In Kat Rohrer’s doc “Fatal Promises,” the doc filmmaker explores a harsh underworld of human trafficking in sex slavery, farm workers and even domestic servants. Though slavery is an image often relegated to a bygone era, it is an increasing, and increasingly invisible crime escalating right under our noses. In the U.S. alone 17,500 people are trafficked into slavery.
Featuring in-depth interviews with real-life victims as well as ardent activists Emma Thompson and Gloria Steinem, Fatal Promises juxtaposes the $2.9 million price tag of the UN’s ‘karaoke for the concerned’ anti-trafficking conference, a political performance paralyzed by empty promises, with genuine charities struggling to find funding for victims. “Fatal Promises” screens at New York’s Cinema Village September 16 – 24 with other cities to follow.
iW: What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Kat Rohrer: My aunt was a stage actress so I knew very early on that I wanted to tell stories and work with actors in some capacity. My fascination with classical theatre turned to a love of film in my teen years when I saw Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado about Nothing” in 1993. It changed my life; Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare closed the gap between theatre and film for me and I began immersing myself in the work of filmmakers like Robert Altman, Orson Wells, Billy Wilder.
Choosing to make a documentary as my first feature-length project came less out of the need to tell a story than to inform people and actually do something about a crime that should not exist in the 21st Century – human trafficking.
iW: How did the idea for “Fatal Promises” come about?
KR: In 2005 I read an article in the New York Times about human trafficking. I was appalled. I couldn’t believe slavery was really going on in the 21st century. I started doing more research and read more unbelievable facts about this increasing, and yet largely invisible crime. I discovered that the U.N. only really started to define ‘trafficking’ in 2000 but, it’s been going on since the early ’70s. I very quickly became passionate about the issue and honed in on my approach: Why is there so much talk but no action, and why are the politicians and international organizations not taking the problem seriously?
Four years later, I now know that my initial instinct about those questions was right; the politicians’ lack of interest and hollow rhetoric is the biggest problem in the fight against human trafficking.
iW: What was your approach to making the film?
KR: Very early on in the process I decided to team up with my mother who has been a political journalist in Europe for the past 30 years. In 2005, we flew to Kiev, Ukraine on a fact-finding mission. We met NGO and political contacts but were no closer to meeting trafficking victims. Two years on and two more trips to Ukraine later, we found ourselves in Odessa with a cameraman and two bodyguards interviewing survivors of trafficking.
Sitting in front of victims asking them to relive their experiences was heartbreaking. We interviewed a girl that was younger than me (I was 27 at the time) and who had been trafficked to Moldova for sexual exploitation. She barely escaped with her life, but when she did return home, she was stigmatized and ostracized by her local community. Her mother lost her mind due to her daughter’s disappearance and died six months later.
Shortly afterwards her brother-in-law and sister killed themselves, leaving her to take care of her three nephews. Her only hope was an NGO called Faith, Hope and Love, who helped her carry on. Her story is just one of many harrowing tales captured in my film.
iW: What would you say were your biggest challenges to this project?
KR: Finding victims willing to talk to us – which took us almost two years – was a huge challenge but so was securing financing.
Trafficking seemed either ‘too heavy’ or ‘not important enough’ in a world where Iraq, Afghanistan as well as post-Katrina New Orleans seemed to dominate the documentary world. I think Money People either wanted to finance something about those three issues or something entertaining. Either way, they weren’t interested in yet another ‘worthy’ problem without an immediate solution. In fact, a programmer at a prominent U.S. festival told me that one problem with my film is that the ‘victims were just too much like victims, you know?’.
In the end we financed the films through donations, private investors and our credit cards.
To an extent, I kind of empathise, but still believe that by accepting and thus ignoring modern-day slavery, we’re ignoring our humanity.
iW: What is your next project?
KR: I think after this film is done it might be time for something like light-hearted fiction. I have several scripts in the works and am hoping to start shopping them around later this year.
iW: Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
A: Although my personal projects are all pretty DIY, which has its benefits (the lessons you learn and the opportunities to grow are endless), I would like to try working closely with writers; to develop their ideas and bring them to the screen. Producing less and directing more is my ideal.
iW: What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
KR: My definition was intricately tied to money; a lack of it. If you’re independent you have less money so are forced to be creative in the way you tell your story. It was always defined by community, because I find the New York community of independent filmmakers to be both tight-knit and full of camaraderie.
My definition hasn’t changed. “Fatal Promises” wouldn’t have been possible without the support and dedication of all my filmmaker friends who donated their time for free and helped out where they could. I am very lucky to be surrounded by people who want to see each other succeed.
I don’t think filmmaking can get more independent than we were/are, but I do know that there is another level where you don’t actually have to do everything yourself but can afford to pay people or pay your friends for the great work they are doing. That sounds like a great place to be!
iW: What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
KR: Find a story, a topic or a script you are very passionate about, do the research, prep-work, pre-production and immerse yourself completely because, chances are, you’ll have to spend a long time with it. Don’t make a film just because you want to make a film – it is passion that leads to your best work. Also, treat the people you work with kindly and be supportive – we all need a network that we can trust. Forget what people say about auteurs, filmmaking is not a solo activity.
iW: Please share an achievement from your career of which you are most proud.
KR: Finishing this film and having a group of friends and colleagues that I support and who support me, no matter what.