In her 13 years as a member of the faculty of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Mimi Chakarova has reviewed numerous applications for admission. Vexed by encountering a recurring, earnest sentiment—“I want to give voice to the voiceless”—Chakarova would funnel her annoyance into a laser-focused mini-lecture to her students.
“People have a voice,” the award winning photojournalist-filmmaker would explain. “It’s just that they don’t have an outlet. So our job is to be messengers from one type of reality to another reality. That’s all. We’re just helping them carry whatever message they have to the appropriate audience. . . Your job is not to be an activist; your job is to be a journalist. You need to have the distance necessary.”
That clean, clear and crisply articulated philosophy served Chakarova until, gradually and persistently, she insinuated herself deeper and deeper into the nightmarish world of sex trafficking. Employing her still camera and then a video camera, she sought out Eastern European women who had been tricked and coerced into prostitution. Now that The Price of Sex is finished and beginning its tour of the festival circuit, Chakarova admits she did a 180 on the journalistic ideal of unemotional objectivity.
“Now I think it’s completely impossible,” the Berkeley filmmaker confided in a phone conversation last week. “You’ve gotten to sleep on their floors and eat their food and be in their communities year after year. It’s impossible for you to separate yourself and be a journalist and [say], ‘I cannot do anything about your condition.’ I think that’s a really weak escape of responsibility. If there is something you can do, you absolutely must. It’s not something you should even be questioning.”
Produced in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Price of Sex had its world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival. Women Make Movies has acquired the North American distribution rights ahead of June screenings in Silverdocs (outside Washington, DC) and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. At the latter fest, Chakarova will receive the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking, previously given to Bay Area filmmakers Barbara Sonnenborn (Regret to Inform) and Lourdes Portillo (Señorita Extraviada). An overflow crowd is expected tomorrow night at Sutardja Hall Auditorium on the UCB campus for a student-faculty-community screening hosted by the CIR.
Born and raised in a Bulgarian village on the Greek border, Chakarova came to the United States with her mother a year after the fall of communism. She was only 13, and in the ensuing years she was drawn to news stories about women from similar places, and from similar backgrounds as her, who’d been sold into slavery. Her interest in sex trafficking never waned, even as she pursued her BFA in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and a master’s in visual studies at U.C. Berkeley.
“It’s a dangerous story,” Chakarova says. “The mafia controls the women and there are high levels of corruption, which you’re used to if you’re from Eastern Europe. It took me about two years to get enough guts to go into the area and ask questions. I was warned, ‘You’re dealing with criminal elements.’”
Chakarova says that an estimated 19,000 Bulgarian women have been sold into prostitution against their will. Even more shocking is the figure of 200,000 women that Chakarova cites have been trafficked from the smaller (and poorer) country of Moldova.
“It’s easy to buy border patrol, or pay off people’s silence,” she explains. “Those who manage to escape are not going to press charges. This [project] started as photo-reportage in 2003 and for the next four years I kept returning. The biggest challenge was finding women who had survived, and getting women who had survived and escaped to open up and tell me what happened, which took a really long time. And, finally, to pull out a camera and take their picture.”
One of the heinous practices employed by pimps and brothel owners is to film the women having sex with multiple men. Then the tape is held over their heads as a threat: If they run away, it will be sent to their families.
“Women associate videography as well as still photography with their trafficking experience,” Chakarova says. “I couldn’t use my tool, and I had to revert to pen and paper for pretty much the first couple years. I was reporting and photography was an afterthought.”
Chakarova went undercover in 2008 to expose prostitution for the Emmy-nominated Frontline World piece, “Dubai: Night Secrets.” The following year, she initiated an online series of interviews, “The Price of Sex: Women Speak.” [www.priceofsex.org] The new 73-minute documentary represents the culmination of Chakarova’s lengthy, immersive commitment to her subjects, which has occasionally included personally delivering money so a woman could get treatment for a health-related problem.
Despite her subject matter, and the amount of time she’s devoted to it, Chakarova doesn’t evince a bit of the self-seriousness, self-righteousness or self-importance that can burden some social-issue filmmakers (documentary or narrative, it must be said). Asked if she’d be willing to trim The Price of Sex to accommodate a TV hour, where it would be seen by the largest possible audience, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Very few docs can sustain more than hour,” she replies. “Hoop Dreams, yes. After about an hour, especially on a heavy subject like this, you start losing people. You are crushing people. You are crushing them with information. I would love the challenge of, ‘This needs to be 56 minutes. What can you lose?’”
Chakarova says she’s taking a semester or two off from U.C. Berkeley to travel with the film, and then she’ll be ready to take on a new subject. It’s not so much that she’s burned out on sex trafficking but that she thinks going forward the issue is best served by a filmmaker with fresh eyes.
While there are filmmakers who feel compelled to stay on message with the press and public and keep the focus on the injustice they’ve exposed, Chakarova welcomes a discussion of documentary process and ethics. The fraught question of when journalism becomes activism isn’t explicitly addressed in The Price of Sex, but Chakarova has grappled with it fully and honestly.
“It’s not in the film and I don’t think we need to make it a part of the film,” she says, before eagerly declaring where she stands. “If you can somehow assist another human being, whether this human being is a subject in your film or not, it’s your obligation as a human being to help.”
The Price of Sex takes place Tuesday, April 12, at the University of California at Berkeley. More at priceofsex.org/screenings.
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