Felix Golubev, co-producer of "Sex Slaves," details what it took to make this hidden-camera report: what it was like to pose as a sex customer and later as a would-be sex trafficker, and the risks that were taken. He also talks about Viorel, the man searching for his wife, Katia, and Vlad, the man who sold Katia into forced prostitution. This interview was conducted in early November 2005.
Because you speak Russian, you had a particular role to play in the film's production, interacting with the traffickers.
Ric [producer Ric Esther Bienstock] and I developed the idea together. We had a researcher and were researching the subject, trying to make contacts. But by the very fact that I speak Russian, I had to interact with local fixers, the victims and eventually with traffickers. ...
In the film you pose as a would-be sex trafficker. You have to pretend at different times to be interested in buying women. Where does that start, and how did you work up your rap? What were your early contacts with people as a would-be sex trafficker?
I had a legend worked out. I had a business card that said "Exotic Entertainment." I pretended that I was a guy from the West interested in buying Eastern European girls and bringing them to Canada. My card had a phony phone number, and we had an answering machine on the other end saying, "You've reached Exotic Entertainment; please leave your message," in case this person decided to follow up and call.
In these places, once you find the right person to talk to, is it difficult to be taken seriously as a sex trafficker?
It's not easy to be taken seriously as a trafficker. You have to kind of get into the role. You have to talk to them in a certain way, drink with them, laugh. You have to pretend, be relaxed. And they check you out. They look at you; they ask you all sorts of questions. They don't trust you right away, but once you break this ice and they realize that they're talking to the real guy, the sky is the limit. The greed takes over. They see this guy with dollars coming from the West, and they open up and they start offering you all sorts of things. They offer you this girl; that girl is going to be that much. ...
How did you learn to "talk the talk" in that world?
It actually would have been more difficult for me to do it in English, but in most cases I was speaking Russian. I wouldn't say it's very easy, but it's easier for me to pretend in Russian that I'm one of the sleazy guys. I feel kind of natural in this environment a bit. But I wouldn't say it was very easy, because it was unnerving. If it was just a conversation in the room with a person, that would be one thing, but you have a hidden camera in your shirt. Going into one of these meetings with a hidden camera in your shirt makes it much more difficult, because you don't know whether this guy is going to discover you or not. You always feel that he's looking not in your eyes but in your shirt.
What was the level of danger with these characters? Did these seem like part-timers? Did they seem like organized crime figures?
It's very hard to gauge when you're meeting with one of these characters whether this person is very dangerous or not. For the most part you assume that they're not stupid and they're quite dangerous, and if they discover you, you might be in trouble. That's why it was unnerving wearing a hidden camera under your shirt. I think they are kind of low-level criminals. I don't think they are necessarily super-dangerous mafia, running guns, but they are dangerous enough to harm you if they discover you on the spot, because they never come alone. They always have people with them. You don't know who is watching from the sidelines. ...
You and Viorel, you're each playing sex traffickers. Was Viorel also learning as he goes about the sex-trafficking business?
Lots of people in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine actually, are familiar with the criminal world and with the world of trafficking. They're much more in tune and knowledgeable in this area. I don't think Viorel knew more about how to behave himself than me; he was kind of making it up as he went along. He was putting up a brave face, and he was trying to speak the lingo. I wouldn't say he was super knowledgeable about this whole trafficking situation. I just knew that when I was meeting with those people, talking about buying girls, I had to use the kind of slang that goes along with buying girls. I know quite a bit about it, because lots of people from Russia or Ukraine actually know the lingo, even if you're not involved in it. It's just the nature of living in that area.
Of course, it depends on the person. Anybody else might have been totally been lost in the situation. Obviously Viorel had enough understanding of this trafficking world and enough experience to pretend that he was one [of them]. He obviously knew the language, the lingo. He obviously knew loosely how it worked. ...
And he was a bartender in Odessa.
Yeah. Odessa is one of the cities in the Ukraine that is considered to be the criminal capital of Ukraine. And in fact, when the Soviet Union existed, it was the criminal capital of Russia. So people who live in Odessa, they're considered to be the people that are very much familiar with the criminal element, with the kind of language these people speak. In fact, they try to imitate this kind of language. Odessa language, as they say, it's a criminal language. So specifically being a bartender in Odessa puts him in a position of being quite knowledgeable about the underworld. He must have seen lots of things while working in a bar. He must have seen girls working there. He must have seen lots of traffickers going back and forth.
There are some scenes where you in this period are all going around together to brothels. Did Viorel really think he could find her [his wife, Katia]?
Going to brothels in Antalya, [Turkey,] was kind of an act of desperation. He was hoping that in one of them he might be able to come across someone who knows where she is, but it was kind of shooting in the dark. At the same time, Russian brothels are all concentrated in one area, so there was a chance he could have found some information.
Is there a difference between the sort of brothels that would have a trafficked woman and just places where prostitutes are?
... More or less everybody in Turkey knows where the discotheques are [that are] full of Russian prostitutes. ... Most trafficked women that we're talking about in our film were trafficked into the brothels that are hidden from the public, in private houses, private mansions, ... where girls are kept under lock and key. They are very difficult to find, so you've got to work very hard to find them.
We had a fixer in Turkey who basically was trying to get us into one of those places, and through some of his contacts he put us together with the guys who would lead us into one of these places. I pretended that I was an interested customer interested specifically in Eastern European girls, particularly Ukrainians. So we were put in touch with one of those guys, and he led me to a private villa. When I walked into that place, it looked like any residential house. So I walked in, and he led me from room to room, turning right, turning left. Finally ended up in the place where I was sitting, waiting my turn.
You were posing as a customer, not as a would-be buyer.
At this point I was posing as a customer who would like to have a good time with a Ukrainian girl.
What did the conditions seem to be in there? Was it obvious to the people who go in as customers that the women are not free to leave?
I would say that most men who go and use the services of those trafficked girls are well aware of the fact that those girls are held in these places against their will.
You walk in there, and what are you seeing? Are there goons at the door, or are the bonds that are holding them more subtle?
It was a very unsettling feeling when I was walking with these guys into one of these villas. It was very secretive. It was very hush-hush. They were looking around, and they were going up backstreets and so on. There were no signs. It didn't say hotel or motel. I couldn't read the street sign. Basically it looked like any residential house.
When I entered the first room, there were a bunch of guys playing cards and a couple of girls sitting there. Then I turned left, and those two guys who brought me there disappeared. They told me to sit down on the bench. And I saw in the far corners of this room -- it was a big room -- there were a few other guys just like me sitting around, and there was a couple of girls sitting there. So basically it was very obvious that it was one of those underground brothels.
If it's that hard to find them and if it's that hush-hush, how lucrative can it be? How can they get enough men through this very secretive process?
It's secretive, but not that secretive. They have a base of customers coming in. Every local guy in this area, they know it's happening. Virtually no foreign tourists go to these kind of places. These are the mostly local clientele, local Turks, who go there. ... But with the help of a good local fixer, you can find one of those places. It's not an Al Qaeda cell. It's possible to find through word of mouth. ...
There's always been ... drugs, weapons and prostitution in Russia, but sex trafficking is a relatively new phenomenon in Ukraine. It only started with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the borders opened up and the traveling became more widely available and the condition of women became more desperate. Most of them lost their jobs, and it became much easier for traffickers to find those kind of women and persuade them to go abroad.
Let's talk about more of your travels in the trafficking underworld. Walk me through a meeting, say, with one of the women we see in the film who you're dealing with across the table.
I had a very simple cover story. I was a North American guy who [has] a business here in North America running an exotic entertainment business, and I would like to purchase girls, and I would like to bring those girls back with me to North America to work for me. With that in mind, I start searching for such contacts. I start searching for people who can procure girls like this for me. With the help of a local fixer who works very hard trying to establish contacts in this kind of world, through newspaper ads, through the word of mouth, he managed to arrange meetings with those kind of people -- I would call them procurers, people who basically search for girls. They gather them together and basically resell them to a middleperson. So one of these meetings had been arranged in [Moldova].
Who are the different characters involved in trafficking? Who do you have to deal with along the chain?
The trafficking chain could be larger, could be small, but normally it consists of three or four people. So a normal trafficking chain would consist of a procurer, a person who would find girls on the ground; a courier, who takes girls across the border; and a local pimp in the recipient country.
The people that you're having meetings with across the table in some of the hidden-camera footage, what level are they? [For example,] let's take the one we're calling Nadia.
The person that I was meeting across the table was a woman who finds girls on the ground. She basically looks around, finds desperate girls, girls with no education, girls that she can fool, and she'll be a person who gathers them together and makes them available to a next person. In this particular scene, I was posing as a potential buyer. I was a guy from North America who was interested in bringing girls to North America who would work in my entertainment business.
She got very excited right away, because her business was kind of drying up, and the only market she had was Turkey, and there [with me] she had a brand-new opportunity to start selling girls to North America. So she got very, very excited. I got into the role very well, and I was pretending I was one of the guys. Basically, as soon as I sat down with her, my first question to her [was]: "Can you find me girls? Can I buy girls?" She said, "Yes." And I said, "How much?" She said, "500 or 600." There was no hidden agenda. There was no beating around the bush. It was very absolutely plain and simple: "I buy girls from you?" "Yes." "How much?"
So how far were you prepared to take this?
Well, it was a matter of practicality. I mean, I went through the whole exercise, talking with this woman about how we're going to do it, what should I do if the girls don't cooperate, how should I handle them. At some point I said, "Where is the guarantee that they're not going to run away?," and she suggested I should take their passports away.
The next step would be for me to see the girls. She said she was going to gather five, six girls for [me] according to [my] needs. She asked me what kind of age bracket [I] was looking for. I said I was looking for girls between 18 and 25. And she asked me if I care if they have any scars on their bodies, like an appendix scar. I said not really. So the next step for her is to find those kind of girls for me. I was going to come back and basically assess them, and then after that we'll make a deal. I never came back.
And there were no repercussions?
No, there were no repercussions of that, although she was quite surprised. She did find girls for me, and she kept them for me for a period of time. She kept asking our contact: "Where is that guy? When is he coming back to see the girls?" But it was explained to her that something fell through and never materialized. So in the end, she didn't even get suspicious that the whole thing got cancelled, because I guess lots of that stuff happens.
You say she made contact with the girls. Did she actually round them up and [keep] them in some location?
There was no way of checking, because I didn't go ahead with the next step of coming and checking out the girls, but the idea is that she actually already got some girls for me and kept them in a location.
Yeah. That's why we didn't go ahead with the next step, because we didn't want to go ahead and start purchasing girls. The aim of this exercise was to record a conversation between me and the trafficker and to see where is this conversation going to take us, how easy it is for me to get her to admit that she is a trafficker, how much she is going to ask for these girls, and what should I be doing with those girls. But because of the ethical precautions and ethical dilemma, we really didn't want to proceed with this whole exercise, because that would be crossing the line. That would already be buying the girls.
Did you have any interaction with authorities, local police, as you were going along? Did you feel they knew what you were learning about this world?
When we went to have those conversations with traffickers with the hidden camera, we didn't let the local police know what we were doing for obvious reasons, because we don't know whether the police is trustworthy or not. You don't reveal your plans in advance. In general, we did interact with the local police. We were trying to get them to cooperate with us, and they even promised us that they would, when they go on a raid, they'll take us along with them, but that never materialized. In the end they proved to be totally useless. All these meetings that we had with traffickers and all these people that we depicted in our film, we let the local police know about their existence.
I had a couple of close calls. One close call I remember [was] when I was meeting a middleman in Turkey, and the guy kept staring at my shirt. I was 100 percent sure that he discovered that I had a hidden camera. I was so convinced. So I was kind of looking around thinking, what am I going to do? Am I going to just run away or something? Finally the guy stretches his hand toward the camera. I look down, and what do I see? There was a piece of lint sitting next to the camera. So I grabbed his hand, and I basically said, "I'll do it myself," and just took it off. So the guy turned out to be kind of an anal-retentive type personality, and it was really bothering him to see that piece of lint on my shirt.
In Viorel's case, at what point did you learn about Vlad the trafficker, and then at what point after that did you actually have contact with him?
We found out about Vlad from Viorel at that first meeting. Viorel told us that this Vlad promised to take his wife to Turkey to help her to buy goods, and he turned out to be a trafficker who trafficked her. And then, as the story unfolded and after Vlad got arrested, Vlad was kept in pretrial jail. We were trying to get some kind of access to him through investigators. Finally we got a word from our local contact that the trial was going to take place, so we went to Ukraine in a hurry to attend the trial, and that was our first visual contact with Vlad.
Why do you think Vlad contacted Viorel, the husband of the woman Vlad sold? If Vlad had never contacted Viorel, this whole story wouldn't have happened, right? Vlad gives his answer, but what do you think?
I think there was a certain amount of guilt, and I think he also didn't realize that Katia would be sold to such a notorious pimp as Apo. I think he got spooked. He didn't realize the turn of events would bring Katia to such a dangerous situation.
Vlad is one of these people that got lost in the situation after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was studying sports, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no place for such an occupation. He basically was out of a job immediately. So it was very hard to adapt people like Vlad to a new reality. He was looking for new opportunities, and one of the easiest ways to make money turned out to be trafficking women. I would characterize him as a part-timer in this business, and I would characterize him as a medium-size courier who basically transports girls over the border and resells them to pimps.
Do you have any sense of how many women he's trafficked over the years?
I don't really have that information. From the trial, I understood there were a few other women that he trafficked prior to Katia. That's all they could demonstrate, and he certainly never admitted to me how many. My assessment of the situation is he's probably been in the business for a few years, three or four years. He wasn't one of those well-established, very big traffickers. He was rather a small operator.
Did he do something else as a legitimate business?
No. I think apart from being a trafficker, I think he was unemployed.
When did you get your opportunity to interview him? How did you go about making the contact and brokering that?
What happened was very unusual. We were keeping a tab on when the trial is going to take place. On short notice we were told that the court is going to take place, and we had to fly back to Odessa in a hurry. When we arrived, we didn't have any permission to shoot in court. I went and I spoke to the judge, and the judge basically told me, "No way, I'm not going to let you shoot." We basically went above his head to his superior, and with the help of the fixer, we managed to gain access to that court. But the judge told Vlad to cover his face, so when Vlad walks into the room, he is covering his face.
Vlad got five years' suspended sentence. They were planning to release him the same day, but because I was very aggressive and I was basically baby-sitting him at the entrance, they smuggled him from the back entrance. Vlad didn't get his release papers on time, and that was Friday. So they decided they were going to keep him in a safe house in Odessa over the weekend, and then he was going to travel back to his town where he came from.
At that point I made contact with someone that I knew who basically gave me a tip where I could find Vlad. I went to a place where I could find him, and I found him smoking. I approached him, and I said, "If you remember me, I was trying to film you in court." He said, "I remember." I said, "Why were you covering your face?" "The judge told me to cover my face." When I asked him if he can give me an interview, he asked me, "Why should I?" And I gave him all sorts of reasons. Basically the feeling I get is that he was one of these guys who just wanted to have his story heard. He felt a certain amount of guilt. He felt that it would be better for him to explain what he did in the open as opposed to having his face covered, looking like more of a criminal. So he went for it.
Let's talk about Vlad's trial. It seems like the court was trying to protect Vlad. What went on in that courtroom?
It was very unusual. Neither Viorel nor Katia were invited to court. The proceedings were behind doors. And he was only brought out [into] the courtroom to hear the verdict. There was no one in court -- just the judge, Vlad, a couple of police guys, court secretary and us. It took altogether about 15 minutes. The judge read the verdict and let him off the hook.
The feeling I got from my first meeting with this judge [was] that the judge is firmly on the side of Vlad, because he kept telling me: "Why do you want to crucify this guy? The girls go to Turkey willingly. Why do you think he's more guilty than the others?" He was trying to kind of downplay Vlad's crime. He was very unhappy when we showed up in the courtroom, but there was nothing he could do about it.
How do you explain his attitude?
I can't say that he was paid, but Viorel's feeling is that the judge had been bought off. It's very hard to tell, but it's very hard to explain in this case why Vlad got such an unusually light sentence.
From what you know of the bigger picture, is what happened with Vlad typical of how cases like this are treated by the legal system in Ukraine and [similar] countries?
My understanding is that it's very difficult to prosecute traffickers in Ukraine. In fact, we followed another case prior to that, and it went on and on and on and resulted in nothing. My understanding is the rate of prosecution of trafficking cases in Ukraine is very small. When I finally asked NGO [non-governmental organization] people and the police, "How do you assess this situation with Vlad?," they treated that as a success because they felt that at least he was convicted. Even though he got a suspended sentence, he was convicted.
Was there anything in the interview that he didn't want to talk about?
Vlad didn't want to talk about all sorts of things. I was trying to grill him about his hearings, who was interrogating him, who was the investigator. He was a careful guy. I was trying to figure out whether he was working alone or as part of a chain. He answered none of these questions and basically told me that he was just this guy who was out of work trying to make a buck, and he basically sold Katia because he was so desperate.
What was Vlad's relationship with Katia? Did he really actively recruit her? What do you think Vlad felt about selling her?
Vlad comes from the same small town as Katia. It's a very small place, so lots of people know each other. I understand that Vlad was not a friend of Katia or Viorel, but was kind of loosely acquainted to them. I understand that at some point he was renting a room from one of their friends, so Vlad knew Katia, but they were not friends; they were acquaintances.
Vlad comes across as a very likable guy. It wouldn't surprise me that he would persuade Viorel or Katia that he would come with them to Turkey to help them to buy goods and to be their translator. There's nothing really suspicious about him when you meet him, so that part doesn't really surprise me.
What was your feeling when you left Viorel and Katia about where their stories are headed?
The story I don't think is headed in a very particularly optimistic, bright future. I think Katia is still out of work. She went back, and she lives with her mother. Viorel could not find a job. He is from Odessa. He basically went to live with Katia and her mother in Moldova, but because he couldn't find a job there had to go back to Odessa to find a job, and he found a job as a bartender. But he doesn't have an apartment in Odessa, so he couldn't bring Katia along with him. So they're apart, and I don't think the future is pretty bright for them.
How did you feel after this long chase of looking for Katia? And when you finally met her, how did she seem to you?
We knew very little about Katia, but through Viorel, her mother and through her friend, we knew that Katia was a kind of outgoing, cheerful type of character, and she was an easygoing person. When we met Katia, she came across as very gloomy, very cynical, almost like a dead person with nothing left inside. So my understanding [is that] it was a very different Katia from the one that left Moldova a few months earlier.
This NGO that you started with, what would they do for a woman like Katia, who comes back so damaged?
They try to help girls. In many cases, they're quite effective. For example, another character in our film, Tania, they're helping her quite a lot, and she's taking courses and trying to learn how to use computers. She was learning sewing. In the case of Katia, I'm not sure if it was effective. Katia was offered help, but I think she turned it down because she didn't trust the NGO or because she lives so far away from it. In Katia's case, it was unsuccessful.
Those organizations trying to help these women after they escape from the sex trade, can they adequately help them put their lives back together?
It's a difficult question. I don't think they're very effective. I think they help women temporarily, in the immediate kind of way, but I don't think they really solve their long-term problems. There are very few cases where these girls became self-sufficient. They continue to be dependent, they continue to be out of work, and they get a certain amount of help, but I don't think it's overly successful. ...