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Nefarious: Merchant of Souls
Last week I watched the documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls. While I’ve studied about human trafficking a lot, I still found the film jarring. Here are some key pieces of information from the film (forgive my imperfect notes):
- 10% of the population of Moldova have been trafficked, partly as a result of economic uncertainty that drove adults from the country and created a severe orphan crisis.
- The filmmakers interview a former trafficker who talks about seeing only money and remembers doing anything to shut a girl up if she resisted. “It’s hard for the first time. The second time. But you get to a point when you’re like (shrug) it’s good money,” he said.
- The film describes breaking grounds, out of sight apartments where girls are initially taken to be “seasoned.”
- A former eastern European prostitute recalled how her trafficker manipulated her through romance.
- It was noted that the Amsterdam policed closed down half of red light because “we cannot control organized crime.” This highlights the weakness of the Netherlands legalize and regulate approach.
- Many human traffickers are former drug traffickers—you can only sell drugs once, but you can sell a woman again and again.
- The filmmakers saw a government sponsored ad in Thailand that said, “The one fruit of Thailand more delicious than durian is it’s young women.”
- Women in prostitution in southeast Asia are often trying to help their families financially.
- A former john who traveled to southeast Asia for sex says he knew the women didn’t want to be prostitutes, but he bought them “because they were there.”
- In poor southeast Asian communities “social condition removes personal choice.”
- 2.8 million people are trafficked in Thailand 800,000 are children
- A menu in a Thai brothel read something like: Beer $5, Grapes $4, Girl $3.
- An antitrafficking worker in southeast Asia tells a story of trying to persuade the mothers of three girls to take them out of the sex trade. When they said they needed the income, he offered to pay them and help educate the girls so they could earn money in other jobs—”all 3 moms said no.”
- The culture of complicity is so prevalent that in some areas of southeast Asia, 80-90% of families traffick their daughters.
- In these areas it’s not necessarily the poorest that sell the girls; the desire for luxury can also drive trafficking.
- An antitrafficking worker said that he’s been told multiple times, when he asks how parents who love their child could traffick them, that if they traffick her locally it means that they love her.
- Girls in these areas come to expect trafficking and it it a way they feel they can honor their parents.
- The illusion of glamor of prostitution in Vegas leads some women to choose it.
- One former prostitute describes how she felt empowered by money at the beginning, but she became more and more lost after attempted kidnappings, beatings, and being hostage.
- Filmmakers learned that one supposedly legitimate prostitution agency recommends to women that they drop their keys when they arrive at a room so they can check under the bed for guns and handcuffs; not wear scarves because they could be used for strangling; and not wear heals because it’s harder to run away. This makes it difficult to believe that women really choose this.
- Most of these prostitutes were abused as children. One former trafficker said, “I just picked up where the dad, or the step dad, or a neighbor left off.”
- The filmmakers talk about the success of the Swedish government’s approach of criminalizing buying sex, rather than prostitution itself. That approach stems the demand and shows that it’s important to protect women.
The end of the film takes an uplifting turn. The formerly trafficked women who’ve been speaking throughout the film share their stories of healing and their efforts to help others like themselves. From a life of feeling less than worthless, less than hopeless, one of the women says (something like), “Now I know the truth about me: God loves me. God will give me a great future.”
Here are some of the film’s closing words:
The crisis of modern day sex slavery does not need interested observers; it needs incurable fanatics.
The filmmakers then urge people to take three steps to end slavery: pray, tell others about human trafficking, and give to organizations working to end human trafficking.
Several caveats about the documentary:
- At one point the filmmakers take matters into their own hands, chasing a john out of a small town. While their passion is admirable and the particular situation turned out just fine, taking matters of human trafficking into your own hands can be dangerous. That’s why hotlines like the one at Polaris Project (1-888-3737-888) are so valuable—they give everyday people a way to report crimes to trained experts.
- At moments I felt like the filmmakers overdramatized reenactments of human trafficking or scenes in real life sex districts. While I understand that it’s important to show people the reality of the crime, it’s a tough balance. Many people when they show images related to trafficking give it a sexiness that minimizes the crime—the filmmakers didn’t do that. It’s difficult, though, to show dramatic reenactments of human trafficking and the tears of trafficking victims without inadvertently exploiting the image of women. This is a crime where the image of women is exploited for money, and often in fighting the crime the image of women is exploited again in a different way for emotional effect. It’s something that trafficking activists need to be wary of, and there were a few times in the film where filmmakers fell a bit too close to the manipulative end of the spectrum for my comfort.
Melissa loves merging her passions for writing and for helping provide restoration for exploited people. She graduated from Miami University with a degree in Adolescent English Education and is a former middle school language arts teacher. She now works full time as an editor. Melissa has visited Freeset in Kolkata, India.
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