and Peter Sawade (our soundman) took the boat so that they could continue filming with their hidden cameras on board and to watch her and her group going through Turkish customs. The boat ride was 36 hours and apparently quite unpleasant! Mike Grippo (our cameraman) and I flew to Istanbul to set up the arrival part of the shoot in the hopes of catching her in the act of trafficking. In two vehicles, we followed her bus through the busy streets of Istanbul and then on foot until we got the shot. The girls quickly dispersed and we realized that unless we found someone who would confirm that she trafficked them, we would have no absolute proof. Without a victim, we didn't have the full story.
With the help of the secret service and a local NGO, we found two girls in Ukraine who were brought to Turkey by this same woman and sold into the sex trade. We showed them our footage (on camera) and they both confirmed that she is the woman that sold them in Turkey.
When we returned back to Ukraine, we visited an office set up at the port to deal with victims of trafficking. It was there that we met Viorel, whose pregnant wife had been trafficked to Turkey a couple of weeks prior to our arrival. Viorel's story was heartrending and shocking, and when he talked to us about going back to Turkey with him to try to find his wife, we re-packed our bags and immediately set off for Turkey -- this time to Antalya instead of Istanbul. Sadly, he had lost all faith in the Turkish police after they botched an operation to save his wife. I think Viorel wanted us with him because we provided him with the moral support he seemed in such need of when our paths crossed. Viorel was determined to get his wife back and wanted us to expose the cruel and vicious industry that stole his wife from him. We wanted to help him and we knew that this was the kind of story that would help bring the world of trafficking to life.
We tried to get a film permit for shooting in Turkey but were refused by the Turkish Embassy in Toronto. So, we were going to Turkey to look for a trafficker with no official papers and no police backup. We hired a Turkish fixer who had worked with NBC and other news organizations. We needed someone experienced who knew the lay of the land, but even he said that we should steer clear of the police. We were on our own looking for a notoriously violent trafficker to try and get Viorel's wife back.
You can't do something like this without the absolute backing and support of the crew. Among Felix, Grippo and Sawade, I was with the dream team. They never wavered for a second and were in it wholeheartedly, going undercover with us, and often with little in the way of sustenance but for Snickers bars and trail mix. They were more than just camera and sound. The four of us became partners in an experience that none of us will ever forget.
There are several women who agreed to talk to us for this documentary, and each story is more tragic then the last. I always try to keep an emotional distance from the subjects of my films, but this one was different. These women's stories, the horrors they endured, the hopelessness they feel, and the strength they nonetheless manage to project touched me profoundly. The collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in a desperation that has forced thousands of young women to do anything to get out and try to earn a living. This is the root cause of the increase in women from these countries into the global sex trade. They're not the first; we've heard stories about Filipino women, Thai women, Indian women, and this new wave is indicative of the same kind of poverty and desperation that plagues other countries that supply women into the insatiable world of sex trafficking.
So far, all of the women I filmed are doing well, but they are hanging on by a thread. It is my hope that the film will inspire people to do something about this. We have also set up a trust fund so that we can direct some money to the victims who shared their stories with us. A little can make a big difference in their lives.
Update, May 2009: FRONTLINE asked producer Ric Esther Bienstock how the characters in this report are doing now, more than 3 years since the original broadcast. She writes:
- Tania is doing extremely well. Every time the documentary has been broadcast, we have received funds from viewers who wish to help her and other characters in the film. These funds have helped Tania pull her life back together. She was able to buy a small house in a village where she could find work. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, so this was crucial for her to be able to earn a living while living with her daughter. She currently works as a sales clerk in a local store. Her daughter is thriving. She no longer has to travel an hour to get to school. Her new school is a mere 10 minute walk from home. Tania is trying to learn English now. She has survived her ordeal and has made a new life for herself.
- Katia moved to Odessa and found a job in a bar. She has not really emotionally recovered from her ordeal. She and her husband Viorel split up not too long ago. She was just recently diagnosed with cervical cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.
- Oksana still lives in Reni, Ukraine. She is engaged to be married. Her sister who, in our film, decided to go to Turkey to work as a domestic despite the risks, is still in Turkey working as a domestic. She did not get trafficked, and she sends money home monthly.
- "Olga," the trafficker, was never arrested. She still lives in Moldova.
If you are interested in helping any of the victims of sex trafficking who appeared in this report, a trust account has been opened by the Canadian production company responsible for the film. The company has been collecting donations and wiring them directly to the victims who appear in the documentary. Contact the producers of the film at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
One of the most shocking things about the traffickers and recruiters is just how regular they are. They are mothers, fathers and daughters and blend in seamlessly with the rest of society. I don't know if I expected them to have horns or just appear more evil, but they don't. And many of them are women. The absolute cold-hearted, matter-of-fact way they treat these transactions is staggering. It's just another business transaction. They sound like they're selling widgets, or any kind of merchandise.
Everyone asks me why Vlad agreed to talk to us openly. It's always hard to understand what motivates anyone to agree to be in a documentary film. Vlad felt a measure of guilt about what he did to Katia, Viorel's wife, and I think he felt the interview would redeem him in some way.
Vlad said something that never made it into the final film. Much as I tried to keep it in, I just couldn't find the right place for it. He said "After the collapse of the Soviet Union everything was destroyed, everything changed. It was hard to adapt to this change. Some people managed to adjust. I guess I'm not one of those people." So ironically, he too feels like a victim of circumstances. I'm not buying his story, but I think it's true for so many of the people living in those countries.