Documentary Explores Sex Trade in Southeast Asia

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MICHAEL D. REID / TIMES COLONIST

Mike Crowhurst on the set of Street Dreams: “We tried not to do just another study on the doom and gloom, but to look more at their individual stories.”

When Mike Crowhurst pedalled Kabuki Kabs and worked at B.C. Ferries here in his late teens, he learned a thing or two about the tourist industry.

But nothing prepared him for the sex tourism of Southeast Asia.

“We went from knowing nothing about the topic to almost everything,” said Crowhurst, recalling his experiences making Street Dreams, his sobering documentary about the international sex industry and its toll on the desperate girls it exploits.

The Adelaide, Australia-based filmmaker is flying back to Sidney, where his parents currently live, to participate in a Q&A after Street Dreams makes its North American première on Monday at the seaside community’s Star Cinema.

Despite its title, there’s nothing dreamy about the film Crowhurst shot and produced with director Jason Bray, his partner in Red Earth Films, their Australian production company that specializes in films on social-justice issues.

Nightmare is more like it. That certainly describes the lives of young victims whose “bodies may belong to others, but [whose] dreams are still their own,” to quote the tagline for the duo’s exposé of human trafficking and child prostitution.

While these issues have been well-documented, Crowhurst, 42, says Street Dreams offers a fresh perspective. They deliberately detoured from the usual catalogue of horrors to focus on stories of hope and rescue through intimate interviews.

Street Dreams concentrates as much on the childhood dreams of the victims as on the tragic impact of human trafficking, documenting missions by support organizations such as Manila-based FOCUS and the international group Destiny Rescue to free and rehabilitate enslaved young victims robbed of their childhoods.

“We tried not to do just another study on the doom and gloom, but to look more at their individual stories,” he said. “The film is saying that these girls are much the same as us. They have dreams, too, and they wanted to tell their stories.”

The global flesh trade in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and beyond is a billion-dollar industry with an estimated four million people, mostly women, working in prostitution. It is an industry that wouldn’t flourish if customers from Australia, the U.S. — including many military members — Korea and elsewhere stopped to consider the human cost, Crowhurst said.

One subtext is the role played by Western society, with the plight of the children sold into prostitution to ease their families’ financial burdens used as a metaphor for more widespread exploitation overseas.

“It survives because it’s about the exploitation of people when they’re poor, and because of greed,” Crowhurst said. “A lot of people stand to make a lot of money. There is a point when many can see past the exploitation because of that.”

The film dispels the notion that girls in the trade enjoy what they’re doing and are amply compensated.

“A lot of customers think the girls are doing this voluntarily, when in fact, they’re just putting on a smiling face. It’s ‘ignorance is bliss’ — that sort of thing,” said Crowhurst, who went undercover in Southeast Asia two years ago.

The film crews’ travels took them to Bangkok, the world sex capital with 20,000 brothels in operation, and Angeles City, the sex capital of the Philippines, where 12,000 young girls reportedly work as prostitutes. Crowhurst covertly captured flesh-trade footage using a Canon digital SLR camera, as well as tiny cameras hidden in wristwatches, ballpoint pens and iPod Nanos with video capability.

“We pretended we were customers ourselves,” said Crowhurst, who was actually shooting video when he appeared to be just another Australian tourist taking snapshots.

The filmmakers had to be vigilant, he said, noting Russian, Japanese and Chinese mobs control trafficking in different regions.

“If you cross these guys, they have no problem making sure you don’t make that mistake twice.”

He says it was a risk worth taking, however, if the film helps rescue even one child and gives her a chance of a better life.

Admission to Street Dreams is $6, and donations are welcome. The screening is at 1 p.m. Monday at the Star. For more information, call 250-655-3384, or go to redearthfilms.com.au.

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