Sunday, June 19, 2011

HRWFF ’11: The Price of Sex

Istanbul might be a beautiful city, but the women living in the Aksaray neighborhood would not know. That is because it is a red light district and most of the prostitutes there are slaves, confined to seedy sex clubs and prison-like quarters. Crusading photojournalist Mimi Chakarova tells the stories of the voiceless women trafficked into sexual slavery in The Price of Sex, which screens during the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

There is no question, sex trafficking is a problem in Western Europe and the Americas. However, when Chakarova wanted to investigate ground zero for sex slavery, she took her hidden cameras to Istanbul’s Aksaray and Dubai, two cities which obviously have absolutely nothing in common, right?

Chakarova briefly acknowledges the hypocrisy of Muslim communities rather openly indulging in the fruits of sex slavery. Evidently, in Turkey, pre-marital sex is illegal but prostitution is not. There would seem to be an inherent contradiction there, but the crooked cops doggedly look the other way. While conditions might be slightly better in go-go Dubai, the fundamental realities remain the same. Demand for Eastern European women is also quite high in both “markets,” reflecting a “Natasha” fetish amongst the clientele. Indeed, the frequency with which Eastern European women are targeted by trafficking rings hit close to home for the naturalized Bulgarian-American Chakarova.

While Chakarova does not serve the material particularly well when injecting her own relatively undramatic family history into the film, her intrepid undercover work posing as an Eastern European prostitute in Aksaray earns her a pass. She also scores serious documentary filmmaking street cred for her on-camera interview with two Aksaray brothel customers, who also happened to be cops. Having her cameras stolen from her Dubai hotel room pretty much represents the hat-trick for the filmmaker.

Still, Chakarova is far more effective exposing the brutality and corruption of the trafficking system, than analyzing root causes. She clearly blames the fall of Communism for leaving Eastern European women vulnerable to traffickers’ false promises. Yet, Moldova and particularly Belarus, two of the prime suppliers of enslaved women, are hardly bastions of capitalism and individual rights—quite the opposite, in fact.

There is nothing sexy about Price, but what it documents is obscene. Though addressing painful subjects, Chakarova is a sensitive yet probing interviewer. She also wisely resists falling back on feminist “man-bashing,” trenchantly pointing out the recruiters are nearly always women. It is a worthy documentary, which actually addresses human rights, making it one of a handful of recommended selections at this year’s HRWFF. Price screens this coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (6/24-6/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.