Human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings that includes forced prostitution and labor, affects between 12 to 27 million people globally.
Filmmaker Robert Bilheimer tackles this issue in his new film, ”Not My Life,” narrated by Ashley Judd, about the families and children who are personally affected by this modern-day slavery.
This documentary is the second in a series that focuses on the director’s vision of “the way the world is,” following the critically reviewed “A Closer Walk,” which explores the global AIDS epidemic.
Susan Bissel, chief of the Child Protection Section for UNICEF, said, “‘Not My Life’ takes a close look at the underlying causality that so many other filmmakers have missed … [and] it will change the way we see our lives, in some very fundamental ways.”
I recently caught up with Bilheimer to discuss his latest documentary and the global pandemic of slavery.
Dreux Dougall: When you first set out to make this film, were you aware of how pervasive modern day slavery was?
Robert Bilheimer: No, I was not.
Dougall: When many when people think of slavery, they often think of the Middle Passage and the antebellum South. Can you discuss some of the different types of slavery that exist in our world today?
Bilheimer: I think slavery is a loaded term, and it means many different things to many different people all over the world. I think that one of the problems with this epidemic that we’re facing is that we don’t even have language to properly speak about this. It’s also called human trafficking. What we do at the beginning of the film is we say human trafficking is slavery and we combine these two things.
I think that most of the people that are experts in this, really know about this issue, and are trying to get a movement started, do believe that whether it’s the sexual trafficking and mistreatment of young girls or massive widespread labor issues involving children that it has many manifestations. We’re dealing with an absolutely unprecedented expression and manifestation of the abuse and robbing of essential freedoms on a human basis. I think most people will tell you that it’s probably the worst in the history of civilization.
Dougall: Can you describe the condition of the enslaved children that you encountered?
Bilheimer: These children suffer physical abuse. Often the girls who are sexually trafficked are psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives. For many of them though it’s quite astonishing that they can reclaim their lives, and ironically the younger they are, the easier it is.
Dougall: Can you talk about their transformation after they are liberated or rescued? What do you see that’s different?
Bilheimer: Well, if you look at some of the work of the women in the film, like the work of the Somaly Mam Foundation. The astonishing work that she does is to really help these girls reclaim their lives. If you look at the part of the film with the girls standing in the doorway, these are girls that are on their way to becoming teachers and writers. In many ways they’re our greatest hope because it’s an astonishing sort of resilience of the human spirit that otherwise I think we’d all have to give up in horror. This [kind of] evil and cruelty is so unprecedented and so widespread. You know, I’ve been working on human rights for a very long time as a filmmaker. We made a film that got an Oscar nomination about apartheid in South Africa ["Cry of Reason"], but I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen doing this in the past four years.
Dougall: I was reading that there are more modern slaves today then during the slave trade and more human traffickers than ever before. What do you think are some of the factors that contributed to this increase in slavery?
Bilheimer: It’s a combination of things. Certainly one has to look to governments who often, in many cases, are knowledgeable about these kinds of things, but you’ll find in sexual trafficking cases, and labor cases even, that governments are simply not enforcing petitions or anti-child labor laws. There is an enormous amount of neglect at the governmental level. And then this wicked combination of, on the one hand, the crime aspect of this but also the fact that traffickers have radar for vulnerable people.
The vast majority of the world’s populations are poor; mothers don’t have enough money to feed four or five children. So traffickers know these people and they’re civilians and they say, “Give me your daughter, I’ll give her an education and some money for you.” It’s a global scam that we wound up finding.
The language is the same. The tricks are the same; the amount of money is often the same whether you’re in Africa or India. So it’s actually small-time crimes that are very, very profitable. These traffickers are lazy and just looking to make a buck.
Dougall: A staggering thing that I learned watching this documentary is that we have higher sentences for trafficking drugs than trafficking human beings.
Dougall: And yet, in the film, we see Efrain Ortiz, a human trafficker, being sentenced to 95 years in prison in Guatemala. Why was this such a game changer?
Bilheimer: [Normally], these guys get off so easy. We interviewed a trafficker or two; they’re off and on the streets now. So the punishment is by no means in many places around the world consistent with the severity of the crime. And furthermore, if you look at some of the police, like in Guatemala City, they simply haven’t got the resources to go after these types of people. When we filmed the arrest [of Ortiz], the police came with the international justice mission in cars that we rented! In the United States we have to realize that in 99 percent of the gender-based violence crimes committed against young girls for sexual trafficking aren’t punished at all!
Dougall: People tend to think of human trafficking as something that happens “over there,” but it’s a problem here at home as well. What can Americans do to put an end to human trafficking?
Bilheimer: There’s a hotline now that people can call that’s run by the Polaris Project. And you know, our role as filmmakers is we don’t see ourselves as the movement, we see ourselves as providing the tools for the movement. In this country Polaris Projects is right up front. They have a hotline; it is the national hotline with funding form the government. So there is stuff that can be done. This is why we pay for film, because NGOs are out there doing this, but they are understaffed, undersupported, and many people don’t have a clue about this. That’s why we made “Not My Life” — because we wanted to get some very basic information out there about the entirety of the issue.