The Price of Sex (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Dennis West and Joan M. West

The Price of Sex presents portraits of Eastern bloc women, ensnared in the post-Soviet sex trade

The Price of Sex presents portraits of Eastern bloc women, ensnared in the post-Soviet sex trade

Written, Directed and Produced by Mimi Chakarova Edited by Stephanie Challberg; Photographed by Adam Keker;Music by Christopher Hedge; Executive Produced by Stephen Talbot; supported by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Color, 72 min. priceofsex.org.

In her moving and informative The Price of Sex, Mimi Chakarova picks up with documentary force where The Whistleblower leaves off. Chakarova is an award winning investigative photojournalist and a skilled still photographer. Born in Bulgaria into modest socioeconomic circumstances, shortly after the fall of Communism in 1989 she immigrated (age 13) to the United States with some of her family. Visiting her small rural hometown two years later, she was surprised to learn that many of her childhood playmates were no longer there—they had disappeared into thin air. Where had they gone? Seeking an answer to this question over the years brought her to a brutally distressing understanding: many Bulgarian and other Eastern European women of her generation and the following had fallen prey to international sex traffickers. So in 2003 Chakarova embarked on an ambitious photo-reportage project that would shed light on the dirty open secret of sex slavery and endeavor especially to break the silence and shamed anonymity that surround the few women who manage to escape their captivity and return home. Her website (www.priceofsex.org) reveals just how her investigations and photographic skills culminated in this documentary feature after she had previously completed several other mixed media, educational videos and other artistic projects dealing with this urgent topic.

Chakarova’s own origins undoubtedly led her to focus on women trafficked internationally from Eastern Europe. Four appear in The Price of Sex; and their spoken narratives, along with Chakarova’s own personally committed investigative journey, form the film’s basic structure. Many visits and hours of conversation were required on the filmmaker’s part to gain the trust of these victims to the point that they would agree to speak on camera about such intimately personal and often humiliating matters. Their riveting accounts implicate deceptive recruiters, greedy pimps and madams, and corrupt police and officials. The specific information revealed concerns the ages and numbers of clients; why and how trafficked women are repeatedly sold; the primitive living conditions of such sex workers; the fabricated debt foisted onto captive victims to pay their keep and “earn their freedom;” deportation; and health issues involving birth control, pregnancy, and AIDS. These disturbing accounts serve doubly: we come to regard the women as individual human beings struggling or reconciling with their past and facing an uncertain future, and we receive specific information from the victim’s point of view that we can apply to a global understanding of the problem.

Much screen time is devoted to Chakarova’s on-site investigative journey in the source countries Bulgaria and Moldova, as well as the destination countries Greece, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. In the source nations, the filmmaker encounters depopulated, shabby, down-and-out towns; amidst the geese and goats in the lonely countryside occasional elderly residents do appear—and one or two do not hesitate to flaunt their hard-hearted lack of interest in just where so many of their country’s young people have gone. In Moldova’s capital, a clearing house for exporting women, Chakarova visits a hard working NGO, La Strada, dedicated to assisting the victims of trafficking. The director of this organization succinctly and precisely spells out the deep-rooted socioeconomic causes of the trafficking phenomenon in her country: the huge gap between rich and poor, high levels of corruption, and unequal access to justice. The director convincingly contends that while the work of La Strada does at least temporarily aid many victims in Moldova, trafficking will nevertheless persist unless these root causes are addressed.

A particularly dramatic aspect of The Price of Sex is Chakarova’s personal journey into the destination countries, where most officials, victims, and traffickers are unwilling to speak on camera and where in many places the camera’s presence is strictly forbidden. Before leaving, we see the filmmaker/protagonist—just as in many commercial fiction features involving a dangerous trip—preparing herself both psychologically (the conversations with a friend retired from the FBI) and physically (the work-outs in the boxing ring). Then, on location in Istanbul, Athens, and Dubai, we follow the extraordinary efforts the committed Chakarova dangerously undertakes in order to converse meaningfully with the worst of the worst amongst the traffickers themselves, or to go undercover as an apparent prostitute herself and use a hidden camera to record actuality footage in the shady milieus where trafficking and savage capitalism in general flourish, where one AK-47, one kilo of cocaine, and one Moldovan girl are all the same: commodities to be bought and sold.

Peruse the La Strada website (lastradainternational.org), which reveals, for instance, that “In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are signs that trafficking has increased and is shifting. There is a great deal of internal trafficking, and trafficking into BiH of foreign women from high risk countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Romania) has increased, and international sex trafficking persists as a serious problem in Eastern Europe.” And see Chakarova’s well crafted The Price of Sex for yourself in order to learn more about these repugnant criminal activities as well as the unsettling outcome of the documentarian’s risky infiltration of notoriously off-limits enclaves, such as Istanbul’s Aksaray red-light district.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.

Joan M. West is a Professor Emerita (University of Idaho).

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.