Human Rights Watch Film Festival: ‘The Price of Sex’ and '12 Angry Lebanese’

The Price of Sex

The Price of Sex and 12 Angry Lebanese illustrate the long, tough struggle of victims, once made invisible, now trying to make themselves known.

The Price of Sex

Director: Mimi Chakarova
Rated: NR
Studio: Women Make Movies
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-06-24 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

12 Angry Lebanese

Director: Zeina Daccache
Rated: NR
Studio: Catharsis
Year: 2009
US date: 2011-06-25 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

Editor's note: 'The Price of Sex' premieres at the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on 24 June. '12 Angry Lebanese premieres on 25 June.

Asked "What were the first words you learned in English?", a sex worker answers in a dead voice: “How much?” In Mimi Chakarova’s seven-years-in-the-making documentary, The Price of Sex, this response speaks to a specific truth, underlining the costs of prostitution for the workers. Kidnapped, bought, and sold, women are regularly brutalized and terrorized, left so broken by the ordeal that even if they escape, they often return, feeling they are so worthless and damaged that they have no other options.

Chakarova has a particular affinity for women from Eastern Europe, as her own family moved from Bulgaria to the United States in the 1980s. For her smartly edited and beautifully shot film, she travels to the blighted small towns of Bulgaria and Moldova to expose the desperate circumstances the women leave behind. The hopeless senior citizens who live remain in these crumbling villages -- where the collapse of the Iron Curtain has driven whole populations into migration -- lament that all the young people are gone.

The young women Chakarova interviews tell chillingly similar stories. Someone has approached them, or they've called a number from an ad, and they've believed a promise, that they'll have a job abroad as a cleaning woman or waitress. Before they know it, they're trapped in a foreign country and forced into sexual slavery in order to pay back their kidnappers for the cost of kidnapping and imprisoning them.

In addition to her harrowing interviews with current and former sex workers, Chakarova travels to the sex markets found in the shadows of Dubai’s skyscrapers or the red-light district of Ankara, where pointing a camera is a risk, inviting an assault. While there might be little here that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere, The Price of Sex makes clear that such practices affect individuals, and that supposedly civilized societies allow and even condone such abuses.

12 Angry Lebanese

Just as the sex workers interviewed by Chakarova suffer social stigma if they try to go home, so too the prisoners profiled in Zeina Daccache’s punchy 12 Angry Lebanese are cut loose from the world and unsure about how to find their way back.

Daccache is a Lebanese theater director of uncommon dedication. She set up a theater program in Roumieh, the country’s largest prison, putting out the call for anybody interested in acting. She eventually whittled down from hundreds of applicants just 45 men, then spent a year putting them through a round of acting exercises and therapy sessions in order to prepare them for an impressively audacious project, a staging of 12 Angry Men inside the prison, along with dramatic monologues and musical numbers.

The movie follows the actors (Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi, as well as one man from Nigeria) as they troop down to rehearse every day, with the intercom system repeatedly intoning, “Please open the cells for the theater guys.” They run lines and maybe forget about where they are. A tough-minded scrapper who takes the prisoners to task just as forthrightly as she might any amateur performers, Daccache is nicknamed “Abu Ali.” She doesn’t let her film devolve into a soft-minded parable of uplift, and this in itself is a great achievement, given the openly therapeutic nature of what she’s doing, compounded by the men's self-assessments ("I found myself in this role") and descriptions of their frequently miserable pre-imprisonment lives.

12 Angry Lebanese intercuts the freewheeling and raucous rehearsal sessions with snippets of the finished performance, showing how the prisoners are transformed from bickering lost souls into perfectly credible actors. They don’t talk much about the play itself. Instead, they focus on their hopes that when their families come to see it, they might be able to see them in a different light -- not as criminals forgotten by the world outside, but as humans once again.

The Price of Sex


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