Emma Thompson, Featured in “Fatal Promises, Speaks Out on Human Trafficking

Human trafficking…the statistics are overwhelming. Approximately 800,000 people are illegally trafficked through international borders annually. 1.39 million people are trafficked into sexual exploitation. There are 16,600 people trafficked into the United States yearly, with America being one of the top ten destinations. New York City serves as a major portal for this activity.

A new film documentary, Fatal Promises directed by Kat Rohrer, will be screening from September 16th – September 24th at the Cinema Village in Manhattan. Rohrer partnered with her mother, Anneliese Rohrer, a 30-year veteran of Austrian journalism, to examine the various facets of human trafficking. The film, four years in the making, follows the stories of five people – three women and two men. They relate how they were lured by promises of employment, and lacking opportunities sought job solutions abroad. Their harrowing nightmares ended in relief brought about by rescue or through escape. Their personal narratives fulfill the need to put a face to an issue that is perceived as overwhelming. As Gloria Steinem points out in her on-camera comments, “What we need are stories.”

In tandem with these visceral accounts are interviews with activists, government officials, and legislators. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of UNODC, discusses the “moral imperative” of getting human trafficking on the political agenda positing that the world is “dismissing [a] tragedy of enormous dimension.”

The culmination of a seven-year effort to push through legislation that became the New York State Anti-Trafficking Law is shown as Eliot Spitzer signs the bill into law. The follow up scene is his resignation as Governor, after being exposed as a patron of a prostitution service. The juxtaposition exemplifies the dichotomies in a culture that is rife with contradictions and subtexts about sex.

Prominently featured in Fatal Promises is actress and activist Emma Thompson. In addition to making powerful public service announcements, Thompson is the co-curator (with Elena, a trafficking survivor), of the interactive art installation Journey. The work puts the viewer directly into the experience of a sexually trafficked woman. Journey traveled to Vienna, where it was showcased outside the 2008 U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking conference. There is a mordant episode in the documentary conveying the limitations of the U.N. gathering where 2,000 “official” participants are meeting. The price tag of the four days comes to a cool $2,9000,000. It is noted that the conference was “proudly” sponsored by the United Arab Emirates – a country that is listed with the United States Department of State as being on the “Tier 2 Watch List” of nations (The tier structure is examined through one of the film’s interviews.).

A frustrated Thompson speaking on-camera asks, “What is the point of us all traveling to Vienna if we haven’t got a plan?” While recruitment is accomplished on a person-to-person basis and individuals are translated into goods and services, corruption is rampant – from law enforcement officials to the visa process. Thompson emphasizes, “There needs to be a real chain of decision, command, and action.”

While Thompson was in New York City to attend previews of Fatal Promises, I was able to interview her via proxy. Below are excerpts from the conversation:

What are the plans for the installation of Journey in New York City and America?

“The plan is that we bring Journey over to New York on November the 9th until November 16th. I’m not entirely sure where it will be yet, because we haven’t yet chosen our site. But it means that it will be sitting there open to the public all of that time and I will be there, and Helen (Helen Bamber Foundation) will be there, and Michael Korzinski, the other director of the foundation, will be there. It [Journey] is immensely expensive to travel, so we’re hoping that we can get help from Homeland Security to take it to Washington next. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Do you see the film and art installation as having potential to make the problem of human trafficking more visceral and of higher visibility?

“Of course, yes. I mean this is one of those problems that is going to have to be spoken about and talked about and shouted about for a long time to come. We’re not going to be bashing this out of existence just by producing a film and an installation. But what we can do is start to make it very clear that there is a big problem. The film is fantastically well researched and very interesting, and put together in such a way that you don’t feel as though you are being sort of hammered. You can really take in the information and walk away with it. It’s very cleverly done. The installation is an art installation, so it is a completely different kind of experience. But the two things together are pretty effective. After that, you know a lot…and you can go and get on and do something.”

You have become an activist in this cause, but your frustration with the Vienna Forum was quite apparent. As you asked, “What is the point of us all traveling to Vienna if we haven’t got a plan?” Can you speak to the difference between the on-the-ground realities and the world of diplomats and legislation?

“The world of diplomats and legislation is a highly bureaucratized, very slow moving thing – a bit like a glacier. Diplomats, and certainly home office civil servants and that type of personnel, are famously unbudgeable. So they’re the people I want to come to the installation, because it’s very important for people who work within the civil sector of society to see what’s going on and connect with it in a visceral way, rather than just receiving facts. There is a huge disconnect between what is understood by persons in authority, about trafficking, and what actually occurs to people. It is getting better, but it is very, very slow. As for what politicians really understand about it? Unless they’ve made it a particular interest, it is not something I’ve found people to be very informed about at all…at all. So at the moment it is an issue that I think is very much sidelined and not put at the top of any agendas, which I think reflects very ill upon us. I think that to start the 21st century with a huge new slave trade flourishing does not reflect well on any of our governments. I mean, it is absolutely appalling that we have allowed this to happen – because we have allowed this to happen. We knew this was happening a long time ago and we didn’t take steps. We didn’t inform, we didn’t think to ourselves, ‘Oh, women are being bought and sold. What does that mean? I wonder if that means they are commodified. And what do we do about that?’ There’s been no rhetoric about that. There’s been no discussion even. It’s as though because prostitution is the oldest profession – blah, blah, blah – everyone thinks, ‘Oh, well. This is just another manifestation of that.’ And it’s not. It’s something quite else. It’s a new slave trade.”

How do you respond to the irony that the conference was sponsored by the UAE, when they are on the list of offenders?

“Well, you know, people will take money from anyone! (hearty laugh) The U.N. has become its own worse enemy. I think it’s bedeviled by bureaucracy. I think it’s been declawed in every conceivable way. And I think in its corridors misogyny holds tremendous sway – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed…I know what the problems are. Again, that’s a question of self-examination for the U.N. to say, ‘What can we do to become more effective?’”

Is part of the problem that anti-trafficking activists are on a continuum, and they don’t agree with each other on core beliefs and strategies?

“Sure. All NGO’s are on collision courses because they all need money, and they all need money from the same sources…In relation to prostitution or not prostitution, that’s a whole debate of its own. And it is of course connected, because what this is also about is our relationship to sex. Which is something we’re going to have to start talking about much, much more honestly and in much greater detail… We’ve got to find out why we have a huge customer base for this service. Why? What’s going on? What is it about us at the moment that makes us so keen to buy people? Those questions must be asked. As for prostitution or not prostitution – and everyone takes a view – it doesn’t really make any difference to the customer whether a woman has chosen to be a prostitute or not. So it’s not necessarily going to change the customer. And it’s certainly not going to change the experience of a trafficked person whether prostitution is legal or not in their country. So it’s not a question of saying legalize it all and that will make them safer because that does not work, actually. Prostitution is legal in Austria. Prostitution is legal in Holland. And in Amsterdam, they have one of the worst problems with trafficking imaginable. It’s just awful. So legalizing doesn’t necessarily stop trafficking…But in relation to this particular slave trade that is going on, the buying of people and selling of people, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe prostitution should be legalized or not. You’ve got to get behind a movement that stops people being sold for whatever reason they’re going to be sold. I think that’s probably where I stand on it.”

When I contacted Kat Rohrer by e-mail for a statement about the goals of her documentary she responded, “My film is about the survivors’ stories. I want the public to hear their anger. Their voices are too seldom heard on an international, or even local, platform. It is precisely because I understand that the world community is faced with a myriad of seemingly never-ending issues – from economic and environmental disasters to hunger and war – that I spent four years making this film. Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. To ignore it is to ignore our humanity. How can we, as a conscientious society, tolerate slavery in 21st century? Simply put, we cannot, we must not.”

Rohrer will be partnering with anti-trafficking organizations including Equality Now, Nomi Network, History Starts Now, CATW and NOW to get wider visibility for the topic. Panel discussions are going on throughout the film’s run, and plans are in the works to take the documentary to universities nationwide. There will be a DVD available in future.

Those who have been “bought, sold, and discarded” will finally have listeners.

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