NEAL CONAN, host: On November 9th, 1989 ecstatic crowds on both sides of the Berlin Wall began to rip down the concrete slabs that imprisoned Eastern Europe. In a single moment, millions of people were set free and a wave of liberation would spread all the way to Moscow. It was an extraordinary moment. In some places, though, the collapse of communism lead to social chaos, corruption, lawlessness, deep poverty. The dark side of the new world order included hundreds of thousands of East European women who disappeared into the modern slave trade.
The true numbers are unknown. The UN though estimates one and a half million duped, sold, raped, prostituted. Today we conclude our series on films shown at the American Film Institutes Silver Docs Film Festival with a searing new film that opens up this hidden world, "The Price of Sex." Director Mimi Chakarova is an award winning photo journalist and a faculty member at the University of California Berkley Graduate School of Journalism and she joins us here in studio 3A and thanks for coming in and congratulations on the film.
MIMI CHAKAROVA: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And it's interesting in a way the stories that the women you tell - well that could have been your story too.
CHAKAROVA: It could have been my story. We came from the same place. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria, and during Communism. And we breathe in the same air, we were surrounded by the same conditions and we were on the same road. And after Communism collapsed, some of us immigrated to countries and were able to have legitimate jobs, and other women fell through the cracks of migration.
CONAN: You revisit the town in which you grew up and it looks like a bomb hit it?
CHAKAROVA: It does.
CONAN: There's no one left.
CHAKAROVA: The elderly are left.
CONAN: And they had - they were most interesting to hear from, because they seemed to have very little interest in where their children had gone.
CHAKAROVA: Well, you have to keep in mind that during communism, we had a very strange perception of the West. We lived in a bubble. We couldn't imagine that such things could happen to people. And I know it sounds terribly naive, but keep in mind the system that we lived under. There was not a lot of access to information and we were released into this jungle after the collapse of communism.
CONAN: And at one point you interview a group of village girls and they seem to know that women like them have been victims of predators, yet they also seem very trusting.
CHAKAROVA: They're very trusting because what is the alternative? To work in the fields? There are no jobs.
CONAN: You follow some of these women to - well, the places that women from Eastern Europe, from your country and from Moldova, and other places like that end up - a lot of them - is Turkey.
CONAN: And it's not to say the sex trade is confined just to Turkey. Another place you go to is Dubai. There's plenty of it in other parts of the world, too, but that's where you follow the stories that come to your attention?
CHAKAROVA: As well as Greece.
CONAN: And the situation of these girls is extraordinary. They tell stories of being offered jobs as a waitress, or as a room cleaner in a hotel or something like that. And there's an extraordinary woman you meet, who's on at the beginning and the end of your film, who berates herself for her naivete.
CHAKAROVA: Yes, her name is Vika and she was trafficked to Dubai.
CONAN: How did you find her?
CHAKAROVA: I found her through a shelter in Moldova, in the capital of Moldova, which is Chisinau. And I knew a woman that she was sharing a room with, who said to me, you should meet Vika, you should her story. And when I met Vika, which was in 2004, she came to me and she said in Russian, you know, you should hear what I've been through. And when I met Vika, which was in 2004, she came to me and she said in Russian, you know, you should hear what I've been through, and you should pay me $125 for my story. And I said to her, look, there are a lot of women who have been through terrible things, and I don't pay for interviews. And I started walking away from her. She stopped me. She grabbed my shoulder and she said, you better sit down and listen. That was the last time we spoke about money.
CONAN: Hmm. She has made something of herself, but her - something terrible has been taken from her.
CHAKAROVA: She has been broken, as many of these women are. You have to keep in mind what they endure after they're trafficked. If you're propositioned a legitimate job and you think you're going to be a waitress or a faculty worker in some other country, some of these women think they're going to Moscow and end up in Istanbul. They don't even know the location of their trafficking. They end up in a country where they don't speak a language. They get to the airport and they see an exchange of money.
And when they're taken into an apartment, they realized that the job which they thought that they would have doesn't exist. That, in fact, it's sex slavery that they've just been sold into for $500 - $1,000, whatever their price is.
CONAN: And then they are obliged to pay back that price and pay for their room and their board and, as you point out, even sometimes their showers.
CHAKAROVA: There is this ridiculous amount, which is a collection of all kinds of fees which the pimps are imposing on these women, from their cigarettes to whatever outfits that the pimps are choosing for them, to showers, yeah.
CONAN: On your website, you have a clip from Martin Ruhs, the Moldovan representative to the International Organization for Migration. And he responds to the question, which you put to him, how can they be so naive?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
MARTIN RUHS: If you make about $15 a month and you have a sick mother and the father is dead, and your young brother has to go to school, and you're accumulating debts to pay for the treatment of your mother, someone has to do something. That's why people sell their kidneys. And it's very difficult. And any simplification doesn't do it justice. It's an insult to the person.
CONAN: Is he saying they don't know what they're getting into, or is he saying that the desperation of their situation, their poverty, makes any offer, well, too good to turn down?
CHAKAROVA: He's saying both, because I think it's naive for us to think that everyone who is trafficked was unaware of the existence of prostitution and forced prostitution. There are women who know that the place that they're going to, this is what they would be.
The women in the film that you see in "The Price of Sex" were young girls who had no idea that they will be sold into this. They were signing up for different types of jobs like I mentioned, waitressing, nanny jobs and, you know...
CONAN: Factory workers.
CHAKAROVA: ...factory workers. So the level of desperation - and you've seen the film. You see the conditions in which these women live and come from. The desperation is so huge that there is this incredible response which I have been getting from every single woman I have interviewed, which is: come on, this has been going on 20 years. There has been huge campaigns throughout the region. This is not news.
CONAN: People know.
CHAKAROVA: People know. It's on the radio. It's in the bus stops, in the buses that you take. You know, what were you thinking? You knew about this. And the response is, I knew, but I didn't think it would happen to me. I thought I would be lucky enough not to fall into this.
And the other thing which people should keep in mind is that there are legitimate jobs out there. There are people like me that immigrated to other countries, and we did not fall into sex slavery. There's a huge percentage of this people who are sending remittances to their countries of origin, who are taking care of their grandparents or relatives, and those people do exist. So it's very difficult to differentiate between, well, what is real, what is legitimate, and what is fake? Who do you trust? And you could come from a village - what resources do you have? Are your parents going to call a lawyer to check and make sure that the person offering you a job is legitimate?
Thinks about this, if I should up - I come from Bulgaria - and I show up to the village where I'm from and I'm dressed well, and I have nice jewelry, and I pull up in a Benz and I say to someone who knows my grandmother. Well, I have been in Turkey for the last 20 years and a friend of mine opened a restaurant. We're looking for young women to work as waitresses. Don't you think that those young girls would come with me, especially if I told them that I will arrange for their paperwork? I'll get your passports. All you need to do is just pack and come with me on Tuesday. Of course, you would.
CONAN: And the recruiters, as you just suggested, are often women.
CHAKAROVA: The percentage which was quoted - and, again, you always have to be skeptical about these percentages - but the percentage that's quoted is that 60 to 70 percent of traffickers are female, because a woman is more likely to trust another woman.
CONAN: We've been talking about women. Let's talk for a minute about the men, and they are the pimps and the johns, and for the most part, the police.
CHAKAROVA: That is the most alarming part.
CONAN: There is an extraordinary scene where you speak with two Turkish policemen, who sit with their backs to you, and describe, with glee, the number of - they described it - the number of Natashas with whom they've bought sex.
CONAN: And they describe trips where they go abroad for sex tourism. They'll go to places like Transnistria and Moldova because it's just tremendously exciting, and these are the people who are supposed to be enforcing the laws.
CHAKAROVA: Correct. Two things I would like to say about this. Think about the war in Yugoslavia in the '90s, and think about the U.N. and the U.N. personnel implicated in using a lot of these women - Americans included - purchasing women for a few hundred dollars as their own personal slaves. This story was exposed, but it doesn't mean that the area is clean. Not at all.
When you interview a woman - which is the reason I took it a step further and I wanted to expose on camera, that yes, these guys do exist; and, yes, they do this quite often. I would interview women and I would say to them, okay, you managed to escape that one time. What happened? You know, why didn't you escape? And she would say, I ran to the police station and I entered the police station - this is not only one woman, this is a story repeated throughout my eight years of working on this. I entered the police station and I recognized one of the clients. He was in uniform. A few days back, he was not wearing the uniform but I remember the face. And it's that guy that picks up the phone and calls the pimp to come and collect her.
CONAN: We're talking with Mimi Chakarova, director of a new documentary called "The Price of Sex," which is appearing - is showing this week at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
You also go to Dubai, as we mentioned earlier, and prostitution is legal in Turkey. It is not so, in Dubai. And there, the layers of hypocrisy just seem extraordinary.
CHAKAROVA: You're right.
CONAN: And there is even a human rights activist who seems to smile and shrug. Ah, well, boys will be boys.
CHAKAROVA: He doesn't say exactly, boys will be boys. He blames it on capitalism and he blames it on his government being afraid of exposing this or controlling it because it might affect foreign investment. And such a high percentage of the population in Dubai is foreign-born. There are a lot of British, a lot of American, Saudi men who work in Dubai. The proportion of men to women is three to one. And their work hours are very long and these is this persistent loneliness which people fill - men fill by purchasing the services of women. Some of these women are there willingly. They work as independent agents. They know that they're going to be prostitutes.
And then other - and another percentage of women were trafficked, were sold into this. And it gets even more complicated, because some of the women who were trafficked and sold against their will sometimes managed to escape or a client would help them escape. But a lot of them choose to remain in Dubai because what are they going to return to?
CONAN: And obviously, there's no future for them at their home villages. There's nothing - no work to do. There's also the stigma of having been a prostitute. People will know that. There's also an interesting point that one of them has made in the film and that is, after awhile women preferred to see themselves as being in business, rather than consider themselves as victims.
CHAKAROVA: They perceived themselves - their identity becomes the identity of a business woman, of a working woman rather than having the identity of a victim, yes.
CONAN: A painful corner to turn in your brain.
CHAKAROVA: A very painful corner but, again, I think we cannot think of this in black and white terms. We have to understand the complexities of the trafficking experience. And in order to this, you have to ask yourself what happens to a woman when she sold into the sex slavery market? She's broken down. There is a breakdown period which is known as a woman being raped, locked, starved, videotaped and so on. And at the end of that period, which can last from two weeks to a month, depending on the woman, what really is left of her and what is her identity?
CONAN: Hmm. You end, again, with this woman, Vika. She concludes, I was stupid to leave. And for what? The $500. How's she doing? What's she doing now, do you know?
CHAKAROVA: The last time I saw Vika was actually when I did the video interview that you see in the film. And it taken me four years to get her to agree to go on camera. I had photographed her, through still photography, but she did not want to go on camera. And at the end of the video interview, and the way I explained it to her was, if you talk about this - I've known you. I know your story. It will help other women break that silence as well. Do it for them.
CONAN: Mimi Chakarova is the director of the new documentary "The Price of Sex," featured at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival here in the Washington, D.C. area. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Good luck with the film.
CHAKAROVA: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at how the swaying of a hammock affects your brain and lulls you into a deeper sleep. We'll see you again on Tuesday from the Aspen Ideas Festival.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.