Making ‘Fatal Promises’

A powerful documentary on the victims of human trafficking argues that much of public spending is “preaching to the choir”

On The Town | Nayeli Urquiza | December 2009 / January 2010

Working in New York four years ago, filmmaker Katharina Rohrer read an article on human trafficking in The New York Times. The extent of it as well as the cynicism of it shocked her, and launched her on a journey to research and create awareness about a crime done against an estimated 800,000 people every year around the world.

Her documentary Fatal Promises shows two sides of this phenomenon. It brings out the voices of the victims, the response of world leaders and  organizations, and what they are doing to fight it. It also takes a critical perspective on the many conferences heralded around the world that claim to address this elusive problem, including the 2007 United Nations Vienna Forum.

"These conferences are preaching to the choir; all the people who are there are obviously experts on the problem," she said. "I have been criticized saying that, for putting it in my film, but I feel it is a waste of time, money and energy."

The Vienna Forum was organized by the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), a project launched through the $15 Million dollar grant given by the United Arab Emirates in March 2007. The UAE has since fallen one tier in the U.S. State Department’s 2009 human trafficking report, which states there are no "discernable anti-trafficking efforts against the forced labor of temporary migrant workers and domestic servants."

Rohrer finds this infuriating.

"We cannot continue to talk about the subject matter as if it were a remote problem, because it is all around us. We need to start taking action."

Fatal Promises tells the story of five victims from Ukraine: There are two women from Odessa, trafficked for sexual exploitation, two men who were enslaved in fishing boats, and one girl from Kiev, who had been trafficked into the U.S. It was important to interview them because, she believes, that in the human trafficking agenda, or fight as it is framed by the international community, the victims are not heard.

"There are a lot of male politicians, and they do not take that promise seriously because the victims are just women, just prostitutes."

Finding survivors who were willing to talk in front of a camera was not easy; most don’t want to be stigmatized. Rohrer says a lot of the people she thought about interviewing in the Ukraine came from small towns and did not necessarily want to be identified because they would very quickly become outcasts.

Fatal Promises shows many faces of human trafficking, from the story of a professional gymnast who wanted to study sports medicine in the U.S. but was trafficked into sexual slavery, to the story of a middle-aged Ukrainian man, father of three girls who needed to support his family and ended up being trafficked and enslaved in a fishing boat.

There are many movies and documentaries about human trafficking, the latest of which is Taken, starring Liam Neeson. But as with many other movies, it reproduces the image of the white female slave – an outdated idea suggesting this something that only happens to women and only involves sexual exploitation.

"Showing the men was very important: first because it is underreported and second because I think that in the politicians’ head and in the general public, these are ‘just’ women," says Rohrer.

"Nicolai is very angry and he was disappointed in himself… because he felt he had let his family down," says Rohrer, "It was painful to watch; you could see a proud man, a father who wanted to offer the best to his children, who had this happen to him and is now a changed man."

Rohrer worked with British actress Emma Thompson and her mother, Austrian journalist Anneliese Rohrer. Each of them has committed themselves to creating awareness about this crime and empathy for the people caught up in it. Thompson contributed through the itinerary art installation entitled "The Journey." She immediately jumped into the film project, because it showed the issue from a different perspective.

The tone of the documentary switches from somber outrage and then at some point to ridicule.

"I will admit that I make fun of some things, because some are so unbelievable, that you just have to laugh at it," Rohrer said. The conferences that are being paid for with millions and millions of dollars, these are great for the people who go to them. But they are not helping [solve the problem], and then I see NGO’s that are struggling to keep their workshops open."

Faith, Hope, Love, the Odessa-based NGO that helped in the production of Fatal Promises, helps victims rehabilitate physically and psychologically and gives skills training. Without it, "these women are most likely to be trafficked again because the economic hardships persist," she says.

None of these people want to leave their home countries because in the West, people believe they come because "they want our lifestyle."

"There might be people who do, but quite frankly, most people I have met just want to make some money to support their families," she says, "and if it means going abroad they will but they want to go back."

The European premiere of Fatal Promises will be screened at Vienna’s Burg Kino on Dec. 3, and will officially open the second season of the human rights film festival "This Human World," organized in honor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"As long as the general public in whatever country does not see this, does not consider this a problem and does not stand up and say ‘I don’t want this to happen in my country anymore,’ nothing will change because politicians will have no pressure."

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