If you haven't seen The Price of Sex - Women Speak by Brooklyn photographer Mimi Chakarova- please do. It's a heart-wrenching, deeply disturbing film about young women forced into the underground sex trade. I've met Mimi at the Frontline Club in London, and this is what she told me about the making of the film.
Chakarova first met Vika - the protagonist - in a secret shelter for trafficked women in Moldova. One of many victims of trafficking, Vika had left her village in the countryside for a job offer in Dubai - only to find herself forced into the sex trade.
As Mimi began to spend time around Vika and the other women in the shelter, she tells me that she slowly gained their trust. "Then I moved from photography into film - the moving image - to capture what the women were telling me," she says: "their gestures, their eyes, the way they looked at me".
In order to make the film, Mimi travelled from Eastern Europe to Greece, Turkey and Dubai - following the threads of their journeys into modern day sexual slavery. Posing at times as a prostitute during undercover filming, Mimi explains that this made for a film with a more intimate and revealing atmosphere - and one which offers an unprecedented level of access into the hidden, secretive world of the sex trade.
Having grown up in Eastern Europe herself, Mimi was drawn to making the documentary through empathy for the women and their situation - she lived in the town of Kyustendil in the far west of Bulgaria until the age of eleven. While her family then managed to leave post-communist Bulgaria for a new life in the US, there's still a hint of an Eastern European accent in her voice - and an understanding about the lifestyle that she would have faced had she not emigrated.
"When I came to the States I didn't speak the language, so I bought a camera and started taking photos as a way to communicate," she says of the development of her photographic skills since first moving to the US. "I wanted to show my friends back home that America wasn't as nice as you see in the movies." Going on to earn a BFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and an M.A. in Visual Studies from the University of California at Berkeley, she viewed the plight of the sex-trafficked women as the ideal opportunity to undertake what she thought would be her biggest photography project yet.
The result is a piece of extraordinary cinematography, having evolved from a photo project to a multimedia series, into an intelligent and insightful documentary. On the development of the project, Mimi tells me: "It wasn't like I woke up one morning and said: 'I'm gonna do a documentary film', I never even thought I would do a documentary. It's piece by piece, it almost tells you what it needs to be. This film is probably the most personal of all the work I've done."
In making the film, Mimi listened to harrowing accounts of how sex trafficked women are abused daily, and subjected to violent rapes. "Rape is used in trafficking like any kind of torture you would use to break someone's spirit and their desire to stand up against you," she explains in a soft voice. After a moment's thought, she continues: "the more you suppress and violate someone and starve, beat and make them afraid of you, the more you can control them."
When asked whether trafficking itself could be, by its very definition, a form of rape, Mimi looks down and answers carefully. "It's a combination of rape, slavery and psychological torture", she explains. "It's multiple rape over an extended period of time, in closed conditions."
Telling of how emotionally difficult it was for her to interview the women and hear their stories first-hand without breaking down in tears, she remains resolute that she can't allow herself to be affected when she's in the field. "If you're breaking down in front of them, it makes them feel really shitty. It makes them think, 'if someone who's a professional is reacting this way to my pain, then I really should not go on talking about it'- and that's not what you want. You are an outlet for these women," says Mimi.
She admits that there have been moments where it's almost been too overwhelming - where she's felt deeply affected by the realisation of what some people are capable of doing to others."But then at the same time," she states, "I've had incredible moments of hope because you get to meet people, social workers, that have such integrity. When you feel this darkness taking over, you have to remind yourself that there are people out there who do incredible work."