Not My Life (2011) – written, directed and produced by Robert Bilheimer and narrated by Glenn Close – is a documentary focusing on the brutal world of human trafficking and modern slavery. Filmed on five continents over a period of four years, Not My Life concentrates mainly on the selling of women and children who are often the main victims of commercial exploitation – sexual or otherwise.
Bilheimer covers forced labour in Ghana and child soldiers in Uganda; street begging and garbage picking in India; sexual trafficking in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia; domestic slavery in the United States; and various forms of other child abuse in both North and South America. Poverty is key – often it is relatives who sell children to pay off debts or just for food. What comes across forcefully in Not My Life is the betrayal of these children, often by people they implicitly trust.
Combining testimony from survivors, opinion and analysis from their advocates with vivid depictions of the exploitation, Bilheimer covers a lot of ground and his film makes it clear that modern day slavery affects millions of human beings the world over.
Produced as part of CNN’s ‘Freedom Project’, Not My Life undoubtedly has its heart in the right place but by concentrating on the victims, Bilheimer deflects attention from the perpetrators of the abuse. There are a couple of interviews with Romanian traffickers, serving woefully inadequate prison sentences, but there is only passing reference to the thousands of men who engage in sexual tourism, like those who travel to Cambodia to ‘buy’ traumatised children who they can then abuse for weeks at a time.
It’s also too simplistic to say that the trade in human beings is about ‘good and evil’. It’s also about demand and about changing people’s perception of slavery – for example, the purchase of sex; too many people don’t stop to think that trafficked women and young girls, terrified for their lives, are not in a position to offer consensual sex. Those who engage in the abuse of trafficked persons, whether buying or selling, need to face criminal prosecution and harsh sentences, but Bilheimer barely touches on these issues.
Despite its shortcomings, Not My Life is a powerful indictment of the global trade in human beings and the abuse of vulnerable people. Human trafficking takes many forms, but the consequences are always devastating for the victims. By shining a light on these dark corners of the world, Bilheimer’s message is clear: We all have a responsibility to these people and the first step is awareness. Not My Life is an important first step.