World Day Against Human Trafficking. July 30th. A serious day, an even graver topic. In recognition, Construir TV will be screening two documentaries on the subject during the month of August: Not My Life, an internationally focused film, and Chicas Nuevas 24 Horas, about trafficking in Latin America. The Bubble’s Talia Samuelson had the opportunity to speak with director Robert Bilheimer this week about his Oscar-nominated film and the hidden international industry of human slavery.
The main takeaway? That old adage: ninety percent of solving the problem is recognizing that you have a problem. And Argentina, along with the rest of the world, has yet to look this grim reality in the face.
The film — initially commissioned by Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — follows human trafficking on five continents, each tale more harrowing than the last. From little boys enslaved in Ghana to American teenagers pimped out at truck stops, he produces a story that is hard to watch, but even harder to look away from.
Perhaps the most chilling is an interview with an imprisoned trafficker. The perpetrator looks at the camera nervously, recounting his exploits with a shy smile… “I used my fist. I was, at that time, more youthful… So I beat them with my fists and my feet…” He gives an anxious laugh and continues, “No, but I think that they will have this nightmare for the rest of their lives. Some of them manage to change, but they will never be normal women.” His lips twist into a smile, a slight shrug of his shoulders.
Evil? Perhaps. The film, after all, opens with this voice-over: “Of all the cruel and evil things human beings do to one another in the world today, nothing is more inhuman than the trafficking and enslavement of our planet’s youth.” But Not My Life, with its interviews showing calm perpetrators, brings into question just what human beings are capable of, and lends credence to Hannah Arendt’s keen observation in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: Observations on the Banality of Evil that, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” This is what the film seeks to remedy: the ease with which people can look away from a crime most would prefer to pretend is not all too common.
“I don’t know what the awareness level on human trafficking crimes is in Argentina,” Bilheimer says, “But it’s typical of other places [that] there’s still a fair amount of denial and ignorance about what’s going on… the awareness part is important. Awareness is key.”
How accountable are traffickers in Argentina? According to the US State Department, Argentina ranks as a “Tier 2 country”. The criteria? “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with… minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.” It continues on, “Argentina is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Argentine women and children, including many from rural areas or northern provinces, are forced into prostitution within the country.”
Laws against sex trafficking are notoriously nascent: Argentina enacted Ley 26842 against human trafficking in 2012. In the three and half years since the statistics on the crime have been nebulous and hard to track due to local corruption. According to the same report from the State Department:
“Authorities did not report the total number of anti-trafficking cases investigated by police in 2014. The anti-trafficking prosecutor’s office, which monitored trafficking cases heard by courts in the country, opened investigations of 139 sex trafficking cases and 59 labor trafficking cases. Authorities prosecuted 66 individuals for sex trafficking and 26 for labor trafficking in 2014… The government convicted 37 sex traffickers and 18 labor traffickers in 2014 and acquitted seven alleged sex traffickers in one case. Sentences ranged from one to 14 years’ imprisonment. Authorities did not report how many sentences were suspended, although press reports indicated some traffickers served their sentences on probation, and at least one convicted trafficker continued to operate a brothel where sex trafficking had occurred.”
These statistics are not encouraging. Neither is the film, both leave the viewer desolate. Political theorist Hannah Arendt once said: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
That may be true, but I had to ask Bilheimer, “Was it ever difficult for you? Was there ever a moment when you wanted to hop out from behind the camera and do something?”
“No, no no. You know, with storytelling, you have to hope that the story speaks for itself.”
Not My Life plays on August 12th and 26th, Nuevas Chicas 24 Horas on August 5th and 19th, both on Construir TV.