…This is Real Too

by Michelle Brock on November 29th, 2012

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Jay and I never envisioned that our first time in Europe together would be to make a documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking. Before this project was conceived, we had pictured taking in all the glorious sights, marvelling at the historical architecture, and spending days exploring beautiful nature. Instead we get to visit red light districts, hear the stories of both domestic and international victims, run past monuments and landmarks on the way to interviews, and spend some beautiful days indoors instead of outdoors, catching up on emails and research.

The selfish part of me sighs. The focused part of me pushes forward. The traveller part of me whines. The compassionate part of me remembers that these women are worth it. I am like a walking oxymoron, a contradiction within myself.

Thinking of all the abuse, the broken systems, and the darkness we are learning about, I recently told Jay, “at least we are seeing the real side if Europe.” I admit there was an air of superiority in my voice as I expressed the fact that I was seeing what actually goes in these cities while most people only see the nice things. Expecting him to nod in agreement, he said something that startled me. He pointed to the beautiful part of town we were passing and said,

“Michelle, this is also the real side of Europe.”


It’s true. And for a moment I grieved that I had become so callous.


Europe, or North America, or Asia – or whatever part of the world you happen to be in – is both. Both ugly and beautiful, despairing and hopeful, sad and joyful, good and evil. It contains compassion and aggression, greed and generosity, hatred and love, exploitation and empowerment.

I have always thought that seeing the world through the lens of a tourist is dangerous and wrong, because it ignores the suffering and reality of day-to-day life. But this week I have come to a different conclusion. I believe it is wrong to see the world only through that lens, but to remove it entirely is not necessary either. It is okay to marvel at the grandeur of Notre Dame, or to savour the taste of a delicate dessert, or squeal with delight at the sight of Christmas lights. It is good to be enchanted with a story from history, or to breathe deeply the air of the mountains in a foreign land, or to stop and listen to someone playing music on the street.

Focusing on these beautiful things alone can lead to a self-absorbed life, void of purpose. But if we couple our love and passion for life with a compassion and concern for other humans, we might just feel energized enough to make a difference in the world.

Perhaps celebrating life – with eyes open – is one of the best ways to inspire change, and drag the darkness into the light.






Speak Life

by Michelle Brock on November 17th, 2012

This week we met with a lovely woman from Brazil who was trafficked to Switzerland for prostitution. She was willing to take part in an audio interview, which ended up being over an hour in length.  By the end, the emotion in that room was palpable.

I often struggle knowing what to say to someone who has experienced such violence and trauma.  But I set aside my fears of saying the wrong thing, looked her directly in the eyes, and told her she was beautiful, and brave, and precious.  Tears streamed down her face.  Words of life have more power than we realize, especially when someone has heard so many words of death.  As I’ve reflected on this encounter, Toby Mac’s Speak Life  has become the week’s theme song.






The Exploitation of Adventure

by Michelle Brock on November 10th, 2012

travelThere are few things more exciting than packing for your first trip without your parents – checking and double checking your bus or flight tickets, busting out your mini travel dictionary to test foreign phrases on your tongue before uttering them to a stranger, and getting familiarized with a map.

All of a sudden, the town you have grown up in seems dull, and foreign lands with stunning landscapes, bustling cities, and new friends entice you to come and experience freedom and adventure.  I took my first flight alone at age 16.  I remember shaking slightly in my boots, from both adrenaline and fright, as I stepped out of my parents’ car and boarded that early morning flight.  I felt so alive.

I pondered this memory last week while travelling by bus and train through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.  As the small towns and countryside flew past my window, I began to think of the similarities between the young women and girls in these villages and those living in Western, more “developed” countries like Canada.  One similarity kept reaching the forefront of my mind: young people in both places long for adventure.  It is the “anywhere but here” scenario.

When I first found out that young women in in many of these small towns are targeted by traffickers who promise them work or adventure abroad, I could not believe how they would be so foolish as to fall for it.  Who would up and leave the town where their friends and family are to follow someone they barely know to a distant land?  I have since been humbled by increased understanding on this.

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Trafficking route from Czech Republic to Germany runs through this little town


It is easy to assume that these girls are just being foolish, but in reality there are some major push factors.  The first is desperate financial circumstances.  The chance of getting a job in many of these regions is slim, and the promise of work in a a big city or different country is simply irresistible. The second push factor is rarely mentioned in reports and vulnerability analyses.  It is a characteristic that many young people around the world share, and sometimes shapes their decisions more than caution, reason, or wisdom: a craving for adventure.  

247415 515559144389 535 n 300x262A craving for adventure does not inherently put a person at risk for exploitation.  I had many adventurous experiences in my late teens, from sky diving and rafting on the Zambezi, to volunteering at an orphanage and travelling to many countries.   None of these put me at high risk for being sold or abused.  The pursuit of “low-risk” adventure is the luxury of the haves, while the have nots often have the same longing for new experiences, but it comes at the cost of their safety.  When desperate economic circumstances are mixed with a youthful desire for adventure, traffickers can smell vulnerability.

It has been a jolt to the system to realize that the opportunity to have “low-risk adventure” is yet another gift and stewardship that I have been blessed with as a middle-class North American.  We must not judge these young women for falling prey to traffickers, but realize that we as humans all share common dreams and ambitions.  Some of us just happen to have the opportunity to pursue those ambitions in a more secure way.  I must point out that not all victims get lured because of a hunger to see the world, many of them simply want to support a family and would prefer to stay at home if that was financially viable.

Perhaps we need to reconsider what we see as adventure.  Instead of jumping from one adrenaline rush to the next, from one vacation to another, maybe it is time to consider things that take real courage.  Like adopting a child.  Or volunteering at a shelter.  Or befriending a difficult neighbour.  Or getting trained to help in natural disasters.  Or starting an organization.  The thrill of adventure is not wrong – I think it is interwoven into our fabric to seek new experiences.  But we must also look around at the very real needs around us and realize that not everyone has those same opportunities.

My challenge to you is this.  If you are like me and have had the opportunity to pursue adventure to some degree, be it travel, or outdoor expeditions, or sports, or a hobby, take a moment and acknowledge that you are grateful.

Then, when you plan your next adventure, however big or small, I would ask that you set aside a little bit of extra money and invest it in something that reduces another’s vulnerability, giving them an opportunity to dream and live and experience new things.  For example, you can make a donation to Not for Sale Amsterdam, who we got to meet with in the red light district a few weeks ago, to support their efforts to reduce vulnerability through enterprise.  Do some research on different organizations and projects and make it part of your adventure budget to provide opportunities for others to have a real livelihood.

Or maybe you want to go a step further and work on the front lines with at-risk communities or trafficking victims, where progress is slow and messy, and triumphs are dotted with challenges and setbacks.  Though empowered and restored lives take a lot of work, they are true cause for an adrenaline rush.






On the Road Confessions

by Michelle Brock on November 6th, 2012

jumbledThoughtsSometimes my thoughts are in a jumble until I can sort out my angst, ideas, frustrations, hopes, and fears in written form – be it a blog post, and article, or a journal entry.  This is one of those times.  I am sitting here at my computer with a tangled mess of thoughts, hoping that as I type they will take on more clarity and meaning.

I have often said that making a documentary is like writing a thesis in 3D. Not only does the information have to be accurate, but the stories must be compelling, the audio must be perfect, and the visuals must be powerful or at least representative of what we are trying to address.  The challenges we face are significant.  Here are some of those challenges that we face on a daily basis.

First of all, we hold a strong conviction that we are not to film the women who are either in the red light windows or walking the streets in search of customers.  We try to keep any shots in these areas very general.  Most of these women are already being exploited, and the last thing we want to do is exploit them further by exposing them on film to an international audience.  One of our friends who works with prostituted women said that she has recognized some of the women that she knows in other films, and felt unsettled about that.

The question is, how do you expose the true nature of the sex trade and the horrific state of sex trafficking victims in a way that is truthful and real, without being exploitative?  One woman who thought we were filming her came up to our car and hit the window, and understandably so.  It is moments like this that remind us that we are dealing with the lives of human beings, not just a “cause” or an “issue” that is composed of faceless statistics.

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View from train window, on the way to a morning interview in Germany


Anyone who has made a film will tell you that sometimes people are timid on camera and really open up when it turns off.  This has happened several times.   I must resist the urge to get frustrated when this happens, and instead use that time as an opportunity to learn more so that we can add depth to our film in other creative ways.  Often the people we meet en route, when our camera is safely packed away, have really insightful things to say, and in those moments I wish I had a memory of a detective.  I have learned to carry a pen at all times, arriving back at our base with scribbled bits of sentences on napkins that I hope to piece together in an effort to re-create the conversation.

Then there is building trust.  We are only in each country for a few days or a week, not giving us very much time to meet people who can direct us to further connections once they have established a relationship with us.  Since our subject matter deals with organized crime, building trust with those on the front lines, as well as victims, is crucial.

The goal of victims is to stay alive, to stay safe, to keep a low profile.  Our goal is to find stories that will make a compelling film, with the hopes of changing how people think about prostitution.    These two goals seldom mix, even though we all want sexual exploitation to end.  A man we spoke with today said that many victims cannot even build coherent sentences due to the trauma they have experienced, let alone sit in front of a camera and recount their stories to a stranger.

Some documentaries get the dirt on people, fling it in their faces, and trample on those who oppose their ideology or the point they are trying to make.  Our hope is that we treat everyone we come across with dignity and respect, even those who disagree with us.  Any film that deals with clandestine or controversial matter must address and expose truth and lies, and this will no doubt ruffle feathers. But as a human being I am called to treat all others as human beings.  As someone who does not want to offend anyone (in true Canadian style!), making a film about a sensitive and explosive topic is difficult.   We must be bold but respectful, truthful but compassionate, aggressive but discerning.

Though I have witnessed and learned much about income inequality, poverty, hopelessness, and abuse all around the world before this trip, I have not felt the weight of human depravity and desperation until now.  Not like this.  I must discard the expectation that our documentary will be the miracle that makes exploitation ground to a halt.  It is a piece of the solution, yes, but a superhero mentality is not healthy or helpful to anyone.  I must remind myself that our responsibility is to do the best with what we have.  That’s it.

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Taking a break and enjoying the beauty of Prague!


We have had the opportunity to do a few normal tourist things, like taking a city tour in Berlin and gazing and the beautiful architecture of Prague.  These moments allow me to remember that though the world is so full of pain, it is also full of gorgeous sunsets, friendly locals willing to give directions, delicious pastries, used book stores, beautiful languages, new friends, old friends, and bright smiles.

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Incredible hospitality from new German friends in the Czech Republic!


Ah…I knew I just had to write that all out.  Now I can go to bed!