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In 2018, the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report stated that, “The Government of Vietnam does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” It has only been 12 months since Vietnamese penal code amendments criminalized all forms of labor trafficking took affect, yet they are changes that still fall short of outlawing all forms of child sex trafficking. For Ben Randall, the reality of the State Department findings motivate his every waking hour; the 2011 abduction and illegal trafficking into China of two of his young friends inspired the Australian filmmaker to make Sisters for Sale, a heartbreaking documentary that follows his attempts to not only find his missing friends, but also understand the social and political context in which such horrible acts can continue to occur.

Ahead of the film’s Australian Premiere at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, Randall (pictured, above; in China's Guangdong province) spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the extraordinary lives of May and Pang, the young women at the centre of his documentary; the nature of his relationship with the Hmong community of North Vietnam; and, the formation of his anti-trafficking organization, The Human, Earth Project

SCREEN-SPACE: How did this become your crusade? Where were you in your life when you decided that engaging with the girl’s plight was your mission?

RANDALL: In 2012, I went through a very difficult time in my life. I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly with no home, no money, and no job in a city where I couldn't speak the language. A few people helped me get back on my feet, and I understood what a difference a good friend could make - not just in a material sense, but just knowing that someone cared. I wanted to pay that forward. My Hmong friend May had been kidnapped from Vietnam a few months earlier. I hadn't done anything because it didn't seem like there was anything much I could do. The trail had gone cold, and there was only a one-in-a-million chance of ever finding her - but I decided to give it my best shot. So I launched The Human, Earth Project. (Pictured, above; a street kidnapping in progress, from the film Sisters for Sale). 

SCREEN-SPACE: It is coming up on a decade since your English teaching assignment in Hmong became a lesson in the local custom of marriage-via-abduction. How altered was your life path and goals by the kidnapping of your friends in 2011-12?

RANDALL: The decision to return to Asia to search for May and Pang changed my life completely. The life I've lived over the past six years since the beginning of the project has been a difficult and occasionally dangerous one, with a huge amount of work and very little money - but I've been working towards something that's deeply important to me, which has given my life a real sense of meaning and purpose. I'd rather have that than be drifting through an easy, meaningless life, as I have been in the past. I've learned a lot about myself, what I'm capable of, and where my limitations lie, and my entire outlook on life has changed. (Pictured, left; Randall with Pang, centre, and her mother in Sapa, October 2014) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Much of the film is pure guerrilla-filmmaking, capturing what you can we you can in often very tense situations. Did local officials or the trafficking industry ever compromise the shoot?  

RANDALL: Sisters for Sale was shot in regions where there is a large and profitable industry in human lives. While it was never our intention to criticise Vietnam or China, both countries are highly sensitive to foreign media. In a sense, we were caught between the law and the outlaws, and it was critical to hide our investigation from both. We were living a strange double life. We relied on private contributions to continue the investigation, so while we were being extremely secretive about our work in person, we were publicising it online. It was risky work; we'll never know how close we were to being caught, but we were certainly lucky at times. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Has Sisters For Sale screened in Vietnam? Have the people of the village seen the film? 

RANDALL: As a filmmaker, I feel it's extremely important to spend time with your subject and do everything you can to understand it. Otherwise you're only passing on your own prejudices. I spent 15 months in Vietnam and China; Sapa, the primary location, was my home, the subjects of the film were my friends, and I was working closely with local people throughout production. Some of my friends from Sapa have seen the film and been extremely supportive of it. A planned screening in the capital city, Hanoi, fell through last month. We haven't yet made any other plans to screen in Vietnam, but will do so in the new year. (Pictured, above; young Hmong women in Sapa, from Sisters for Sale) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Are organisations such as your The Human, Earth Project and the similarly motivated Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation backed by western government dollars?

RANDALL: Blue Dragon Children's Foundation is a larger and longer-running organisation, which receives support from governments, organisations and individuals around the world. Our own project, The Human, Earth Project, is yet to acquire any major funding, and relies on the support of individuals. The Australian government has had no direct involvement with our work in Vietnam, and I'm not aware of their involvement in the region. Over the past six years, our work has been supported by thousands of people from over 70 countries. We're aware that there's always more we can be doing to raise awareness of human trafficking.

SCREEN-SPACE: This has been a long journey – for you, the girls, and the film; in every sense, it has proven a mammoth undertaking. What are the tangible benefits of the project’s existence? And what role does it need to play into the future?

RANDALL: It has been a long, strange journey for all of us, and it's fantastic to finally be sharing Sisters for Sale with the world. In making the film, I've been very careful not to oversimplify the human trafficking crisis in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys", as it is often presented in the media. It's a very complex issue, and I've worked hard to understand all points of view. The first step in solving any problem is awareness, and that's our goal. Our work has already reached millions of people around the world, even before the film's release. Many people have been surprised by the depth and nuance in the story. It has already sparked countless discussions around human trafficking and women's rights, and encouraged many people to support anti-trafficking efforts. The film itself will be used to raise awareness and support for Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, Alliance Anti-Trafic, and our own ongoing work. We're making plans to tour the film, and have been approached by a major publisher interested to develop the story as a book, which I'm writing now. Sisters for Sale is a fascinating and unique story, one that can make a real difference in the fight against the global human trafficking crisis. We'll keep working to get it out there. (Pictured, above; Hmong women from the Sapa valley in North Vietnam, as seen in Sisters for Sale)

SISTERS FOR SALE will screen Wednesday January 16 at the Screenwave International Film Festival. Full ticketing and session details can be found at the event's official website.

SCREEN-SPACE supports the efforts of The Human, Earth Project. The organization requires the generosity of donors to continue its work. Please follow this link to contribute to their mission.


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