The opening of The Price of Sex hits you hard like a punch to the gut.
“What were the first words [of English you learned]?”
“How much? With or without [condoms]?”
If that weren’t enough, the statistic that 1.5million women are trapped in this living hell follows. That’s an estimate - the actual figure is almost certainly higher. The order of these exposures makes an important statement too. We’re presented with human tragedy before we hear the figures; so from the start we’re invited to see statistics as millions of individual horror stories, rather than simply cold impersonal calculations. Before, the tales behind the numbers largely went unheard. Mimi Chakarova’s film changes that.
Originally from Bulgaria (a major source of human trafficking) it’s perhaps easy to see why she was so willing to go beyond the call of duty for this project. She goes undercover on various occasions as a sex-worker - at great personal risk – to tell the human stories behind the statistics. Whilst Chakarova herself migrated to the USA to become a photojournalist after the fall of the USSR, she often wonders what might have happened if she stayed.
With prospects scarce in Bulgaria, Moldova (Europe’s most trafficked country) etc, young people have two choices, “become criminals or go abroad and risk being trafficked”. Bulgaria itself once had the highest percentage of women employed anywhere in the world. When the USSR crumbled however, many were forced to leave to earn money abroad, and it became easy for traffickers to lure women into the sex-trade with false promises of employment.
These economic disparities and institutional failures are recurring themes at this film’s core. Ana Revenco of La Strada, a call-centre that helps ‘one woman at a time’ – is keen to point out the futility of their struggle without wider changes. She says the key issue is an economic one: citizens of poor countries cannot afford the same access to justice we take for granted in wealthier nations. Unless this changes, Revenco asserts “all these hotlines will not solve the situation.”
Personally I find this uncompromising stance on the failure to tackle the economic inequality as admirable as Chakarova’s risky undercover work. Where many film-makers (perhaps with awards on their mind) might baulk at naming the free market as the cause of the poverty that empowers traffickers, she pulls no punches by showing the principles of supply and demand are as much culprits here as pimps themselves.
This gives her chosen conclusion; an interviewee saying, “Ask the next question” an added importance. When asked later why she chose this ending, Chakarova stated she intended to provoke a response from the audience, to stir them into action. In a time of deepening economic crisis, as millions world-wide descend into poverty, that action must extend beyond simple acts of charity, toward radical economic change – or traffickers will continue to prey on the desperation of Europe’s poor to line their pockets. In other words, the ‘next question’ is: What Is To Be Done?