Kyiv, 30 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Girls behind prison bars vainly try to hide their faces. Prostitutes in brothel windows turn away from the camera. One woman tells a chilling story of being sold by her husband into the clutches of a mob. Others giggle coyly when they are asked what they do and boast of how much they earn.
It's all in "Ukrexport," a 30-minute film exploring the fate of Ukrainian women working abroad in the sex industry.
Made by the television production company Studio 1+1, the film was produced through a joint U.S.-European Union initiative on the prevention of trafficking in women, directed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The intention is to inform Ukrainian women of possible dangers of working abroad.
Ukraine is currently one of the largest "exporters" of women, working either willingly or under duress, in the international sex industry. Some are fooled by advertisements offering apparently innocent, well-paid work as housekeepers, dancers, or models. Later, their passports are taken from them and they are forced, often violently, to work as prostitutes.
Others are drawn to work voluntarily in the business, attracted by the promise of profits beyond anything they could earn in Ukraine, where most women are either unemployed or underemployed. However, there is usually a catch to the high earnings: the criminal rings which run international prostitution take the lion's share.
"The film intends to advise that, though you think you will be making a lot of money, that's not the case. There are a lot of middlemen," said Natalka Kocan, coordinator of the IOM project in Ukraine, which is funded by the U.S. State Department.
Filming was not easy, said the film's director, Nikolai Shavel.
The crew was banned from filming in Amsterdam's red-light district, and had to go to Brussels instead. In Turkey, authorities allowed cameras into an overcrowded detention center for people awaiting deportation, only after half the inmates were moved out and carpets laid on the floors. Almost all the women interviewed hid their faces from the camera, for fear that relatives and friends in Ukraine might recognize them.
Reactions to "Ukrexport" have been mixed. Kara Galbraith from the Ukraine office of the Newly Independent States (NIS)-United States Women's Consortium welcomed it as a good aid to raising awareness. "We needed to have a film made that deals primarily with the trafficking of Ukrainian women abroad and the lack of work opportunities at home," she said.
Two women who work with victims of trafficking, and who asked to be identified only as Katya and Olga, were more critical. Many of the unrepentant Ukrainian women, awaiting deportation from Turkey, did not regard themselves as victims, and one said it was possible to earn up to 5,000 dollars a month in her line of work. Olga and Katya said that including those remarks in the film might encourage women to work as prostitutes abroad. "Prostitution is the woman's private choice, but we don't really want anyone to present prostitution as a great job," said Olga.
In the section on Brussels, the camera lingers on women posing in the windows of the red-light district. The town appears brightly colored, the girls are beautiful. Katya objected to what she viewed as the element of voyeurism and fascination in those scenes. "It portrayed the face of a prostitute, not a victim of sexual traffic," she said. Shavel was surprised by the criticism. He said he was directed to make a film that "would make no woman ever wanting to go abroad." Shavel said the crew found that prostitutes are indeed exploited. "They work for bread and butter and cigarettes," he said. However, he acknowledged that, in Turkey, the women can earn good money in decent working conditions. He also said that Turks expressed respect and liking for Ukrainian women, who constitute, by far, the largest ethnic group among the country's foreign sex workers.
Besides "Ukrexport," the IOM has commissioned two other documentary films. The organization has also produced posters and leaflets detailing typical trafficking cases, and recommending simple precautions for women considering work abroad, such as ensuring their foreign job is clearly defined in a contract and leaving a photocopy of their passport and contact numbers and addresses with friends and family. The leaflet also provides contact numbers of Ukrainian embassies and consulates in some of the primary destinations for women working abroad, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Serbia and Turkey.
The printed material is being distributed through women's groups and aid organizations, youth clubs and regional employment centers via the Ministries of Family and Youth, Education, and Labor and Social Policy. The film was aired on nationwide television this month.
The IOM, in association with women's groups, has also organized a series of screenings followed by group discussions in various cities around Ukraine. A group of teenagers from the Ukrainian debate center who were shown the film by the NIS-U.S. Women's Consortium, found "Ukrexport" a powerful argument against leaving the hardships of Ukraine to seek their fortunes in other countries.
When a somewhat large prostitute appeared in a Brussels window, some of the Ukrainian teens giggled. But, when she spoke of having 20 clients a day, a wave of shock and disgust rippled through the viewing room.
"It's like a horror film," said one 17-year-old girl. "I wouldn't go abroad after this."