Friday, November 14, 2003

Film details
Asian sex trade

A painful documentary
follows four women

Watching "Anonymously Yours" by Massachusetts filmmaker Gayle Ferraro about the sex trade in Burma, China and Thailand is a little like a trip to the dentist. You know you need to see him and you'll feel good about yourself when it's over, but it's still a difficult experience.

"Anonymously Yours"

Not rated

Playing at Wallace Restaurant Row


This 88-minute film, which has its theatrical world premiere today at The Art House at Restaurant Row, shows through surreptitious photography and clandestine interviews the cruel life fate has dealt four young women sold into sexual slavery -- one at age 10 -- by parents and sometimes friends' parents, to pay off debts or to support their families.

The film, made in November 2000, is disturbing because it exposes the commonplace bartering and selling of women, and the hopeless cycles of poverty that enslaves them. It is so painful to watch, though no physical violence is depicted, that PBS declined to broadcast it because officials there thought it was too depressing, said Ferraro, who screened the documentary at the Hawaii International Film Festival that just ended on Oahu. The film, however, has been sold to the Sundance Channel.

"I always thank audiences for coming and sitting through the film and exposing themselves to something so emotional," Ferraro said. "But you have to think of the girls that this is about."

This wasn't an easy film to make inside military-controlled Burma, now Myanmar. Ferraro and her two-female crew of a photographer and sound technician were in constant danger.

"We took the video cameras apart ... and divided it into pieces, then entered the country at three different times, three different locations, three different airlines," Ferraro said. Then they met and reassembled the cameras.

When Zuzu, 17, tries to break away from a brothel, her aunt pretends to take her on an outing but instead sells her to a Chinese brothel.

That was just the beginning. They later had to smuggle the tapes out of Burma, by playing obnoxious tourists, speaking in codes and making secret rendezvous.

"We couldn't say what we meant because we knew people were listening," Ferraro said. "It was maddening, but we had to develop some code that we only understood."

They used a kind of code to get Ferraro's college friend to arrange interviews with four women, most in off-limits rural villages.

According to Ferraro, Burmese authorities require hotels and guest houses to provide information about the identities and activities of their foreign guests. Burmese who interact with foreigners may be compelled, under consequence of torture or death, to report such interactions to the Burmese government.

FERRARO WAS headed to India to do a film but stopped in Burma to visit a friend and former college classmate, a Burmese social worker, who counseled women and girls after they had been freed by the government following brothel raids.

"I was stunned by the stories of slavery, rape and violence," she said. "I thought that maybe by doing a film about this problem and interviewing the women, just maybe I could make some change.

"In the forbidden townships, we took turns playing the curiosity-seeking, mindless tourist out for a bit of fun, and the serious filmmaker," Ferraro said.

Burmese officials twice detained Ferraro's group. "I literally had no feelings, I was so afraid," Ferraro said. "I could barely think or talk."

The subjects' stories differ, but they complete the picture of a business that enslaves as many as 40 million women.

"Brothels are in the back rooms of tea shops and restaurants and five-star western hotels," she said.

When Zuzu, 17, tries to break away from one brothel and returns to her disappointed family -- leaving them without money to live on -- an aunt pretends to take the teenager on an outing but instead sells her to a Chinese brothel.

It's here that we learn about the leech pond. Leeches gorged with blood apparently are a Chinese delicacy. So a pond is filled with the creatures and three prostitutes are forced into it until the leeches are gorged. Then the women are removed and the insects farmed. Domestic animals are too valuable to use in the pond.

Zuzu, whose girlfriend's mother sold her into sexual slavery, rationalizes her treatment by saying the girls are fed well. With a shy smile, she seems to struggle to retain her dignity and sense of humor.

"I wonder what English-speaking people will think of this," she says looking into the camera. "Please don't think badly of me."

None of the girls' families are introduced, and the lines between perpetrator and victim are blurred. By the film's end, the audience is made to hope that reformed prostitutes can create new and better lives for themselves. Zuzu ends up marrying a physically abusive man and finds work, ironically, in a condom factory.

ONCE THE FILM was completed, Ferraro still had to smuggle the tapes out of the country. Then the elderly relative of her Burmese friend asked Ferraro to take gifts to her daughter in America.

She used an oversized tribal drum and crates of souvenirs to hide the contraband, then used her acting skills to expedite the customs search. "I made this big fuss. ... They were so glad after half an hour of dealing with me that they just let me go through with the last tapes."

Back in the United States, Ferraro could not find a distributor for her film for six months, and was rejected by film festivals, TV stations and theaters. Then came an invitation to the 2002 Montreal World Film Festival.

"People were receptive but unprepared for what they saw," she said. "Everyone was crying."

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