New York: October 18, 2000
Writer, Producer, Director
The Children We Sacrifice, 2000
Writer, Producer, Director
Sacrifice: The Story of Child Prostitutes from Burma, 1998
I think one of the things that struck me after seeing Ellen’s film was the concept of betrayal and how the children are betrayed by their families at two different levels. I think that comes across very clearly from beginning to end with the victims and the survivors in both films. The other thing that struck me, not only after seeing Ellen’s film but also after watching Ruchira Gupta’s film [Selling of Innocents, 1997], was that these children are taken one at a time, so they feel that this is only happening to them. They feel they have somehow been selected because of something that was wrong with them, that they invited it. And so I was struck by that juxtaposition in the situation. But later on in your film, what really hit me was what the young woman who has the baby, says, “I did not want my daughter to grow up and live like me.” That really hit me because with incestuous sexual abuse you also get a similar reaction, the sense of shame that the victim feels even when she is grown up. I found that overlap in the films: the erosion of self--even if at some level you know it is not your fault--is just devastating.
And also it occurred to me that there is a value these girls perceive--a value greater than their personal safety. Their lives really comes down to that quite often with the girls doing sex work because the infection rate is so incredibly high among these young girls in Thailand. In Thailand, the infection rate is eighty percent right now for girls coming from outside of Thailand. Part of that is that there is no access to safe sex material that there is for many of the Thai sex workers and part of this is that their initial sexual encounters are so violent that there is often damage done and of course if they are being sold for such high prices as virgins then the clients will never be encouraged to use condoms. So the infection rate is very high for these girls. But in the situation of these girls coming from Burma, some of them are consciously going into sex work and many of them are tricked. If they are consciously going into sex work, they have made this choice to basically sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Its not much different from the kind of sacrifice that the silence is--in the sense that it is saying that the honor of the family and the integrity of the family, the functioning of the family, is more important then this one child’s life.
Question from the Audience
Could you say a little bit about what their response to you was as a filmmaker? How did they treat you? Why were you even accepted to do this?
Well, one of the really important factors was that I spent a lot of time in Thailand so it’s familiar to me in many ways. Most importantly, my assistant director is a young woman from Burma who speaks several other minority languages from there. So, basically, what we did is we spent a lot of time in border towns just walking the streets at night and sometimes the girls would call to us from windows or behind the bars or behind the gates. It was interesting for them to see a foreign woman. They were just curious and we would start chatting and eventually develop some friendships with these girls, would tell them what our project was and they were very interested in helping us. What we would have to do is to try to arrange for them to basically sneak out of the brothel. Many of these brothels are closed brothels.
Some of them were trusted girls, allowed to go the market to get noodles every once in a while. They would get out to go to the market, come around to our guesthouse and we would do interviews with them. It was only the second interview I did, with this young woman, her face powered and with lipstick on her lips, who had a little boy with her. We were talking to her for ten minutes, asking her about her situation back in Burma, trying to find out about where she was coming from and she stopped and said: “ Well, should I take of my clothes now?” and we said: “Well, no.” We said: “We are not really interested in your taking off clothes. We really just want to hear about your life.” It was a very touching moment for us because clearly that was the only value she thought she had for anybody and it was a very profound experience for them to be able to talk to somebody about simple things in their lives or very profound things in their lives that nobody had ever asked them about. I think it was quite a moving experience for both the girls and certainly for us--the two of us working on the project.
Since then, as a footnote, I sort of feel in my heart right now how difficult it was to make this film to the point where I actually almost stopped making it. I was sort of overcome with a sense of despair, there was no positive force driving me in the editing room which there often is. There is always some sense of hope. If you make this film it will help things out. I was just in a sort of dark cloud of despair. It was very difficult for me to persevere and it was only when I found out that the young woman that had the baby had died herself a couple of months after the interview; I realized, she went through these long interviews with us like all of these girls. Like these twenty-five girls, she bared her soul to us. It was very courageous of them. I did this with the hope that their younger sisters would not have to have the same fate and that was sort of the motivation that pushed us to finish the film.
Question from the Audience
I observed a similarity in both films. Recently, I was listening to the Foreign Relations Committee in Congress taking testimony on slavery. Interestingly enough, they had only male slaves, who had escaped, testifying, but what they said was typified and demonstrated by the girls in both films. It is a commonality and they both assumed that they were the least valuable human being in both the family and in the brothel work. I am very concerned about the increasingly politicized trend to deify family and both sets of girls assumed that they had the least value, which is why they were quiet for the sake of the family. I would like you to comment on that.
I am trying to think whether the women felt when they were children if they had he least value, particularly the girl child. I think we need to make this caveat that it is not pan-South Asian, across all families, that in families that do value boy children more than the girl children, those children felt that way. But more than anything, at least in “The Children We Sacrifice”, what they felt was not as girl children but as children. They felt that they were the least valued as children and not valued in the sense that they were not lovable but that they had no power, no power to assert themselves and their feelings were never taken into consideration. They were really non-people. They were extensions of their parents. They were extensions of the family therefore they had no voice. I think where they had no value comes from the fact that in an adult world governed by adult rules and regulations and all of that as children they did not feel that they had any way of speaking out or even indicating they did not want to go near a particular perpetrator. Several of these survivors had indicated that they did not have anything to do with this perpetrator but were never listened to. Frequently, the thought is that children can’t speak and I don’t believe that’s true. I think children speak all the time; we don’t listen to them. They don’t speak like us. They are not articulate like us. They don’t form sentences and say: “This is what is happening to me.” They constantly tell us that something is going on and it does not feel right but we don’t know how to listen to children.
Oddly enough in many cases, especially from these minority families in Burma, they have to face enormous political and economic pressure right from the central government and it’s virtually impossible for many of these families to make a viable living in Burma. The villages are being burnt and they are being forced out into refugee camps in Thailand. Some of these girls are the only commodity left in the family. The family no longer has land to farm, they have sold everything of value and oftentimes you have a situation where there are five or six children in the family. Within the family, there is an older girl child, she sees other girls and other men in the village going down to Thailand. It is the only hope. It is the only possibility. It is a very natural, sort of a human need to have the possibility for a better future. Even if it is conjured out of scanty evidence, Thailand is the place for these minority families. It is the only place of hope. Of course, the parents say: “If you go down to Thailand, you go down over my dead body.”
The girls observe how desperate the situation in the family is and they know a lot of girls in the village that go down there and come back wearing jewelry and acting sassy. When the girls come back they don’t talk about doing sex work in these brothels because they are trying to save face. In all of the villages the other girls crowd around the girl who comes back and they look at her jewelry and her tee-shirt. They observe that she has got a camera and here they are in their tattered clothing with no hope of any better existence and they will long to go to Thailand. They are going to long for the land of plenty that Thailand represents and they are not going to listen to their mothers say the horrible things that could happen to you. They don’t even know what sex is. One girl said to me: “Sex. I thought it was like having dinner with a man.” That’s the extent of their knowledge. They are very vulnerable. They do go with the intention of working in a hotel or washing dishes but most of the times they are trapped. In a way, many of these girls are the only hope. They are the only thing left to cash in on. Whether they do that voluntarily with this idea that they will be doing good work or some are sold by their parents, which also happens, because they are the last thing left to sell. Very desperate situation.