I received an email last night from my aunt, about a program that CNN is screening this week.
It’s a documentary on young women being trafficked from Vietnam, to be sold as brides to Chinese men.
The basic premise sounded very similar to Sisters For Sale, the documentary I’ve been working on for the past three years.
Even the name – Brides For Sale – echoed the title of my own film. My aunt was concerned that I’d been “beaten to the punch”.
(I love that phrase, by the way. I suppose it has something to do with boxing, but it makes me think of a party where too many people have shown up and there’s not enough sangria).
My aunt’s email reminded me of another email I’d received, in late 2014.
At that time, after almost a year’s filming in Vietnam and China, I had almost finished production on Sisters For Sale.
With the incredible wealth of material I’d gathered, I knew I had a long and challenging edit ahead of me, and that nobody would see my film for perhaps a year, maybe more.
I received an email from another documentary filmmaker who had just received a commission from Channel NewsAsia.
She was coming to Vietnam to produce a documentary on young women being trafficked from Vietnam, to be sold as brides to Chinese men.
It all sounded very familiar.
This documentary already had a release date, in early 2015, long before mine would be ready. Was I being beaten to the punch?
(Would there be enough sangria for all of us?)
I had already made my preparations to leave Vietnam – but I came back, to meet this other documentary filmmaker.
And I did everything I could to help her.
By that time, I’d become something of a local expert on the trafficking crisis. I understood the problem. I was friends with many of the local survivors, and victims’ families.
I had their phone numbers. I knew which huts they lived in, in which villages. I knew which ones were happy to tell their stories, and which were not.
I offered all of my knowledge and experience to this other filmmaker. I gave her all the introductions she wanted.
In fact, I went further than that: I introduced her to some of the key figures in my own documentary, and I even let her use some of my own footage.
To anyone else, it might have seemed crazy – almost as if I was punching myself. Hard. In the face.
I’d spent a long, difficult and dangerous year gathering this material, and building up all these contacts. Why on Earth would I surrender them to a rival?
Because she wasn’t my rival.
I hadn’t come to Vietnam to beat other filmmakers. I’d come to beat the traffickers.
If this other filmmaker could help me expose the horrendous crimes taking place amongst the villages, if her film was better funded and was to be released sooner, all the better.
So what if it wasn’t my project?
I wasn’t there to feed my ego. I was there to get attention for the local human trafficking crisis, to help the countless girls being stolen from their families.
Sisters For Sale, Brides For Sale, Bargain Brides – it doesn’t matter what we call it, or what network it’s on.
It only matters that this issue gets the attention it needs.
Before she left Vietnam, this other filmmaker told me that her film was just a small story, and would soon disappear. My film, on the other hand, was something else entirely. Mine was the kind of story that could survive.
Maybe she was just telling me what I wanted to hear. But I was there on both productions, and I’ve seen the results of both, and I believe she was right.
Although both of our films focus on the same issue, in the same area, and even share a little of the same material, there is really no comparison between them.
The story of girls being trafficked into China has been seen before, and it will be seen again. It is an important story, and it needs to be shown.
But it has never been seen the way it will be in Sisters For Sale.
A television production crew constructs their story in a completely different way.
They’ll come in cold, with a lot of money, little time, and no real connection to the place or its people.
They’ll scrounge around for some action, trying to make something happen in real time, and maybe they’ll get lucky.
Most of their story, though, will happen in past tense. They’ll dig up a few interesting interview subjects, sit them down, and listen to their stories.
They’ll cut it all up and stick it together to beat a deadline, and then they’ll rush off to their next job.
They can’t do the things I’ve done, and they can’t take the risks I’ve taken. They can’t get as close to the very real danger that exists there in Vietnam and China.
I took my time. I took risks. I pushed as hard as I could, for as long as I could. And I got lucky.
Sisters For Sale shows a real investigation, in real time, with all its twists and turns. The characters are my friends. The location is my home. Nothing is staged or re-enacted.
The feature-length format allows me to reveal the true depth and complexity of the issue, rather than just skimming the surface.
Sisters For Sale is not like anything you’ve seen on television.
It can be frustrating at times, knowing these television production crews have more money to spend in a matter of weeks than I’ve had in the past three years.
After all I’ve been through and all I’ve done, with the phenomenal story and wealth of footage I have, it seems almost surreal that Sisters For Sale is being delayed for a lack of funds, but there it is.
I’ve now suspended all work on the documentary to raise the necessary completion funds. It will take as long as it needs to.
In the meantime, I’m not at all concerned about being beaten to the punch.
Let CNN put their documentary out there. Let it be seen, and let it make it all the noise it can. Let the world see what’s happening to these girls.
What’s the worst that could possibly happen? That the human trafficking crisis will be solved before I finish my film?
That would be fantastic.
We need to get everyone we can to this party. There’s plenty of sangria to go around.
When Sisters For Sale is ready, it will come.
Do you have the skills to help build our Sisters For Sale fundraising campaign? Join the team here:
Support my work here.