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Fighting human trafficking in Cambodia
In 2002, while traveling in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Manhattan lawyer Guy Jacobson encountered a group of 5- to 7-year-old girls on a side street. One of them aggressively tried to solicit him for prostitution, saying: “I yum-yum very good. I no money today. Mama-san boxing me”—referring to the madam of her brothel, who would beat her if she came home empty-handed. Horrified, Jacobson went on to make the recent film, Holly, about a Vietnamese child prostitute, and founded Red Light Children, a nonprofit to end human trafficking. He talked with freelancer Sherry Amatenstein.
Guy Jacobsen (center left, standing) with his Holly film crew and Cambodian
children on location in K11, the brothel district of Phnom Penh

I grew up in Israel and moved to New York when I was 16. I went to high school here, then moved back to Israel to join the Army. The day after I fin-ished basic training, a war with Lebanon broke out. I stayed on, and then after the war, I returned to the States, to Brooklyn, and went to law school. I graduated in ’93 and then worked for a couple of big-city law firms for about 10 years.

At some point, I decided I wanted to do art. I wanted to make things. I had always dabbled in writing novels and articles, and even wrote a couple of movie scripts, but I didn’t want to sell those scripts. I wanted to produce them and make them myself. So around 1999, I started Priority Films, my film production company—to produce some of the films I’d written.

I started making lighter films, wacky comedies, and suspense. But around early 2001, I decided that I wanted to do more. So I decided to see the world. I went to the Czech Repub-lic, Germany, Spain, France, Hungary, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and then kept going, to Aus-tralia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and then to Southeast Asia and Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, the Mal-dives, and China, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal. Through-out, I was taking the time to think deeply about things, to focus on writing books and scripts.

And then one day about five years ago, while trav-eling in Cambodia, I was walking on a side street and suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of over a dozen little girls—five years old, maybe six. And they began very aggressively soliciting me for prostitution. Their hands went straight to my privates, and then one of them told me in broken English, I yum-yum, very good. I no money today, mama-san boxing me. That meant that the madam of the brothel where she lived would beat her up if she came home with no money.

I gave her some money. I walked away. But I said to myself that I had to do something about this.

When you start paying more attention to anything in life, it’s amazing what you can start to see. What I saw in Cambodia that afternoon in 2002 was not an isolated case. There are some 2 million kids who are kidnapped and sold into prostitution and sexual slavery and various other forms of sexual exploitation worldwide every year. The Coalition Against Trafficking estimates there are more than 400,000 under-aged prostitutes in the U.S. alone, and more than 12,000 in New York City.

Of course, I knew that there is underage prostitution, and, of course, I knew that there are pedophiles. But it’s such a horrible thing that you don’t want to believe it. You see an article about it, but you don’t want to know.

The common perception is that these kids are runaway 17-year-olds from impoverished backgrounds. But it’s not that. It’s about blond-haired, blue-eyed kids from America and young children from all kinds of economic backgrounds. And this exists in every city, in every country. In the UK, somebody got a life sentence for kidnapping and raping a three-monthold baby. In Paris, there was a huge ring of pedophiles that was busted, close to 100 of them, buying and selling and raping kids as young as six months old. I mean, most us just simply don’t connect the dots.

Human trafficking is unlike a lot of other crimes against humanity, those concentrated in one geographical place, like Darfur, and related to civil wars of some kind. But human trafficking? It happens all over, in every city in every country in the world. Kids can be taken advantage of everywhere. They don’t have a voice, by definition. What will they do, vote? March on Washington or the Parliament in Britain to protest their situation? Many times, kids who are that young aren’t aware that they’re victims. Often, they’re living this life with other kids just like them, so it seems normal. It’s amazing how quickly that kind of life becomes normal.

And it persists because the trade in trafficking comes to more than $30 billion a year. There are quite a few people that make some money out of this, and whether they are corrupt government officials in various places, corrupt police, or just organized crime, it’s become an epidemic.

So after this encounter in Phnom Penh, I thought, what can I do? The more I spoke with people, as I found more information, I realized it’s not that I’m the only idiot around that doesn’t know about human trafficking. Nobody with whom I spoke knew much more than I did, if anything at all. So in July 2003, I thought, Wait. I have a film production company. I can utilize mass media to raise awareness of an issue that is not on people’s agendas. I can put it on their agenda and let people know what really is happening.

Brothel district of Phnom Penh (above); promotional poster for the movie, Holly (inset, below); and a room inside one of the brothels photographed by Jacobson and his film crew for Holly, and a new film called K11, due out later this year So that’s when I decided to write Holly. It’s the story of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who is sold into prostitution by her family and smuggled across the border to Cambodia. She’s still a virgin and she lives in the brothel section of Phnom Phen, where she meets an American, and they develop a friendship. But by the time he’s starting to understand what is going on with this girl and decides he wants to help her, she gets sold to a trafficker and disappears. Through his desperate search to find her, we tell the story of human trafficking. We shot it entirely on location, in real brothels and in the real red-light districts, without sensationalizing the issue or using any nudity. Holly shows the life of these kids who have been trafficked.

In the course of researching Holly, I got to a point where I knew all the statistics. I knew the human trafficking problem at the macro level. But I realized that I didn’t know how a 12-year-old girl in this situation speaks, what she does in the morning, or at night, or what interaction she would have with clients. I didn’t want to do a film with cliché dialogue.

So I went back to the red light district where I encountered the problem—that was the story I wanted to tell—and went into the brothels, pretending to be a customer, all the while simply speaking to them, researching their lives along with our film team.

It was dangerous: when we got to Cambodia to film, we got a call from Interpol telling us that we were insane to be going to the most dangerous place in the world to make a movie about the world’s most dangerous subject matter. You’re all going to die, get the hell out of Cambodia, they told us. But we didn’t leave; instead, we hired bodyguards with AK-47s to protect us.

We weren’t killed, but every day, we had people sabotaging our trucks and equipment and trying to stop us. We had to pay someone to have our equipment released at the airport in Phnom Phen; our trucks in Thailand were held at the border until we paid someone another amount. It was continuous work just to be able to film. There were so many people who had a vested interest in us not making the movie, from the government right on down to the local organized crime dealers.

Holly is not Cambodia. It’s very, very important to emphasize that. Holly is a story of one girl that happened to be a Vietnamese girl in Cambodia. But Mexican girls are trafficked to the U.S. Is that any better? Korean girls are trafficked to the U.S., American girls are trafficked to Dubai; Ukranian girls or Bulgarian or Romanian or Hungarian girls are trafficked all over Europe. Brazilian girls are trafficked, too. I mean, when is it okay to traffic girls? Is it ever okay? I couldn’t make a movie about all 2.5 million kids so I focused on one, in one place. But the problem exists in every city and in every country in the world.

And the laws that need to be put in place to stop it are not just in Cambodia. Cambodia needs such laws, but then so does the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Canada, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, and every other country in the world.

A Cambodian village near Phnom Penh

That’s why I formed Red Light Children, or redlightchildren.org. At some point, as we were working on the film, I realized that awareness, alone, isn’t enough. So you go and see Holly or you hear about it and you get very depressed and angry about it, and worried that your kids or grandkids or brothers and sisters, regardless of where you live, could be whisked away by traffickers. Kids disappear in Times Square in New York City all the time. So it’s not like, Oh, it would never happen to my kids. Wrong. It’s absolutely your kids, too.

So much of this problem persists because people simply don’t want to acknowledge it’s happening. Not acknowledging that a problem exists—like AIDS— usually means that nobody is going to try to do anything to stop it. I think people prefer not to believe there are really bad problems in the world. But I don’t think it’s right to simply pretend that something is not happening. What reasonable person can justify why five-year-old girls should have 20 to 30 clients a day— or, put more bluntly, be raped 20 to 30 times a day, every day? I cannot even think of any such argument.

Or, why is it okay for somebody like me who’s 44 to go online to speak with a 12-year-old boy or girl in an explicit sexual conversation when I should know they’re a minor? Why is it okay for somebody like me to ask them to perform sexual acts on the Web cam? Why are there no laws to say this is illegal or to punish me so severely that I won’t do it?

Growing up in Israel, it was clear that you couldn’t only take a stand when somebody is harming or discriminating against your own people. It’s like the adage that people share about the Nazis, that goes something like this: When the Nazis came to take the gays, I didn’t stand up and object because I wasn’t gay. When they came to take the Jews, I didn’t object because I wasn’t a Jew. When they came to take the Catholics, I did not object because I wasn’t a Catholic. When they came to take me, there was nobody left to object.

I’m a big believer in this. It’s not about personal credit or heroics; it’s about the dignity of others, of all of us. And it becomes personal when these little kids grab your private parts. At that point, you can make a decision: Do you want to take a stand or do you not? Do you want to be reasonable or not? I’m not a reasonable guy.

Sherry Amatenstein is a New York freelance writer.
Cartography by Jim McMahon
Photographs courtesy Guy Jacobson



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