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Photo by Bryan Shih Mimi Chakarova, writer/director/producer of "The... ( Photo by Bryan Shih )
The cost of sex? When you're talking about trafficking, the cost can be incalculably catastrophic, in terms of human suffering. That's revealed wrenchingly in filmmaker Mimi Chakarova's riveting documentary, "The Price of Sex."
The investigative film will be screened and discussed at Kepler's in Menlo Park on Saturday. It focuses on devastated Eastern European women who have survived sex slavery. The young women, barely existing in desperate, post-communism poverty, are deceived, whisked way to locales such as Dubai, and trapped in nightmarish circumstances. They vanish into an unspeakable world of sexual abuse.
Photojournalist Chakarova, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, is originally from Bulgaria. She relates closely to these victimized women.
"I grew up in a similar village, so I'm constantly thinking, 'Wait a second, if this were me as a teenager, and I were faced with having to work in the field and my mom has lost her fingernails working in the fields, because of the harsh winter conditions, and my father is an alcoholic, and my little sister doesn't have school supplies, what would I do? And there is not a single moment where I'm thinking, 'Oh, I would be smarter than to trust someone.'
"Someone you knew, a friend of a relative, comes to your village and says, 'Listen, someone opened a restaurant in Turkey and they need waitresses and you can make 500 U.S. dollars a month,' when at home, you're receiving $60 a month for


your whole family in social services. Of course you would go ... without a doubt."
Initially, Chakarova didn't realize how difficult it would be to capture images of her physically and emotionally shattered subjects. "Most of the women who were trafficked, associate the camera, whether it's video or a still camera, with their trafficking experience, because, often, when the pimps are breaking them in, they use such devices to record them being gang-raped, being tortured, and they use the tapes or still images as evidence, so they can keep them in check. They would say, 'If you ever try to run away, we'll send this to your family, back in your village.'
"I realized I would have to spend a big chunk of my time establishing trust, before I could even pull out a camera. So, someone like Vika, who is one of the central characters, it took four years before she agreed to go on camera."
Eventually the women trusted the compassionate Chakarova enough to bare their souls on camera. "Often, they would give me details of their trafficking that were so grotesque and also incredibly personal and I would look at them and say, 'Why are you telling me this, giving me such intimate details of what happened to you?' And the answer was consistently the same -- 'I have no one else to tell. And I feel like telling you, because of your job, and also because of the way you listen, because you are not judging me.'
"In a lot of the villages and small towns where I was reporting, these young women had not told the truth to their families, because of the stigma of having been a prostitute. Even if you were forced, even if you were sold into sexual slavery, a lot of the family members would disown a girl like this, or they would treat her terribly. So it's the cultural aspect, that was another reason for making the film. I felt like we needed to really attack the stigma, in that region, in particular."
Even those who escape from sex slavery don't escape from the fear. They know they could be caught by their pimps and murdered or resold.
"It's very easy for traffickers to find women who can easily disappear," Chakarova said, "women whose families are not going to have the resources to hire lawyers or detectives to find them. So they just go on missing, year after year, and no one really knows whether they're alive or dead."
These crimes against humanity are perpetrated globally, with the complicity of many politicians and law enforcement agents. Hypocrisy runs rampant. Chakarova's film is a step toward remedying the situation. The U.S. State Department is now using it to train its employees.
Those who view Chakarova's haunting film and absorb more information through the post-screening Q&A may feel compelled to help. The website,, offers links to many human rights organizations fighting human trafficking.
For her extraordinary work, spending seven years on "The Price of Sex," Chakarova, 34, received the Human Rights Watch Festival's Nestro Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking. Risking her own safety, she had dared to go undercover, interviewing violent pimps.
"I didn't say this on stage, but I felt like I should be getting an award for anger, not for courage, because I feel so frustrated by this. I kept returning again and again, even times when I promised myself, 'This is my last trip. I cannot go back to these places,' because I was exposing myself more and more, especially when shooting with hidden cameras. But I felt like 'No, I need to go back one more time, to see if I can film some of these people.' I have no other weapon but my camera and my ability to report on something like this.
"You feel like you have no choice. Time and time again, family and loved ones tell me, 'Let someone else do it.' But who else would want to do it?"
Chakarova's deeply moving, disturbing film is drawing fervent response. "It's remarkable. That is a sign to me that people really do care. People are not as detached and disinterested and desensitized as we like to think they are."
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Filmmaker appearance
What: "The Price of Sex" screening and conversation with filmmaker Mimi Chakarova
Where: Kepler's Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Admission: Free;             650-324-4321