Film Review - Not My Life

Child trafficking continues. Felicity Gerry reviews “Not My Life”, a film exposing this brutal world and hoping to bring about change.

Not My Life is a brutal documentary about modern day slavery. It exposes the reality of human trafficking across continents, asks why such activities take place and what can be done. The international premiere took place at Curzon Mayfair on Thursday 20th October 2011 and the full documentary was shown on CNN International without ad breaks over the following weekend. Oscar-nominated director Robert Bilheimer hopes that the film can be a catalyst for change, putting the plight of the world’s youth in the forefront of the public consciousness.

In this country, criminal offences exist in relation to trafficking into, within and out of the UK and there is jurisdiction for sexual offences committed by British Citizens abroad. Beating, torturing and killing children are all criminal offences, aggravated if committed in the course of exploitation. Awareness amongst practitioners is high but it is not a topic of conversation that generally exists outside the robing room. The Polaris Project in the US is one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States and Japan, with programmes operating at international, national and local levels through their offices in Washington, DC; Newark, NJ; and Tokyo, Japan. Polaris Project is one of the many partners for the Not My Life film working separately across the world but increasingly coming together to fight a global problem. A problem that is exacerbated by a singular lack of understanding amongst ordinary people except perhaps for those criminals who make money from exploitation and perverts who want to have sex with children.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the footage opened with the fishing boys of Lake Volta, sold by their parents to work in a disease infested man-made lake to catch fish. They are forced to risk their young lives diving to nets in which some inevitably become entangled and drown. Observers found young boys who were half starved and stared blankly at cameras with little hope. The message of the film from the start was to show that traffickers obsessed with profit treat the children as commodities rather than people. Hope came from the few who were rescued, particularly scholar and former child soldier, Grace. Action is needed to provide protection and prevention from what one contributor called the “Worst manifestation of what people can do to other people.”

The footage moved to the Senegal Khoranic schools responsible for forced child begging where children’s rights advocates have uncovered widespread commercial exploitation of children who live in wretched conditions, suffer constant sickness and beatings from “religious” teachers as they are sent out to beg. This was closely followed by an interview with an Eastern European trafficker who smiled as he described raping and torturing his victims.

Generally it is the poor who are vulnerable to the slave trade. Those that live on the streets, particularly children, are easily exploited. In India, where begging is unlawful, children are used by gang-masters to sort through toxic waste and rubbish in the living hell that are landfill sites.

This worldwide documentary was supported by the CNN Freedom Project which intends to “shine a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery, amplify the voices of the victims, highlight success stories and help unravel the complicated tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life”. The documentary effectively asks why human rights have become meaningless in so many parts of the world. Its greatest achievement is to demonstrate that human trafficking is modern slavery and that it is not confined to less economically developed countries.

Perhaps the most brutal message of the documentary comes from the footage of children rescued from the sex trade: Roma gypsies, Cambodian daughters and a middle class American girl were shown living in appalling conditions or speaking of their horrific experiences in the “Big business machine of buying and selling girls” from hovels in the Far East to truck stops in the Mid West. Angie’s tears as she described her first night sleeping with truckers to earn money for a pimp are hard to forget as was Don Brewster’s descriptions of what he sees every day as Director of Agape Restoration Center I and II and Rahab’s House in Cambodia.

Why do men have sex with children? Why do families sell their children for sex tourism? In Cambodia, Westerners fly in every day to take their violent sexual pleasure out on tiny girls. It is the foulest of behaviour in a country that seemingly lacks resources to deal with it. The documentary showed how those who escape can recover but teeter on the brink of poverty and constantly risk being returned to degradation.

One of the major problems is a lack of law enforcement. Despite law on trafficking and exploitation there is no global cooperation. Even in this country, human trafficking is a specialist department rather than basic training for all police officers. In other countries there seem to be no resources at all other than the desperate but laudable efforts of UNICEF and NGOs. It’s interesting what efforts are made to extradite a suspect for murder or computer hacking but how little is done to apprehend sex tourists or communicate with foreign governments on global child protection. Across the world sentencing for drugs offences is often less than for selling people.

In a discussion panel led by Becky Anderson of CNN, the director told the audience of his hope to create a global constituency to recognize the existence of such abuses and work on prevention. The premiere also saw the launch of the Human Trafficking Handbook edited by barrister Parosha Chandan. It is a collection of original essays written by pre-eminent professionals in the field of human trafficking and forced labour and ought to be on the shelf of every police officer in the world. For a criminal barrister much of the documentary, however powerful, came as no surprise. The challenge that it plainly seeks to meet is the education of the wider world; in essence to prove that slavery still exists and people need to be liberated. No one wants to live in a world where a nun can speak of the burns to girls’ breasts inflicted by traffickers but the reality is that we all do.

Ultimately, the message of the documentary is that slavery is still alive and no country immune. Pimps, gang masters and rich Westerners get rich and stay rich on the exploitation of child prostitutes, child workers and young people in domestic servitude while the rest of the world passes by without noticing. It is a must see movie and must do campaign in my view. For further information on how you can act go to notmylife.org.

Parts of this review appeared on Halsbury’s Law Exchange

Felicity Gerry 36 Bedford Row

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