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THE MAKING OF THIS FILM An Interview with Ric Esther Bienstock

photo of bienstock
We know from countless testimonies of women who have been trafficked that theyre often broken in.  If women resist, theyre really badly beaten up, often in front of other girls...

Ric Esther Bienstock is the writer, director and producer of "Sex Slaves." Here, she discusses the region that is the focus of the film, how the production team first met Viorel, and what they learned about the world of sex trafficking in following his search for his wife who was trafficked to Turkey. Bienstock also talks about Vlad, the man who sold Viorel's wife, and how Viorel and Katia are doing today. This interview was conducted in early November 2005.

How did you settle on Ukraine and Moldova for this film? At the outset, did you know that's where you were headed?

When we were looking for the right place to shoot, we traveled around the region -- Russia, Ukraine and Moldova -- and we discovered that Ukraine was known to be one of the largest suppliers of trafficked women into the global sex trade. And we discovered that Moldova, because of its sheer devastating tragedy, was the poster child for trafficked women basically. So that kind of focused our research on those two regions.

In Ukraine we honed down to the kind of regions we were going to concentrate on. We knew that if we wanted to get inside the story that we had to be in a place where it was so prevalent that we could talk to local NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and talk to the police force, and that everybody would have an example or know people who were trafficked. And that's what brought us ultimately to Odessa.

What is Odessa like? What is its place in the global sex trade?

Odessa is a very interesting city. It was known as the organized crime capital of the former Soviet Union, and even in literature is depicted as the organized crime capital. It's a port town, so it's a magnet for traffickers and criminal activity, as any port town would be. And Odessa was known for drug and arms trafficking, and now that human trafficking has become so common in the region, it's now used for that.

Odessa also is a perfect transit point, because it's a very short drive from Moldova to Odessa. So it's not only used to traffic local Ukrainian women, but it's used for Moldovan women to get trafficked into the global sex trade.

Who were you trying to make contact with in Odessa, and how easy was it?

We always start in the same kinds of places: law enforcement, local NGOs and a local fixer who knows the lay of the land. There's a local NGO in Odessa running shelters and training centers for women who are trafficked, and they do other work. There's a high prevalence of AIDS, so they do a lot of AIDS work. [While] doing their work on AIDS, they discovered that trafficking was a big problem -- so many trafficked women in Turkey in particular are deported back to Odessa. The Turkish authorities don't differentiate between Moscow or Georgia or anywhere; a woman speaks Russian, they dump her on the boat.

On account of this, the NGO working with the local port police set up an office at the port so they can get these women when they're deported, see if they need help, if they need support, if they need medical treatment, if they need psychological treatment and if they need to be reunited with their families. And a lot of times these women get off the boat, and they have no funds, and they're broken emotionally and they're broken physically.

Let's talk about when you came upon Viorel and how you first perceived his story as he first told it to you.

We met this man Viorel, who had come to this office because his pregnant wife was trafficked to Turkey. He had just returned from Turkey, having tried to save her, unsuccessfully, and we were allowed to film him talking to the local NGO worker about what happened. And that's the first we heard of his story.

He was very upset, and he was kind of bereft of hope, but very talkative about what had happened. He had just been to Turkey trying to save his wife, and he just had this very dramatic encounter with the pimp who had his wife. He had gone to Turkey pretending to be a trafficker, trying to buy his wife back.

Viorel told us that his wife was basically sold by an acquaintance of his and that this acquaintance phoned him and said, "Viorel, I sold your wife."

What did he get from Vlad, the acquaintance, that helped Viorel pursue the matter? What leads did he get?

Vlad had phoned Viorel and said that he had sold his wife for $1,000. Viorel then kept in touch with Vlad and made sure that he didn't yell at him and didn't get aggressive with him, because he realized Vlad was now his only connection to his wife. What he was able to get out of Vlad was that Vlad had sold Katia to another trafficker who had in turn sold Katia to this notoriously violent pimp called Apo. Through Vlad, Viorel was able to get a phone number that linked him to Apo.

So you met Viorel and you hear his story. Is there some convincing that had to be done, one way or another? And what was Viorel's mood during that whole period as you started to go back to Turkey?

Subsequent to that initial meeting, we had several meetings where we both filmed and didn't film him. We wanted to check out the veracity of his story, [and] make sure it was OK for us to follow him.

From Viorel's point of view, he had felt abandoned by the Turkish police. He felt that the Ukrainian police weren't able to do anything, that they were taking the case on but there was no real action; that the Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey really couldn't do anything; that the NGO who was going to help him, the organization was going to help him, but there was nothing tangible [except], "My wife is trafficked. Right now my wife is serving clients."

Going back with us as a team, he kind of encouraged it in a way. And I think that that was more out of support. It's easier to go back in a team than it is to go back on your own. Clearly he felt like he wanted our support, so we made a decision to go back.

What did you know about the world that Katia had been sold into?

From talking to many victims of trafficking, I started to get a picture of what it was like. We know that from countless testimonies of women who have been trafficked that they're often broken in. If women resist, they're really badly beaten up, often in front of other girls so that these pimps don't have to beat up all the other girls; they just have to beat up one girl and have the other girls see that, and they get scared and submit, basically. And we were worried because Katia was pregnant.

Where would you go to find her? What sort of a place was she in, and what were the conditions, as you could imagine, that she was under?

Trafficked women can be found in various different places. The most extreme are actually private villas where they're really under lock and key, sometimes with armed guards. Once a woman has submitted and is beaten and broken and frightened, she can often be put to work in a hotel, because the pimps know that she's not going to run away because she's too scared.

The more you resist, the more of a chance you have to be locked up, because they know that you might run away and that you're not giving in. And if you're locked up, then you're basically servicing the very kind of close clientele of that pimp who know that you're trafficked and who are on his side basically, where there's no danger of them helping you run away.

So while we didn't know exactly where Katia was, we kind of imagined the worst.

What were the different possibilities that at that time were in your mind about how this story was going to end?

What I really believed in the moment was that Viorel wouldn't get her back and that she would be released whenever she was used up. I thought that the outcome was going to be very negative. I felt that the story would be [that] Katia, like many women who are trafficked, disappeared into the world of brothels.

What are the dollar figures of the different points in the [trafficking] chain?

To buy somebody in the country of origin costs somewhere around $500, $600 or $700. But once you get to Turkey and Europe, the price goes up. For Turkey we were hearing $1,000. And when a woman gets sold from pimp to pimp, which is frequently what happens, the price goes up. When a woman gets to Europe, because it's difficult to get to Europe, and basically you're paying for the transport costs from all the previous people who have purchased her, then the price becomes higher. And buying somebody in a place like England can get up as high as $20,000 or $30,000. There are a lot of people who are making money along the trafficking route.

You said that the first person in the trafficking chain is usually someone who knew them personally, was from the town. Now let's say they get out of the situation and they're back in the same town. Is there ever a potential for confrontation? What's their expectation of what happens to the people who did this to them?

All of the women that we talked to were all trafficked from different places and in different ways, and they are often trafficked by acquaintances or someone they know or someone who knows someone that they know. Their expectations of their traffickers getting prosecuted are actually very low, because the prosecution rate is abysmal in most of these countries -- and in Western countries as well.

A lot of these women are also frightened; they're scared. They've been threatened. If they have children when they are trafficked, if they have children who remain in their village, traffickers often know that they have children and use that as a threat against them to force them to comply.

So, they don't have an expectation of justice, because it hasn't been their experience in their world. Also, it is very difficult to prosecute traffickers, because the person who recruits them just says, "Well, I thought they were going to work as waitresses," and the person who transports them says, "Oh, I was just helping them get across the border; they wanted to go across the border." So it's hard to really nail one person for trafficking, and most often the girls are not willing to testify because they're scared and there is no protection for them. There's no Witness Protection Program there.

Let's talk about the resolution of the Viorel case. Were you surprised that Katia was released? How did you hear about it?

We returned from Turkey. Viorel wasn't getting any responses to his telephone calls, and we thought that might be the end of the Katia story. And a few days later we got a call from Viorel saying they put her on a plane, and they sent Katia home. It kind of makes sense, because Viorel didn't give up. It's unusual for someone to be so persistent in trying to get someone back.

No pimp needs to have a woman working for him where there's somebody calling him incessantly, trying to get her back, where there was a potential of Interpol and the police force looking for him. She was basically more trouble than she was worth.

So it makes sense that they put her on an airplane, because it's a very, very kind of neat, elegant way to get rid of the problem permanently, because Katia has no resources; the Moldovan police have no jurisdiction in Turkey. By spending the $200 or $300 to put her on a plane and send her home, they basically eliminate the problem.

My first impression of her was she was a broken woman, and she did not want help from the NGO. After having gone through this experience, she actually mistrusted the NGOs -- for no good reason, but she was traumatized and shaken, as you would expect.

Did you feel any sense that you had done some good?

I think that it really was Viorel's persistence and his efforts. We were fortunate enough to be able to document that. I think that we provided him with moral support, and if that motivated him, that's great. But he went to Turkey the first time on his own, and had we not gone back with him, he would have gone back anyway and found a way to do it. He was that determined to get her back. I was just very pleased that the story was going to have a positive outcome and that Katia didn't disappear.

Given everything you know, how should we think about Vlad? We're looking at this guy who ultimately sits for this interview with you. How should we think of him in the context of the larger trafficking story?

What I found interesting about the world of trafficking is that in a lot of the material that I had read, people talk about trafficking as kind of "organized crime," in quotations. And what I had found, even in the West, is that it's more like loosely knit groups that work together. You need people to find the women, you need people to transport them, and you need people [who are] end users, basically.

In this case, Vlad is like a small player, and he has his own little ring. He knows where to find the women, and he knows who to sell them to. There's no point in transporting someone if you don't have the connections on the other end to sell somebody. When Vlad met Katia, it was the ideal situation, and he basically said that to us. He didn't have to try and recruit her; she was going to Turkey anyway. He didn't even have to pay for her boat ride. She was paying anyway. So this was really easy game for him, and it made total financial sense, which is how he put it to us: that he didn't have to invest a penny, and he basically had an end user.

He's one of the many little players that make up this world of trafficking. Now, there are surely more ominous characters and more sinister characters that are more firmly embedded in the criminal world, but there's a lot of people floating around that kind of have their feet in both worlds. Most of the recruiters and traffickers that we interviewed undercover are functioning with families and daughters and sons in the real world, and this is their line of business, just like their line of business could have been hairdressing.

Vlad wasn't a criminal before the breakup of the Soviet Union. There are many people in the trafficking world that were always criminals, and maybe [they] trafficked drugs and arms, and now they're trafficking women, the new commodity. But Vlad was basically an opportunist, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this opportunity came to him, and he took advantage of it.

Why did he agree to speak to you?

Vlad believed that he had sold Katia to somebody who was going to convince Katia to prostitute herself. When Vlad realized that Katia was sold to Apo and that Apo is a notoriously violent pimp, he felt guilty. Obviously he felt that this had gone too far. I think he felt that by telling us his side of the story, he had a chance to redeem himself: "You see, I'm not such a bad guy. Apo is a really bad guy, and I'm different." So maybe that's what motivated him. We'll never know really why he agreed.

In North America as opposed to Europe, if you had to compare the scale of trafficking problem, is there less trafficking of this sort in North America? Or [are] different countries involved?

We were dealing with women trafficked from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, and there's a lot more women from those countries in Europe. You don't have to have a visa to get into Turkey; you buy a visa at the Turkish airport when you land. It's a bit tougher to get into the United States.

Certainly there are Eastern European and Russian women trafficked to the United States, but there are also women who have come willingly to work as strippers or to work in the sex industry. I think that officials are having trouble differentiating between the illegal immigrants who are doing that and those that are truly trafficked. And that's sometimes very hard to distinguish, because a lot of women who are trafficked won't fess up to that. They're scared.

Back to Viorel and Katia. It's where your film ends. How should we think about the story we just saw? Is that as happy an ending as you get in this world?

There are no happy endings in the world of trafficking. There are women who get saved who might be helped by an NGO and get back on their feet, but these people are scarred for life. Viorel and Katia's story is a story about the human spirit and the willingness to fight for somebody you care about. It also gave us an opportunity to really delve into the trafficking world, because we were fortunate enough to be able to see really the full cycle, which is the sale right through the prosecution. And at every stage of the way, you were able to get a sense of how brutal that world is.

Katia gets saved, and that is a great thing, but she still doesn't have work. Katia's trafficker gets caught. That's a great thing, but he gets let off. So it's all the steps that you would want to see happen in this story, and yet Katia is not doing that well right now. She hasn't found work. Viorel is working at a bar in Odessa, which is great because he found work, but he's not making enough money to have an apartment there, so he is transient in that he stays with his brother or his mother. Katia is living in Moldova with her mother and can't live with her own husband. So in a way it's a successful story, but the results of it aren't exactly idyllic.

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posted feb. 7, 2006

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