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Risk, Grit, and an Undercover Lens

December 8, 2009
by Amy Goldwitz

Seven years ago Guy Jacobson, J.D. ’93, founded Priority Films. His most recent release is The K11 Project, a trio of films about the sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia; the title refers to the Phnom Penh red-light district. Holly is the fictional account of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold across the border as a prostitute. The Virgin Harvest is an undercover documentary told through stories of actual victims. The harrowing experience of making these two films forms the substance of the third, The K11 Journey. Jacobson was interviewed by Amy Goldwitz.

The inspiration for the K11 Project came from a personal experience in 2002. What happened, and how did it affect you?

I was walking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia one day and found myself surrounded by about 15 little girls—I mean seriously little, about 3 feet tall—who were very aggressively soliciting me for prostitution. There was no subtlety; they went right for the private parts. I was fighting to move their hands off of me, telling them “No touching, no touching.” One little girl about 5 or 6 years old told me, “I yum-yum very good,” and I told her no and she said, “I no money today, mamasan boxing me.” I gave her some money, but I promised to myself that if I want to look at myself in the mirror for the rest of my life, I am going to do something about this issue.

I came back and did a lot of research and was horrified to find out how prevalent this is. Worldwide every year more than 2 million children are sold into sexual slavery and prostitution and some are younger than a year old. It exists in any major city in the U.S., Western Europe, or anywhere in the developed world. I mean, it’s everywhere.

Filming in Cambodia was a very risky venture. Were there moments you feared not only that the project would not work but that your life was in danger?

We can say that Berkeley made the mistake of admitting me, thinking I was smarter than I really am, because a lot of what I did was not smart. I was taking pictures inside the brothels with a small digital camera and one time the flash went off and luckily nobody noticed it. Later NBC did an expose in the same place and when they suspected the reporter was there undercover. They put a gun to his head and said, “Sleep with this child now or we will kill your wife.”

When we first realized the risks were much more dangerous than we probably should’ve taken, we ended up with a lot of bodyguards with AK-47s protecting us. Neither the local crime syndicates nor the local authorities wanted us to expose this. At one point, one of our producers was held hostage for a couple of weeks. It really was a war trying to make these films; every single minute of every single day it was a struggle. But we managed to get all the films done and somehow get materials out of the country.

Your aim in promoting these films is to stir people to action. What help is needed to address this problem?

The law exists in some countries, including the U.S., that if you have underage sex wherever you are, you are going to jail in your country. But there are two questions: Why does this law not exist everywhere, and even for the countries where it does exist, who is enforcing it? It seems to be nobody. When I was undercover in the brothels in Cambodia, I saw a raid and they captured two Westerners. One paid $50 and the other paid $200 to go free. So we’re not going to rely on the Cambodian police to do this. How about establishing an international task force whose job it is to get evidence against these people?

I think with almost every issue, reasonable people can differ about it, but I don’t think reasonable people can differ about whether 3-year-old girls should be opened up with a knife and raped. We don’t care if the kids are Asian, white, African, green, purple, Jew, Catholic; we are always going to be against it. We have launched a human rights campaign, The Red Light Children, with specific action items, and propose legislation both in the U.S. and internationally that can at least put a dent in the number of kids who end up in this horrible reality. We’re not going to stop all the evils in the world, but I can live with that as a starting point.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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