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Documentary by Oscar nominee Robert Bilheimer explores child trafficking

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: News


Riveting in its content and heart wrenching in its tragic portrayal of the horrors of child trafficking, the documentary “Not My Life,” directed by Oscar nominee Robert Bilheimer, was screened to the Brandeis Community by the Women’s Studies and Research Center. Seeking to raise awareness, the documentary depicts the shocking prevalence of child trafficking and exploitation across the globe.

Mei-Mei Ellerman, a scholar at the Women’s Studies and Research Center and founding board director of the Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to combating human trafficking, introduced the film with abolitionist music. As the film screening commenced, recorded voices of individuals describing the tragedy of child trafficking flooded the room, describing it as “a very well organized industry” encapsulating “inequality, poverty, and vulnerability.”

Rebuking notions of child trafficking as an issue occurring in isolated areas, the film stresses the universal nature of this pandemic, quoting a woman who proclaimed “this isn’t always the land of the free.”

Forcing viewers to embark on a personal look at the exploitation of children, the film initiates with clips of young boys employed on fishing boats. Sold by their desperate mothers, these children endure grueling labor lasting for 14 hours a day, while only being provided with a single meal for sustenance. Despite laws against child labor, the lack of enforcement mechanisms and the extreme conditions of poverty subject these young boys to horrific working conditions. According to the film, diseases such as malaria thrive along the fishing lakes, while infections can be fatal.

Despite the horrific conditions they are forced to endure, activist Kevin Bales stresses his amazement regarding the resilience of these children given the opportunity for recuperation, stating, “they can go from an almost zombie like existence of brutality to a pretty normal childhood.”

Beyond working on fishing vessels, children are also subjected to the roles of street beggars under the guise of being submitted to Islamic religious schools. Although traditionally such institutions stressed cultural traditions, criminal infiltration has lead to exploitation. As the camera focuses on the open wounds of a young boy, the potential for serious infections becomes evident. It is revealed children often perish from stomach and skin diseases, while others are beaten to death if they are not able to earn the desired amount begging.

In areas such as New Delhi, children are forced to work in landfills overflowing with hazardous waste, which according to some activists depicted in the film, can burn straight through the child’s bones upon contact. The constant need to bend over to sift through garbage and debris further bears negative health implications, while malnutrition and disease prevail as well.

Delving into the horrific conditions of brothels and the sexual exploitation of young girls, the film includes clips of imprisoned pimps who assert their lack of mercy for victims. One such individual recalls his initial entrance into the industry at the mere age of 14, despite stemming from a wealthy family.

With a smile playing on his lips, he states “So I beat them…with my fist and my feet”, laughing as he explains “I don’t know, but I think they will have this nightmare for the rest of their lives.”

Sister Binetti, an activist who has seen the manifestation of such violence, recalls seeing young girls with breasts scarred by cigarette burns and others beaten to the point of paralysis.

Although these conditions are deplorable, it is not just abroad that these horror stories occur. Operation Stormy Night, conducted by the FBI between 2003 and 2007, resulted in the conviction of approximately 15 pimps guilty of human trafficking in the United States Midwest.

One such victim, Angie, was attending a private university when she found herself a victim of these activities and recalled the traumatizing memories. Amid numerous other young girls, some as young as eight or nine years old, she felt scared for her life and the safety of her friends if she failed to acquire monetary compensation for sexual services. Stating she “just wanted to die,” she recalls entering the truck of a man comparable in age to her own grandfather.

Demonstrating the prevalence of sexual exploitation even within the United States, her story reveals the universal presence of human trafficking. According to the film, approximately 100,000 underage girls are trafficked for sex in the US today, stemming from all economic and social backgrounds.

Sheila White, an activist and former victim of sexual trafficking, recalls being brutally beaten in the midst of Times Square only two years following 9/11, yet no one intervened to aid her. Stating “there is a point where you begin to feel numb”, she confessed “you really feel like you’re not even a person.”

Portraying a rescue mission in a brothel, the film reveals that more than one million girls are enslaved in brothels in India alone. Stressing the particularly horrific conditions in Cambodia, where young girls are kept at brothels catering to western tourists and other foreigners, the film focuses on a quote from an activist stating, “one hundred percent, the worst pedophiles are from the US.”
Young women are often sole to the brothels as virgins, only to have their vaginas sewn up before they are raped again repeatedly by male clients. One of the founders of the Somaly MAM organization, dedicated to aiding girls rescued from such conditions, describes the pain she endures since her own daughter was kidnapped. Hearing the constant traumatic stories of the victims she works with, she confesses the constant painful reminders “you have a glimmer, a young girl that reminds you of her…..a song she used to sing.”
According to the documentary, over half a million children are forced to engage in armed conflict in 19 countries across the world. One such survivor, Grace, was abducted from her school in Uganda and forced to endure killing, hunger, and rape on a regular basis. Describing an instance when another child attempted to escape, she describes being forced by militant leaders to beat the girl to death. Stating that “marching into the Sudan was like marching into a grave,” she states that children committed suicide, unable to endure the torturous physical and emotional pain any longer. Upon their seizure, children were at times forced to murder their parents or relatives on the spot, in essence demonstrating an attempt to strip them of their humanity.
Despite the utterly deplorable violations of human rights found across the globe, including the United States, the documentary concludes urging the need to combat the prevalent forces of child trafficking and sexual exploitation. Activists assert the need to implement preventive methods to halt such brutalities before they occur, stating that individuals who profit through child trafficking “exist because we allow them to exist.” Drawing upon the individuals such as Grace, the escaped child solider who is currently pursuing a masters degree within the United States, the film urges “Hope is those who do not turn away, those who don’t forget. That life is my life. That child is my child. We are all members of the human family and it is time to come home.”