Monday, 2 December 2013

When The Price of Sex Has Nothing To Do With Sex

The film:
The Price of Sex (2011)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Aside from DVD sales, it seems that the greatest exposure for this film has been through its showing at a number of festivals and being aired on The Documentary Channel.

The review:

I remember someone defining capitalism as the practice that gives you the right to sell...or be sold.

It's mildly reassuring that for the number of times that there has been an attempt in our Western society to glamorize prostitution there have also been efforts to call out the realities behind those facades. What is taking place under our noses here is bad enough; what has happened overseas is equally if not more brutal and has been captured in photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Mimi Chakarova's harrowing documentary The Price of Sex. I remember hearing in the film that the U.N. estimates that nearly a million and a half women have been coerced into sexual a conservative guess. From what you witness in this film, that equates to roughly a million and a half pained voices, screaming screams that few hear.

Seven years in the making, the documentary begins by Chakarova reminiscing about her Bulgarian childhood, while footage shows her as a little girl, playing with chickens (each had a name). She states that while there was poverty under communism, it was the kind that was shared equally (with women paid the same as men) and still allowed people, particularly females, to feel protected. Chakarova and her mother left for the United States in 1990 but she returns 20 years later, showing the ghost town of a community she left behind. While many like herself where able to freely go abroad and forge a better life, others were deceived into a existence of sexual slavery or, as the Bulgarians might say, a journey into the Mouth of the Wolf.

Women who were faceless and nameless for years speak out for the camera. They reveal the first English you learn is to ask "How much?". They explain how as naive teenagers they were assured they were wanted as waitresses in Dubai or as cleaning ladies in Turkey, only to be forced to perform sexual acts on arrival. The women recall how they were sold from one pimp to another and beaten into submission by each. How clients range in age from 12 to 83. How some women service 50 clients a day. How one girl tried to escape and fell three floors to the ground, rendering her a paraplegic but was still forced to continue servicing clients. The brutal details go on.

The post-Berlin Wall conditions in their villages help you understand why some would put their hopes - any hopes - in the world outside. Real jobs are almost extinct, with factory closures everywhere. Restaurants and other socially oriented buildings that once brimmed with life look like they have been bombed out. Many of the old folks who are still left are alcoholics. It's shocking how many of them seem indifferent to the plight of their daughters in foreign lands, with many of the girls stigmatized as prostitutes if they ever manage to return. It's even more shocking to find out many of the traffickers who sent them packing are themselves women.

The people fighting uphill battles against the sex trafficking trade are also heard but make it clear that they face massive police and political corruption in places like Turkey, U.A.E. and Greece. Chakarova takes her hidden video camera through areas like Istanbul's red light district showing the seedy hotels where the girls both live and work to pay off the so-called debts they owe their pimps. Eventually she travels into clubs posing as a prostitute at great risk to her well-being to reveal the underground scene the girls work in. The results of police raids are shown where it is the women, not the pimps, who are arrested. Many are then deported back to their native countries, ironically giving them their freedom - but it doesn't matter, as clients tire of the same faces and want new girls brought in anyway. The circle continues. As one person puts it, prostitution has nothing to do with sex - it has to do with power. Once a woman has been raped repeatedly in this way, she begins to see herself as a businesswoman, only because it's easier and less painful than to regard oneself as a victim. You get the picture and believe me, it's not a pretty one.

What becomes obvious as you watch The Price of Sex is that little can change for the better as long as the cycle of political, judicial and religious hypocrisy is allowed to continue in the areas these women are transported to. That's not to say that Southern Europe and the Middle East are isolated cases - they're just the ones concentrated on here by someone who knew where her childhood friends were sent.

No denying this film is difficult to sit through. The story recited by one of the women had me as close to bursting into tears as I've been in years. Still, the courage and even pride that you hear from some who have emerged from their ordeals is inspiring. They have survived - and yes, they have survived far from whole - to tell their stories; stories the rest of the world has to hear.

While it's true that Chakarova throws herself head-first into the participatory, non-objective mode of documentarian, she deserves nothing but praise for the courage she displays in bringing these matters out in the open. This is not a kind of center stage vanity project that so many filmmakers in the non-fiction field have been guilty of in recent years. Her calm determination is a great anchor that's needed amongst the swirl of tragic recounts given by the other women.   

As I said, there have been several attempts in the Western mindset to glamorize prostitution over time. The Price of Sex is the kind of cold shower needed to be seen by many with such a mindset. It's nice to have films you can escape with but sometimes you need movies to help you see the world for what it is, no matter how ugly it gets. Highly recommended.

(The DVD is available for purchase through the non-profit Women Make Movies organization. Information about the film and the accompanying multimedia series Chakarova has developed can be found at

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