Reel Corner

A Conversation with Academy Award Nominated Director Robert Bilheimer

The World Affairs Council of Hilton Head is sponsoring the screening of Not My Life, a documentary film, narrated by Glenn Close, about slavery in our time, on October 28th, 7-9 p.m. at Coligny Theater. It is open to the public and has been shown to different demographics and stimulated a variety of conversations.

Not My Life is the first documentary film to depict the horrifying and dangerous practices of human trafficking and modern slavery on a global scale. Filmed on five continents over a period of four years, this documentary unflinchingly, but with enormous dignity and compassion, depicts the unspeakable practices of a multi-billion dollar global industry, whose profits, as the film's narration says, "are built on the backs and beds of our planet's youth."

Not My Life features dignified and inspiring testimony from survivors; depictions of trafficking, exploitation, and slavery in all parts of the world, including forced labor in Africa, street begging in India, sexual trafficking in the United States and Southeast Asia, and various forms of child enslavement and abuse in both North and South America.

I had the opportunity to interview the Oscar nominated director Robert Bilheimer.

DONNE PAINE: What drew you to this type of material?
BILHEIMER: I have always been drawn to issues surrounding human rights and important subjects. After filming A Closer Walk, about the global AIDS epidemic, a colleague suggested exploring making a film on human trafficking. So I began to educate myself, and one thing lead to another, and six, seven years later here we are.

How close did you get to the victims?
BILHEIMER: As close as humanly possible. I learned early on you have to work on two parallels, developing trust of the victims, while telling the story in a dignified manner. Yet we had a job to do. Many times it was hard to imagine that some of the victims were still standing after ten years of abuse and human trafficking. Many times we would have to take a breath and pause for a moment being in the middle of this world. For instance, while filming A Closer Walk, the AIDS film, one of the victims died in our presence, which was quite emotional.

DONNE PAINE: Did you see differences/similarities on human trafficking on different continents?
BILHEIMER: Even though practices differed, from the indentured servitude in Washington, DC to the families that sell their children for labor to fishing villages, there were similarities. There are certain codes or practices traffickers use. They call them "sweet talking strangers" or "sweet talking relatives" all praying on the poor and ignorant. They all practice fraud behaviors of various kinds. So, I would say more similar than different.

Did you see any signs of hope/any signs of change?
BILHEIMER: As long as you have these very passionate dedicated folks in the NGOs (non-governmental organizations, there is some hope. No one will deny that in the last ten years rescue efforts have been small. I think 30,000 have been rescued compared to over 30 million women and children being held as child laborers or participants of sex tourism.
Then you look at USA Today with the FBI making their cross-country bust and rescuing over 100 underage victims. It is their yearly effort. But, little by little, progress is being made. At times it's like one step forward two steps back.

With any human rights issue, it runs the risk of being fashionable one minute then not the next. Look at Haiti. After the earthquake everyone was there. Everyone was talking about helping Haiti. It is still a mess, but it is out of the picture with public concern.

The other problem is it differs from like the AIDs crisis. AIDs victims had a name, and there was treatment. Also, having AIDs is not a criminal offense.
No one knows what to call this problem. Is it Human Trafficking? Is it Modern Slavery? There are more complications around this issue. There are no laws in some countries, or some laws but not being enforced. All making this issue a more complicated one to tackle. You add poverty, social injustice, and an occasional disaster like the earthquake in Haiti, these traffickers seize every vulnerable moment.

DONNE PAINE: What was your goal with this project?
BILHEIMER: I'm an artist I appreciate a creative challenge and I have a small staff. We are just hoping we can get the message through our film out to as many people as possible. We feel strongly that awareness is key right now for any change to happen and to keep ahead of the issue.

DONNE PAINE: I'm interested in your observations of what happens to the children after they are rescued.
BILHEIMER: At the end of the film the child soldier Gracie was an example of success. Of course there isn't nearly the rescues that anyone would like. The numbers don't lie. There are only about 30,000 rescues last year and about 30 million involved.

I don't think the world can go on with this continuing to happen.these are children. Who does this to their children? To a degree, I have a great deal of hope with the young people I have met who are addressing this issue.

What can people do to help?
BILHEIMER: There's a lot society can do. We need doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, coordinators.
What we are trying to do is raise awareness and let those who watch the film find their own way to help.

DONNE PAINE: With the seriousness of the topics of your films, what do you do for fun?
BILHEIMER: I'm a fairly normal guy; I don't wear this on my sleeve. I tend to be a very happy person. If you were to see me I have a fairly happy personality. I'm a new grandfather and that brings me joy.

I interviewed Kofi Annan of the United Nations when I was doing my AIDS film. I said to him...everyone asks me, "What can I do?  And he said, "We can all do something with who we are."  I'm hoping doing my part in bringing awareness to this issue in my film is being who I am. So, at some level, I'm at peace.

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