Monday, September 19, 2005

Undercover in the sex trade

Monday, September 19, 2005 Updated at 12:48 AM EDT
Globe and Mail Update
Globe and Mail

Film projects often begin in very strange ways. For example, when the explosive subject of sex trafficking first lurched into her rangefinder three years ago, director Ric Esther Bienstock was in rural China shooting a documentary about Oriental magic with Penn and Teller. The crew was looking for a hotel and found a place that, as she recalls, “looked like a new Holiday Inn. It had a disco and in it, there was this sea of Chinese and Russian women.”

It was immediately clear that the women were prostitutes and that the hotel was essentially a brothel. But the idea of sexual servitude did not register until her co-producer, Russian-born Felix Golubev, invited a few of the Russian women to have a chat.

“They told us they'd been duped into coming to China by a Russian-speaking Chinese pimp, that they were regularly beaten up, raped, and moved from hotel to hotel and forced to have sex,” says Bienstock, whose previous films ( Impact of Terror, Ebola: Inside an Outbreak and Plague Monkeys) have earned two Geminis, a Genie and two gold Hugos at the Chicago Film Festival.

But the full enormity of the situation was only clear a week later when the crew returned to the hotel from a location shoot and found all of the women had disappeared ­ probably sold to another pimp in another city.


The end result of that first encounter ­ Bienstock's compelling 90-minute documentary Sex Slaves ­ airs on CBC Television Monday at 8 EDT. (It has also been sold to Britain's Channel 4 and PBS's Frontline.) And the story of its production, an exhausting three-year marathon involving undercover filming, is almost worthy of its own documentary.

When she returned from China, Bienstock screened a series of other documentaries on the same subject and pitched a proposal on sex trafficking to Associated Producers chieftain Simcha Jacobovici.

“The original pitch was a little vague and all-encompassing,” Bienstock says. “It needed a sharper focus. But the other films were all the same. They had women telling their stories, but there was no context, no big picture. I wanted to make something different, something that would explore how the system works, the business of trafficking, how they recruit women.”

In the end, she and Golubev chose to concentrate their attention on Eastern Europe, specifically Moldova, one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. They made three trips there, and also shot in Ukraine, Turkey and London.

Although most women involved in sex trafficking come from Ukraine, Bienstock calls Moldova “the poster child for trafficked women. It's absolutely poverty-stricken. In the villages, alcoholism is rampant.” There, desperate young girls are routinely lured from home by the promise of jobs in the hotel and restaurant industries abroad. Indeed, conditions are so appalling that one young woman in the film applies for “a hotel job” even after her own sister returns from Turkey HIV positive, with horror stories of the treatment she received there.

A lucky few do end up in hospitality jobs, but many are sold into sexual slavery. As the documentary explains, they typically make their way first to the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, a major magnet for organized-crime syndicates shipping drugs, women and arms .

There, a network of handlers and pimps arrange their transport to Istanbul, abetted in both countries by police that are bribed. In Turkey, the women are hidden and put to work as sex workers, enduring regular beatings and other humiliations. As many as 22 women may be crowded into a three-bedroom apartment and each forced to service eight to 15 customers a day.

Though occasional busts are reported, the police largely turn a blind eye. In one scene, we watch a middle-aged woman effectively sell a group of women into bondage in open view of Turkish port police. The scene was filmed using clandestine cameras, hidden in shirts and handbags.

“We tried to get legitimate film permits and were rejected. I was flabbergasted, because Turkey wants to become a member of the EU [European Union] and they say the right things. But there's lots of corruption there... The organizations, even the NGOs, can't help that much. The only way to get the real story was to go undercover.”

The central scaffolding of the documentary ­ made for just under $1-million ­ is the story of Vierel, a young Moldovan whose pregnant wife, Katia, is sold into slavery. Desperate to get her back, he flies to Turkey and, posing as another trafficker, seeks to make contact with Abbo, a pimp whose stable of prostitutes includes Katia.

But Vierel's saga threatened to put Bienstock in a potentially compromising position. At one point, Vierel wanted to use footage of him meeting with Abbo's wife to pressure the pimp to release Katia. The risk was that the tactic would backfire ­ that Katia would be beaten or worse, and that the film production would have been the cause. “I wanted to help him save his wife,” Bienstock says, “but I didn't want to endanger her life or the crew's life.”

Another ethical question was what to do with the undercover footage of illegal activities. “But we were concerned about the Turkish police. We dubbed our tapes and put them in a safe. People told us we'd be crazy to risk our footage, because there was a good chance they would confiscate it. You don't know who's on the take.”

In the end, Bienstock turned her information over to the Ukrainian police. The trafficker who sold Vierel's wife was arrested, but the judicial dénouement of the case proves hugely disappointing.

Bienstock says that poverty and corruption are the root causes of sex trafficking, said to be a billion-dollar business. “Yes, if the immigration policies were more liberal, the traffickers would lose some of their clout. But you only need to spend a few weeks in the villages of Moldova and the Ukraine to see how vulnerable these women are.”

Now Bienstock wants to decompress and spend some time with her husband, TV director Richard Mortimer, and their two kids. After that, she might turn her attention to another doc ­ perhaps on a related subject. “Many of these women, if and when they get home, are HIV positive,” she notes. “So because of sex trafficking, AIDS rates in Eastern Europe are absolutely soaring.”