"Holly," a feature-length film that screened in Washington Wednesday, tells a gritty story of Cambodia's rampant sex trade through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl and the Western man she tries to convince to marry her, or at least rescue her.
The story, which was filmed across Cambodia's brothel districts, including the notorious Svay Pak, paints a vivid, raw picture of the trade, which continues to thrive in across the country, thanks to corruption and collaboration by police, crime syndicates, traffickers and thugs.
Guy Jacobson, who produced and co-wrote the film, said he was inspired to act by the film after he was approached in 2002 by a clutch of young girls, some as young as five years old, soliciting him for sex. The scenario was appalling and incited him to action, he said. It became a verbatim scene in the film as well.
Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who has been trafficked to Svay Pak, meets a card gambler named Patrick (Ron Livingston), and tries to convince him to marry her. He says she's too young and sets out to learn how he might save her. Along the way, he learns how pervasive the practice is and how hard it is to bring a girl out of it.
The US State Department estimates 800,000 people are trafficked internationally each year, and millions more within national borders are sold into the sex industry. Human trafficking earns millions of dollars per year for corrupt officials and organized crime syndicates.
Jacobson said he received death threats as he tried to make his film, and had to hire 40 men armed with AK-47s to protect him and his crew as they shot.
"When we arrived in Cambodia, we got a call from Interpol saying, 'You guys are crazy. You are in the most dangerous place in the world, making a move about this issue…. Get the hell out of Cambodia,'" he said.
"We were at war trying to make this film," he said.
Interpol's chief officer in Cambodia, Brig. Gen. Keo Van Than, declined to comment on specific threats, saying he was not in his position at the time. "It seems there is not threat," he said.
The two-hour film contains many scenes of drama and suffering, showing police in uniform associating with owners of the brothel and extorting money while on duty.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the film had "two faces," one to reflect reality and another to harm police credibility.
No country has a perfect police force above corruption, he said. "The Ministry of Interior has always taken legal action for individual police officials who commit illegal acts," he said.
The film also shows foreign tourists who find sexual entertainment under Cambodia's red-lights, where goons who protect brothels "arrest" girls in public without fear and where legal action is non-existent.
Holly and Patrick are stuck in a world with few solutions and few answers. Holly asks Patrick to buy her out of the brothel for $1,000, saying she loves him and wants to marry him. She tries to escape by other means, and, in once scene, literally finds herself in a mine field. Patrick does what he can but finds himself as mired as Holly.
"The movie will be very helpful to people around the world who are ordinary citizens, to make them stop and realize that it is the demand for commercial sexual exploitation which makes it possible for pimps, exploiters, traffickers and corrupt officials to do the harm that they do," said Ambassador Mark Lagon, director of the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, who opened the screening in front of about 300 audience members.
A Vietnamese student from Georgetown University in the audience who asked not to be named said the film portrayed the "horrible" reality of human trafficking in Southeast Asia but said she was reminded that the trade is everywhere.
Governments need to take the issue more seriously, she said.
Bill Livermore, a representative of LexisNexis, which helped support the film, told VOA Khmer that in the last five or ten years, organized crime was growing "rapidly" and was very profitable, helped along by human trafficking.
The US government meanwhile has put Cambodia on a watch list of governments that are not doing enough to curb trafficking. Cambodia was sanctioned as one of the worst offenders at one time, but it has made some arrests in recent years of sex traffickers.
Lagon welcomed the recent arrest of a Russian businessman in Sihanoukville on charges of debauchery, but he said the US wanted to see better enforcement of trafficking laws.
"That's a step forward," he said, "but we want to see more."