Thai audiences in the dark about ‘Children of the Dark’

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Human trafficking – peddling and trading of human beings for slavery, sexual exploitation and servitude – has grown to alarming proportions in recent years. It’s among the top five illicit trades in the world, whose net annual worth is believed to be between 9 billion and 42 billion US dollars. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how big it is, but human rights activists and development agencies agree the problem is pervasive.

Of the estimated 2.5 million persons trafficked worldwide, more than half are in the Asia Pacific. At the UN General Assembly for Children in August 2007, it was reported that about 1.8 million children became victims of commercial sex trade in 2000. About one million children in Southeast Asia are said to be involved – Thailand is one centre of this shady trade, drawing on misery in its rural hinterlands as well as poorer neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

So what happens when someone goes to the trouble of studying the issue in depth, and then pools talent and resources to make a feature film that exposes international connections that sustain the child sex industry in Thailand? Instead of being welcomed as part of the effort to counter this scourge, the film gets banned.

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark, 138 mins, original Japanese) is a Japanese-Thai film made in 2008 about child sex slavery. It has been banned in Thailand on the grounds that it was ‘inappropriate’ and touched on a ‘sensitive’ issue.

Watch the official trailer of the film (Japanese soundtrack, Thai captions):

I haven’t seen the film, but according to one reviewer who did, Junji Sakamoto‘s film is based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable.

Mark Schilling, writing in The Japan Times in August 2008, noted: “…In being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult ‘clients’ in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”

The Thai ban prevented ‘Children of the Dark’ from being screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival, held in the Thai capital from 23 – 30 September 2008.

“The ban puts under the spotlight the country’s – or at least its higher-ups’ – seeming unwillingness to let go of the Film Act of 1930, when Thailand was still under absolute monarchy. That law gave a Board of Censors the power to impose cuts or to ban a film it deems inappropriate,” writes my friend and colleague Lynette Lee Corporal in an article just published on Asia Media Forum.

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

She quotes my Thai colleague and documentary filmmaker Pipope Panitchpakdi as saying: “Authorities always think that viewers need to be protected and shielded from real issues. They still have that kind of sentiment that the media should function as a gatekeeper. That is, let the good stories in and the bad ones out. It’s okay in certain circumstances but not when talking about real, serious issues.”

Pipope adds: “This country has no problem with hypocrisy; we don’t see anything wrong with double standards. We have sex workers in corners of the city, but we can’t watch people kissing.”

A Bangkok-based journalist who calls himself Wise Kwai, writing in his blog, asks: “When will they (Thai authorities) learn that when they ban or censor a film, the ensuing stink that’s raised causes more problems than if the film had been allowed to quietly unspool? Perhaps if people had seen it, they might criticise it, but they’d also talk about the problems in society that allow children to be exploited.”

Read the full article: Film Censorship Leaves Viewers in the Dark by Lynette Lee Corporal

My Sep 2007 post: MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking


Go ahead, just say the word: Condom! Now say it again…

not an easy task...

Acting out condoms in broad daylight in India: not an easy task...


No one is certain how or where the word originated, but it has become one of those ubiquitous items in modern society.

It’s a two syllable word, fairly easy to pronounce. Then how come so many people – at least in South Asia, home to a fifth of humanity – get their tongues tied or twisted in saying it?

That’s because it’s to do with sex! That’s not a subject that many South Asians still feel comfortable in talking about, in public or even private.

Sex may be a very private matter, but individuals’ sexual behaviour has direct and serious public health implications. Especially today when the world is still struggling to contain and overcome the spread of HIV that causes AIDS.

Condoms originally came into wide use to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the past quarter century, condoms have become a major weapon against HIV.

Despite this, condoms still remain a hush-hush topic among many grown ups, even as the younger generation warms up to them. Across South Asia, we still have some hurdles to clear in normalising condoms – or making it socially and culturally acceptable for people to talk about condom use, and to go out and buy them without fear or shame.

They come in all colours and shapes!

They come in all colours and shapes!

This is the challenge that various communication groups have taken up, especially in India. According to a 2007 survey by UNAIDS and India’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), at least 2.5 million people live with the HIV virus in India, placing the country third in the world after South Africa and Nigeria. However, AIDS prevention in the country is not an easy job. Many people, especially in rural areas, cling on to preconceived taboos about sex — and are often hesitant to use condoms.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard from two campaigns that are trying to change this. One is the BBC World Service Trust working with Indian broadcasters and other partners to normalise condom use through a campaign. I’ll be writing a separate blog post on that effort.

Last month, I received en email from someone called ‘Spread Word for a Better World’, who shared with me web links on a socio-cultural group based in Hyderabad, who are using the performing arts to promote condom awareness.

For over a decade, the Nrityanjali Academy has been singing and dancing their way to the glorification of condom use. They see it as a crucial fight in their central region, where 2 per cent of the population is HIV positive.

P Narsingh Rao, director of Nrityanjali, recently told France 24 online: “Our main target groups are people vulnerable to the HIV virus like sex workers, transsexuals or truck drivers. We tour villages in mobile video vans to show the film. The screening is followed by a question and answer session about condom use and sexually transmitted diseases.”

He added: “We also encourage the use of female condoms, a relatively new concept. We tell the women to negotiate the use of female condoms with their male partners: for men with little sex education, the insertion of the female condom in the vagina can in itself be an erotic act.”

Here are some YouTube videos showcasing their work:

This is an entertaining and educational video in Telugu language on Condom usage, to prevent from sexually transmitted infections and HIV:

A more instructional video on how to use condoms properly:

And finally, an HIV/AIDS song in Telugu – with all the fast-beat music, gyrating and riot of colours we typically associate Bollywood movies and songs with:

The videos speak for themselves. They are matter of fact, engaging and presented by ordinary people (trained entertainers) rather than by jargon-totting medical doctors or health workers. There is none of the awkwardness typically associated with conversations of this subject. No one is tip-toeing around perceived or real cultural taboos. They just get on with it.

Importantly, they involve both men and women, both in performances and in their audiences.

Training young men on just how to do it right...

Training young men on just how to do it right...

Related blog posts:

July 2007: The Three Amigos: Funny condoms with a serious mission

April 2007: Beware of Vatican Condoms – and global warming!

Images courtesy France 24’s The Observers.

Portraits of Commitment: New face of HIV/AIDS in Asia

Sabina Yeasmin Putul, photo by Shahidul Alam

Today, 1 December, is World AIDS Day — and this is the new face of HIV/AIDS in Asia.

Well, at least one of 50 faces that my friend Shahidul Alam captured during this year for a UNAIDS-published book titled ‘Portraits of Commitment: Why people become leaders in the AIDS response’.

It profiles men and women who are confronting HIV/AIDS in their lives, professions, work places and families in a variety of ways, each of them remarkable and courageous.

In August 2007, Shahidul held an exhibition in Colombo that featured the South Asians who were photographed for the book. Adorning the cover of the exhibition brochure was this 17-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Sabina Yeasmin Putul.

And this is what Karen Yap Lih Huey of Inter Press Service/TerraViva wrote about her and the exhibition:

Sabina Yeasmin Putul has a silent, determined look with her left fist clenched tight in front of her face – a vision of strength, grace, and resilience all in one.

The 17-year-old Bangladeshi has a lot going for her. Mature beyond her age, she had a good understanding of what she has been through, as a daughter of a sex worker, and of how society sees and judges her. And she probably doesn’t know this – that her struggles inspired respected Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist Shahidul Alam.

“The way she tackles issues regarding her mother and the people around her is powerful. Of course, among other things, she did martial arts and I thought rather than showing child of a sex worker, I photographed her as this powerful woman who came across with powerful ideas,” said Alam, managing director and founder of the Dhaka-based Drik Photo Library.

Posters of her in a martial arts pose was the face for Shahidul’s photography exhibition, a project produced by a team from Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography which is the education wing of the award-winning agency Drik.

Read the article in full on IPS/TerraViva

Read my Aug 2007 blog post on another Portrait of Courage: Rajiv Kafle of Nepal

Photograph by Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld

Stop that Traffick: ‘The Girl Next Door’ becomes ‘Trade’ the Movie

Image from Trade the Movie Image from Trade the Movie

When 13-year-old Adriana (played by Paulina Gaitan) is kidnapped by sex traffickers in Mexico City, her 17-year-old brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), sets off on a desperate mission to save her. Trapped by an underground network of international thugs who earn millions exploiting their human cargo, Adriana’s only friend throughout her ordeal is Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a young Polish woman captured by the same criminal gang. As Jorge dodges overwhelming obstacles to track the girl’s abductors, he meets Ray (Kevin Kline), a Texas cop whose own family loss leads him to become an ally.

From the barrios of Mexico City and the treacherous Rio Grande border, to a secret internet sex slave auction and a tense confrontation at a stash house in suburban New Jersey, Ray and Jorge forge a close bond as they frantically pursue Adriana’s kidnappers before she is sold and disappears into a brutal underworld from which few victims ever return.

This is the synopsis of Trade, a feature film that opens across the United States on 28 September 2007.

Inspired by Peter Landesman’s chilling NY Times Magazine story on the U.S. sex trade, “The Girls Next Door,” (published in January 2004), TRADE is a thrilling story of courage and a devastating expose of one of the world’s most heinous crimes. The American debut of Marco Kreuzpaintner, one of Germany’s leading young directors, TRADE is produced by Roland Emmerich and Rosilyn Heller from a screenplay by Academy Award(R) nominee Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries).

Watch the trailer for Trade the movie

Image from Trade the Movie

Explaining the social context to this dramatised story, the movie’s website says:
“The practice of slavery in the US is something most people think ended with the 13th Amendment in 1865, but in recent years it has returned in an even more virulent form. Fueled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries, new technologies like the internet, and sieve-like borders, the traffic in human beings has become an epidemic of colossal dimensions. The State Department estimates that as many as 800,000 people are trafficked over international frontiers each year, largely for sexual exploitation. Eighty percent are female and over fifty percent are minors. Many people in this country push this atrocity out of their minds, believing that it only occurs in faraway countries like Thailand, Cambodia, the Ukraine and Bosnia. The truth is that the United States has become a large-scale importer of sex slaves. Free the Slaves, America’s largest anti-slavery organization estimates that at least 10,000 people a year are smuggled or duped into this country by sex traffickers.”

Image courtesy Trade the Movie

The film’s makers, Roadside Attractions, says it will donate 5 per cent of the opening week box-office gross divided among four organisations participating in the release of the film; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Equality Now, International Justice Mission (IJM), and David Batstone’s Not For Sale Campaign.

On 19 September 2007, they held a benefit premiere at the United Nations headquarters in New York that included supper in the UN Delegates dining room. This marked the first film premiere event ever to take place at the United Nations, with the crusty UN officials mingling with film stars and artistes.

Read about the film-makers

Get involved in anti-traffick activism

Image courtesy Trade the movie

UN-ODC press release about Trade the movie

All images courtesy Trade the movie website

How short is short today? Packaging Nature for today’s television viewers

On 15 July 2007, I wrote about the award-winning natural history film-maker Neil Curry, based in South Africa, whom I last met during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival in Toyama in the summer of 2005.

Most recently, Neil made The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, which has won several of the industry’s top awards.

I’ve since heard from him, and want to share some of his views on how best to package Nature and wildlife for today’s easily-distracted, attention-challenged audiences. He is responding to my post on 13 July 2007 titled Mine is shorter than yours, yipee!


He says:

‘Mine is shorter than yours….’ is one of the issues I’ve been going on about for years and I’m delighted that Friends of the Earth has now come up with a competition for one-minute films. This ridiculous thing of the ‘standard’ broadcast slot for bluechip wildlife programmes being 52-minute is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why the public’s view of Nature has become so ‘warped’.

You can’t sustain a 52-minute wildlife film without drama – so we end up with this on-going emphasis on killing, sex, things that are supposedly deadly to humans (everything from snakes and great white sharks to mosquitoes), and dramatic confrontations between macho men – and women – and animals. By insisting on these long films, television itself has actually ‘created’ the audience for wildlife violence – and I’ve been told by more than one commissioning editor that audiences aren’t interested in “place” and “habitat” films any more, they want to see big animals doing exciting things.

In short, Dallas with animals – wildlife “reality-TV”.

Based on my own experience, that’s rubbish. Yes, audiences want a well-told story but they can be equally fascinated by quite prosaic things in the complex inter-relationships of nature, provided the story is told properly. They don’t need all this ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff. The superb, The Queen of Trees that is currently doing the rounds is a good example – as is the on-going popularity of Attenborough and some of the BBC’s mega-series.

In fact, the over-dramatised programmes often give a quite distorted view of what wildlife is really like. Most creatures don’t spend all their time fighting and killing one another, or looking for human beings to threaten and attack. But if film makers, no matter how serious they are about telling the truth, want to eat, have somewhere to live, educate their kids and so on, they simply have to comply with what the programmers want – and thus, the cycle continues. Of course, it sometimes backfires. Some years ago – unfortunately I can’t remember the exact details now – research in the UK found that school children on field trips into the countryside were bored, because “nothing was happening”. Wildlife programmes on television had led them to expect nature to be full of continuous action and excitement. If children find real nature and the countryside “boring”, imagine how that will influence them when they grow up and find themselves in positions of authority where they may have to make decisions about siting roads, factories, quarries and so on in otherwise unspoilt but “boring” countryside.


If television would just take some of their hour-long wildlife slots and break of them into shorter segments of 30 or even 15 minutes, they would open up the screens to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fascinating stories about some of the wonders of nature that are astonishing and intriguing, and that would grab audience attention – without any of the drama that is needed to sustain 52 minutes. In my own files I have dozens of stories like that – and so probably, do most other wildlife film makers – but we just never get the chance to tell them because there’s almost no market for short wildlife films on television.

Lord Reith, father of the BBC, said the job of broadcasting was to inform, educate and entertain – but nowadays unfortunately, much of wildlife programming seems to have got itself stuck solely in the entertainment category. It’s a pity because it means a lot of stuff that could give audiences a better understanding of the other life we share this planet with, is largely kept off our screens.

In the circumstances, it’s a miracle that The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree ever got made. It says a lot for the courage and acumen of Mike Gunton, who was commissioning editor on The Natural World at the time, that he was prepared to buck the trend and take it on. There’s no sex, no killing, no violent confrontations – just a boring old tree and a lot of small-scale interactions going on around it, plus a few examples of the dreaded Homo sapiens (who doesn’t even exist in Nature if lots of the wildlife TV programmes are to be believed).

Sex and the warming planet: a tip for climate reporters

I had no idea that the nice lady seated next to me was described by her publisher as ‘America’s hottest sex therapist’.

Nor had I linked sex with climate change — though, come to think of it, both have something ‘hot’ in common.

Psychologist, journalist and sex therapist Dr Judy Kuriansky came out with practical advice on how we journalists can cover climate change in more interesting ways. And she made a lot of sense.

“You have to make the climate story appeal to the average reader or viewer,” the Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Teacher’s College, USA, told us participants at a global media workshop on understanding and reporting climate change in Geneva this week.

In some ways, attracting audience attention is comparable to getting a new date, she suggested.

Dr Judy Kuriansky

“If you want to attract a man or woman’s attention, what do you do? You can go for a walk in the park…and take a child or dog with you. It doesn’t have to be your child or your dog, as long as you have one. That makes it a lot easier for you to start a conversation with an attractive stranger.”

Likewise in covering climate change. Bring out the children or animals. These always help audiences to relate to otherwise dull or dreary stories.

People across cultural and educational divides share a love and concern for children and animals. And how climate change is going to impact our children is something that most sensible adults would pay attention to.

Some communicators are already heeding this advice. The Great Warming, a compelling, Canadian-made documentary released in 2006 and narrated by actors Alanis Morissette and Keanu Reeves, reveals how a changing climate is affecting the lives of people everywhere. Using breathtaking visuals filmed in eight countries on three continents, this production ‘taps into the growing groundswell of public interest in this topic to present an emotional, accurate picture of our children’s planet’.

‘Our children’s planet’ – a simple yet powerful phrase that never fails to move sensible and sensitive people. As I wrote in a recent review, it’s precisely that kind of appeal to our hearts and emotions that many climate change (and indeed, environmental) documentaries lack.

But who else could have linked all this to the art and science of dating? Dr Judy knows a thing or two about this subject, having written The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating, now in its 3rd edition.

Dr Judy he was in Geneva representing the NGO Committee on Mental Health, a US-based charity, which ran a session during the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva (5 – 7 June 2007).

Her group ran a session on mental health needs of disaster affected people — an aspect largely neglected by the UN and humanitarian organisations that respond to disasters.

Experts warned this week that climate change is set to increase both the intensity and frequency of disasters. This will mean more people than ever will be affected physically, pshychologically, economically and other ways.

Chatting to her later, I discovered Dr Judy and I had more things in common than an interest in, well, climate change.

For one thing, in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami of December 2004, she had visited Sri Lanka with a team of psychologists to provide much-needed help to survivors to overcome their trauma. Unlike many relief agencies that stayed within the ‘comfort zones’ close to the capital Colombo, her team went all the way to Batticaloa on the east coast, a good 12 hour car journey away.

I also discovered that she and I had both been speakers at the 59th Annual NGO Conference organised by the UN Department of Public Information in New York in September 2006.

And we are both associated with Light Millennium, a non-profit group in New York dedicated to culture and peace. We have a mutual friend in its founder, Bircan Unver.

Here’s a bio note on Dr Judy from one of her websites:

Dr.Kuriansky is a world renowned radio advice host, clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist, popular lecturer, newspaper columnist, TV reporter and commentator and author of many books on relationships. She is a pioneer of radio call-in advice, and more recently of Internet advice. An adjunct professor at the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University Teachers College and at the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia Medical Center, she is also visiting professor of Peking University Health Science Center in Beijing. She is a frequent commentator on TV on various news issues, particularly on CNN, and columnist for the New York Daily News, Singapore Straits Times and South China Morning Post.