‘Surviving Sex Trafficking’ Reveals the Tortured Faces of the Sex Trafficking Epidemic

The most striking moment in Surviving Sex Trafficking comes late, when survivor Rachel Fischer strolls down a street in Budapest, only to be engaged by a group of random men. These burly guys come across as jovial, but almost immediately, one of them solicits her with cash. Another man named Richard admits that he’s a pimp who, because prostitution is illegal in Hungary, does most of his business in Switzerland and elsewhere. As these strangers continue to chuckle, Rachel strings them along, compelling Richard to confess, “I can give work.” As Rachel later explains, the allure of this proposition is that Richard is extending an enticing financial opportunity—no matter that, despite his friend calling him nice, he himself cheerfully admits to being “a bad guy.”

Similar bad guys exist all over the world, and Surviving Sex Trafficking (in theaters March 25; on VOD April 15) is a story about three of their victims, as well as about its director, Jain monk Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, who previously tackled this topic with 2017’s Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex-Trafficking. Of that trio, Rachel is the furthest from her trauma. Having first grown up with a father who ran a biker gang and prostituted her mother, then suffered in a foster family that raped its children, and eventually been blackmailed by a phony modeling agency, she escaped the underworld via nursing school, and now recounts her story as a means of helping others. Thus, she travels around the globe with Shree in Surviving Sex Trafficking to spread the word and lend her support to those in need—something that remains vital, especially given that her aforementioned run-in with predators illustrates that peril can be lurking around any city corner.

If Rachel seems to be in a relatively healthy place, Surviving Sex Trafficking’s other two subjects are still trying to get over their horrific trafficking ordeals. Now 35, Angela Williams was a 17-year-old high schooler when she was targeted by a friend who recruited her through a fake modeling job into becoming a full-time stripper and prostitute. According to Angela, this man—and the many others who subsequently served as her pimp—never identified himself as a trafficker; instead, he made her feel like he was serving as her manager or life coach, albeit one who should be obeyed and worshipped as a god. Most of Angela’s trafficked time was spent in Las Vegas, and it culminated when her final pimp beat her so viciously with a nightstick that she wound up in the hospital with a broken forearm, a shattered hand, and bruises so enormous and deep that, in news broadcasts and cellphone video shot at the hospital, she can barely control her wails of agony.

While Angela was duped into a life of exploitation, Miami native Kendra Geronimo was forcibly thrust into one. Emancipated at 15, Kendra lived on the streets and gravitated to dancing at a strip club and abusing alcohol and drugs. One night, two women laced her drink, and when she awakened, she was the captive of a pimp who, at gunpoint, convinced her to accept her new situation. As is so often the case, threats of violence—to her, and to her family—were part of this man’s means of controlling his prisoners. As with Angela, though, what also prevented Kendra from fleeing back home was a deep sense of shame, guilt and self-loathing about what she’d become and what she’d been forced to do. Those feelings were central to her imprisonment and they continue to plague her today, no matter the therapy and assistance she receives.

More than just a portrait of torment, Surviving Sex Trafficking is a study of healing, as all three of these individuals attempt to overcome a variety of internal and external scars caused by their trafficking experiences. Unsurprisingly, director Shree treats these tales with respect and compassion, allowing her speakers to relay their ups and downs with little embellishment save for TV news report clips and archival photos and videos. Yet there’s nonetheless a vagueness to her film that gets in the way of any deeper comprehension. Only a single closing text card provides any contextual information about this global scourge. And despite the candid testimonials of Rachel, Angela and Kendra, key details about their stories are omitted, leaving us with merely a superficial understanding of their plights. In light of their willingness to open up to the camera, it’s frustrating that Shree’s doc doesn’t dig deeper, or afford a more well-rounded picture of their past and present circumstances.

The same holds true for Shree herself, an Iraq War veteran who reveals early on that she too is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Suppressed memories of that agonizing episode emerged via deep meditation, presumably at the Siddhayatan Tirth & Retreat under the guidance of her mentor Acharya Shree Yogeesh. Unfortunately, Surviving Sex Trafficking never tells us much about Shree’s upbringing, military career or decision to become a Jain monk, and her assault—which took place when she was six years old—isn’t discussed until late, when she opens up while driving to meet Angela. It’s an anecdote of shocking monstrousness, but it’s too hastily addressed, skimmed over in a way that lessens its standalone impact as well as its relationship to the kindred nightmares of Rachel, Kendra and Angela.

Considering Shree’s position as a monk, and the fact that Surviving Sex Trafficking is “inspired by the teachings of non-violence of HH Acharya Shree Yogeesh,” there’s an obvious spiritual element to this examination of the pain and PTSD wrought by sex trafficking. However, the filmmaker never concentrates on the role that religion plays in her humanitarian work, which comes across as a deliberate act of elusion. Still, such shortcomings don’t negate the courage of this trio of survivors, and of the similarly oppressed women in India and the Philippines with whom Rachel and Shree meet—all of them part of an international network of manipulation, violation and terror that, Surviving Sex Trafficking suggests, can only be defeated by women banding together to fight for both themselves and each other.