Bulgarian-born photojournalist and director Mimi Chakarova was in Vancouver to promote her first documentary award winning "The Price of Sex” shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Price of Sex, a 10-year project of investigative journalism, exposes the dark world of sex trafficking and sex slavery of Eastern European women. After the collapse of communism, many young women in these regions left their homes under false promises of legitimate jobs, only to fall in the traps of sex slavery .

Through the film, Chakarova travels across Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Dubai, navigating undercover the sex trafficking hot spots, to denounce the crime and to give the victims voice.

The filmmaker migrated from Bulgaria to the United States  right after the collapse of communism. She started to pay attention to the stories in the mid-90s about women sold into sexual slavery, starting to come out not only in the U.S. but in Europe.

Mimi Chakarova. Photo courtesy of Mimi Chakarova.

“The initial idea was that I wanted to know more what had happened to these [Eastern European] girls and how to find them, and get their stories on camera as a photojournalist," Chakarova told the Vancouver Observer in an interview.

Reaching the victims was challenging, and it was even more challenging to get their faces on camera. Their trust in other people was broken, first being promised jobs as nannies or waitresses and later being forced to work as prostitutes. They were locked in dark rooms, naked, with no food and then gang raped. This is what is called the “breaking period".

The trafficker videotapes this rape and blackmails the girls, and telling them they’ll send the videos to their families if they tried to run away.

“The stigma in the countries where the girls come from, and the shame that they are living with, the fact that they cannot tell the truth often to their own families because they are going to be dishonoured (...), regardless whether you were sold like a slave. It doesn’t matter.”

Why does sex trafficking still exist?

Charakova says that the reason why sex trafficking exists is because there is so much complacency within governments and law enforcement, who know how the system works. Women who are supposedly rescued by police during raids are put in jail for few months before being deported. Pimps and traffickers can easily find and re-victimize them, causing a vicious circle that goes “on and on.”

“They are allowing for the system to work. Why? Because there is too much money [involved] and there are too much demand for something like this."

Is legalizing prostitution a solution?

Chakarova says even though prostitution is legal in Turkey, men still prefer the women from the red light district, the” illegal” ones. Men can find younger, more exotic women there,  condom-use is optional and it's "cheaper".

In countries like Netherlands, Germany and Australia, where prostitution is also legal, sex  trafficking is prevalent.

“Legalizing is not the proper way," she said. "Changing mentality is.” 

The audacious filmmaker has met and earned the trust of many people: victims, law enforcement, activists, but it took a long time.

“You need to find enough frustrated people who say ‘enough [is enough], I am going to say something about it.’ That is the beginning of change, in my opinion.”

It’s also important to see the survivors telling their own stories, Chakarova notes. As once the public get to know their stories, they start becoming outraged hearing their ordeals.

“What's different here is you get to see women tell their own stories, and you get to see it on camera and get to know them. The moment you start 'having empathy for them as a human being, you start thinking, 'What can I do? How is that possible?’ You become outraged and (…) you start asking those questions. The thing that it's viral if one person is talking to the next person.”

 “I think through history we have been able to see that it is possible to change perception,” Chakarova continues, “If the men who are purchasing (sex from) these women start thinking about the fact that this is not just a woman that you enter a room have sex for 20 minutes with, pay a pimp and just leave.”

"If you can enter their consciousness to the level where they start thinking about who these girls are, what their history is, whether if they are there by choice or are they forced... [That’s]a question that very few men are asking themselves.”

Chakarova supports projects that help to save and rehabilitate trafficked women.  However, she emphasizes that is only “scratching the surface” and that prevention is even more important. She acknowledges that the solution is more complicated as it involves dialogue between many parties, and that it's difficult because “women have never been a priority."

“They go for women who are invisible who we as a society we don't recognize them , they are the poorest of the poor. They are the most vulnerable,” she explained.

Lastly, The Price of Sex would not be the only film Chakarova will make on the subject.

“All I can tell you right now, the next film that I'd make would be everything The Price of Sex is not.”

The Price of Sex will be screening on Wednesday, October 12 at the Pacific Cinemateque.