Speaking in tongues

Posted November 06

Today I want to recognise a few of the unsung heroes behind the scenes here at 'The Human, Earth Project' - the interpreters and translators who have made 'Sisters For Sale' possible.

'Sisters For Sale', our feature documentary, tells the story of the search for my kidnapped friends in Vietnam and China. 

Not only did this search involve investigating extensive criminal networks, but doing so in regions where I couldn't even speak the language. 

While I was fortunate that the central figures in the film all spoke English, others did not, and I could never have done it alone. 

The search itself, and the later translation of footage for the documentary, was made possible by an amazing group of people, including some very good friends of mine. 

Some of these people I've been working closely with for years, others have contributed just a few lines of translation, and I'm deeply grateful to all of them for their time, energy and talents in making this happen.

(I hope I haven't forgotten anyone!) 

Giang Thi Chan and Giang Thi Chu worked with me during the investigation, appearing as interpreters within the film itself. 

My friend and human trafficking survivor P also assisted with interpretation. 

Acquiring more precise translations of the Hmong language proved especially challenging, as the dialect spoken in the film is very regional, and local literacy levels are low. 

Another Hmong friend, who has chosen to remain anonymous, spent a great deal of time working with me in translating interviews more fully. 

Further Hmong translations were made by Giang Thi Vu, Hang Thi Dinh, Suong Mai and Vu Thi Bao Ngan. 

This summer, I met with Lo Thi Mai and her family at their home in Belgium, where Mai worked with me on the final Hmong translations and corrections for the film. 

But English and Hmong are not the only languages in the film. 

From the very beginning of 'The Human, Earth Project', Qiuda Guo has been of immeasureable assistance with the Chinese language, culture and local knowledge. 

Nicole Zhao and Yuqing Zhang have assisted with more region-specific Chinese parts, while my good friend Catherine Irwin-Gibson provided translations from French. 

Translating everything into English was the first step - the next is making 'Sisters For Sale' accessible to a broader international audience. 

Ultimately, I'd love to have the documentary subtitled in numerous languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Hmong itself - for the moment, I'm focusing on some of the major European languages. 

Jaen Nieto Amat, Natalia Glargaard, Johanna Leiner and Maria Julia Ravera worked on the French, German and Spanish translations of the 'Sisters For Sale' trailer. 

Last month, we embarked on the most ambitious translation project to date: producing our very first foreign translation of the entire documentary, in French. 

It was a huge job, involving 1,529 individual subtitles, 26 name titles, 9 titles for the beginning and the end of the film, and 7 animations. 

I personally spent over 47 hours working on it - and I wasn't even doing any of the translations! 

We had a fantastic translation team, including some close friends who have been involved with the project from the very beginning, and some new faces: Leila Azul, the unstoppable Alexandre Boulianne, Anna Bromwich, the merveilleux Mireille Maheu, and Emmanuelle Vallières-Léveillé. 

The work was supervised by the professionally-qualified English-French translator Elisabeth De Sa Barbaro, who was an absolute rockstar. 

Thank you all! 

And French is only the beginning... 

Our next translation project will be making 'Sisters For Sale' available to the Spanish world - if you know anyone who is fluent in both English and Spanish and wants to get onboard, let me know! 


I'd like to thank all the women who responded to the question I posed in my last blog post, and via Facebook - answers are still coming in, six weeks later! 

I was fascinated by the spectrum of thoughts and feelings on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. 

The explosion of the #metoo campaign on social media last month helped highlight some of the challenges women face every day, and just how much work remains to be done, even in more progressive cultures. 


It's been a strange time for 'The Human, Earth Project', with several of the people closest to the project facing challenging times. 

The project has been spinning somewhat off-centre, and things have been progressing more slowly than expected. 

I want to send love and hugs out to those people, and gratitude for all you've done and are doing - you've been amazing :)

The documentary itself is awaiting music and a final sound mix, and is coming soon! 


In late September, 'Sisters For Sale' was featured in an article by Jacek Pawlicki on the sale of young women from Vietnam into China, which was published in Newsweek's Polish edition. 


Earlier this year, I finally had a chance to read 'The Shut Eye', a fantastic crime novel by Belinda Bauer, which cites 'The Human, Earth Project' as an inspiration. 

If you're in the UK, for this week only you can grab a copy of 'The Shut Eye' for just 99 pence here


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A touch of colour

Posted September 28

I met Marta Farina on my very first trip to Vietnam, seven years ago. 

I spent two weeks with Marta and her then-partner Fausto, getting to know Sapa and the Hmong girls who have now become the focus of our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale'. 

The next time I saw Marta and Fausto was in their hometown in northern Italy, two years later. 

It was a strange moment in my life - I'd heard about the abduction of my Hmong friend M from Sapa and wanted to do something about it, but didn't yet know what form that would take. 

I would never have suspected that that simple thought would become the dominant fact of my life for years to come. 

Marta is an amazing artist, and Fausto is a house painter. Together we painted a mural outside their hometown featuring M and Sapa's rice terraces (I can't find a photo right now, unfortunately!). 

Marta studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and the École Estienne in Paris, and her award-winning work has been widely published and exhibited. 

I first announced Marta's involvement in 'Sisters For Sale' three years ago

Marta was to illustrate an animated title sequence for the film - and she did, and it was beautiful. 

Sadly, it's among many parts of the film that have since been left on the cutting-room floor, for brevity's sake. 

Happily, Marta and I developed other animated sequences which feature elsewhere in 'Sisters For Sale', and are now among my favourite parts of the film. 

I'm a huge fan of Marta's work, have loved the process of creating something so beautiful together, and want to thank her for all the time and energy she has put into the film. 

As you know, the abduction and suspected trafficking of my friends from Vietnam inspired the work which has dominated the past 4.5 years of my life: raising awareness of the global human trafficking crisis. 

That work has, in turn, led me to an even greater global issue: the issue of women's rights around the world. 

It can be very easy, particularly as a male, to remain ignorant of the true depth and magnitude of this issue on a global scale. It can also be very easy for us to remain ignorant of the effects our own personal actions have on the women in our own lives.

I'm currently taking some time out from my work on 'Sisters For Sale', and am very interested to take a closer look at what it means to be a woman on planet Earth in 2017 - as determined by politics, by history, by men, and by women themselves.

I shared this very simple question on my personal Facebook page last week and have had an amazing response, so I've decided to share it here with the female supporters of 'The Human, Earth Project': 

What does being a woman mean to you?

I want to hear whatever you'd like to say - the good and bad, on strength and vulnerability, on childhood, on motherhood, on childlessness, on love, on marriage, on sexuality.

Here's the tricky part: if at all possible, I'd like you to keep your answers short, to try and get at the essence of a complex human experience in just a few sentences.

You can answer via our Facebook page or message me directly at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com. Take as much time as you'd like. 

Please feel free to share this message - I'd like to hear as many responses as possible, though I may not be able to reply to them all personally. 

Thank you!

If you haven't pre-ordered 'Sisters For Sale', that's still the only guaranteed way of seeing it. 

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Almost killed me

Posted September 18

I never imagined making a feature film would be easy, but I never knew how hard it was going to be. 

You pick the film apart. You put it back together. You watch it again, and again, until you just can't see it anymore. You push yourself, just a little further. 

Making 'Sisters For Sale' has never been an easy process. For years, I've put everything into this project - all of my time, all of my energy, all of my personal savings. 

I've been threatened with murder and extortion and legal action. I've been attacked, and accused of all sorts of things. 

I've lost friends, and people I cared about deeply. I lost myself. I've lost contact even with the friends I started this work for. 

This project has left me in personally very difficult places, much more so than I've been willing to admit publicly. I've relied on the help of others far more than I've been comfortable with. 

I've watched as those around me have advanced in their careers, grown their businesses, bought homes, started families, settled into more comfortable lives. 

I can hardly remember who I was or what I wanted when I first began this project, so completely has it consumed my life. 

Anyone who knows me well knows I don't function properly without sleep. I can go without eating, and have a high tolerance for discomfort - but not sleeping just destroys me. 

This summer has been an odyssey of sleep deprivation, of making crucial technical and creative decisions in no fit state to do so. 

I've discovered that the key to working longer hours is simple: just remove regular meals, sleep and any meaningful human contact from your life. 

In the end, I wasn't working to finish a film: I was working to get my life back. I'm grateful to have survived the past few months without illness or any major technical issues.  

Last year, I spent long hours working through illness and exhaustion to meet the targets I set myself. I've already exceeded last year's total hours - four months early - and have now gone far beyond them. 

I don't want to tell you how much this project has cost, but I will say it has cost substantially more than the funds we raised last year, without my having been paid a cent. 

It could easily have cost four or five times as much if I hadn't been keeping a close eye on the finances, and handling so much of the work myself. 

At a certain point, you realise there is no finish line, that the film can be endlessly refined, that the process can continue indefinitely. 

At a certain point, you have to draw the line yourself. 

At a certain point, all that time and money and heartache, all those countless hours of footage shot, all those thousands of kilometres travelled, all boil down to a single video file, like a piece of yourself that has been cut out and preserved in digital format. 

We still don't have that file - others are still working on the music and sound - but my part in the post-production of the film is essentially over. 

Last year, I announced I was taking a break from this project - and took just five days off before launching into a long, emotionally-draining fundraising campaign. 

I realise now that I can't get away from the project so easily - there's always more work to be done - but I will be taking more time for myself over the coming months. 

I'd like to thank Claire, Curtis, Danilo, Jeppe, Laco, Mai, Marta, Qiuda, Roman and everyone else I've worked with this year - you've been amazing. 

If you haven't pre-ordered the film, that's still the only guaranteed way of seeing it. 

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The final cut

Posted September 11

Many things in life are a lot more complicated and time-consuming than originally anticipated. Recording the narration for our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale', was no exception. 

When I first began scripting the film, I tried to distance myself from the story, to tell it from a more objective point of view. It's a story about women, and I wanted a female narrator for the documentary. 

I'd approached friend and voice artist Betheny Zolt, who voiced the original trailer. 

I soon realised, however, that my own story was an integral part of the greater story, and the most powerful way to tell that story to a Western audience was in my own words - so it's my voice that will guide the audience through the film. 

But I'm no Morgan Freeman, and there's a lot more to narrating a film than simply talking. 

I've been told that my own passion for this story is one of its greatest assets - but while that enthusiasm may be an asset in real life, it doesn't necessarily work in a film. 

Last month, for the first time in six years, I had a chance to catch up with Rami and Ivana Shaafi - two wonderful human beings who have been huge supporters of 'The Human, Earth Project' from its very beginning. 

You will all have heard Rami's impressive vocal work on the 'Sisters For Sale' trailer. Apart from Rami being an extremely talented overtone singer, Rami and Ivana play an incredible array of native instruments from around the world - strings, wind, percussion, you name it.

The endless encouragement and unwavering support I've received from Rami and Ivana have meant a great deal to me over the past few years, as they've followed my story through good times and bad. 

Rami and Ivana introduced me to Roman Plačintár, who records Rami's albums. Roman was great to work with, and we spent two sessions at his studio in Bratislava, recording the narration for 'Sisters For Sale'. 

Everything was fantastic, except my voice. 

It's a little-known fact, but one of the many bizarre experiences I've had as a traveller was a brief stint as a catwalk model in Mumbai. Never in my adult life had I concentrated so hard on something so seemingly simple as the act of walking. 

By taking conscious control of an otherwise unconscious action, it suddenly became incredibly complicated, and gave me a new appreciation of all the things our minds do without our even realising. 

In the same way, when you begin to focus on the speed and tone of your voice, your enunciation and emphasis, all those little muscles that play a part in shaping each word, and the effect of your breathing and posture, suddenly talking isn't so simple anymore. 

My narration from the Bratislava sessions just didn't fit the film. 

Having left the Schengen for visa reasons, I spent two more sessions recording with Danilo Crnogorac in a Serbian city with a long and unpronounceable name (Kragujevac - though it doesn't actually sound anything like that). 

After a marathon final session which yielded almost 3.5 hours of recordings, we got it. 

Danilo and I recorded over half an hour of audio for just the final 5 minutes of the film, when the various threads of the film are all tied up. 

As Danilo said, noting my progress, "You taught yourself how to talk". I believe it was a compliment.

Then, of course, came long days of sorting through all that audio, selecting the best clips and trimming them down to fit into the film. Unfortunately we didn't have the technology to tone down the strange international accent I've picked up after years of living abroad. 

With the narration in place, I now have a final edit of 'Sisters For Sale'. 

All the way back in June, I said the film was getting "very close" to the final cut, and just needed a few tweaks. Since then, I've gouged a full half-hour from 'Sisters For Sale', taking it from 122 minutes to just 92. 

Thirty meticulously-crafted minutes have been torn out and left on the cutting-room floor - including a lot of beautiful footage, and animations I'd spent weeks preparing - and 'Sisters For Sale' is looking leaner and meaner than ever.  

Everything is in place now but the music, some final animations, a final sound mix and the end credits.

The past month has been insanely busy, and there's been a lot more happening than I've had time to share here on the blog. I'll be playing catch-up, and introducing you to more of the team, when things start to quieten down. 

I'd like to thank Judith Cooper for her recent support, it's much appreciated! 

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Making the grade

Posted August 24

There are almost a thousand separate pieces of footage in 'Sisters For Sale'. 

Each of those needs to be analysed, corrected and enhanced so they look great both individually, and as a cohesive whole. 

Some shots require little or no adjustment. Others can be run through a dozen processes or more.

A series of meticulous adjustments - for colour balance, contrast, exposure, saturation, etc. - can be applied to the image as a whole, or any number of masks and selections. 

It's a process known as colour grading, which involves both a keen eye, and extremely accurate, well-calibrated equipment. 

All of the films and commercials you see have been graded - and, as with many aspects of filmmaking, it is both an art and a science. 

Jeppe Hildebrandt and I first began grading 'Sisters For Sale' last month in Denmark, but were limited by the equipment available at the time. 

This week, I've been working with professional colorist Laco Gaal in his studio in downtown Budapest. 

I call it a studio but it's more of a Batcave, where any external light is screened off by a heavy door and floor-to-ceiling blackout curtains, and the only illumination comes from the array of screens. 

Laco and I have spent long days huddled in the cave, poring over the film, treating it with some of the most sophisticated tools available. 

Laco's been an absolute pleasure to work with, never ceasing to amaze me with his keen eye and hands that seem to dance almost intuitively over the various controls - thank you! 

You can see some of Laco's beautiful work here.

I'd also like to thank Kerstin, Kristin, Markus, Werner, Jordina and Philipp for your assistance this month. 

'Sisters For Sale' is looking beautiful, and is getting very close to completion! 

To keep up with all the news on 'Sisters For Sale' and 'The Human, Earth Project', subscribe here

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