Sisters For Sale

Posted March 03

The search

Scroll down to see the most recent posts, or click here to see the complete list of blog entries. For her protection, all media links with M's name and image have been temporarily removed.

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Keep your dreams

Posted November 16

I first launched 'The Human, Earth Project' after learning of the abduction of my young Hmong friend, M. 

The impossible dream behind the project was to get M home. 

M was taken from her home in northern Vietnam in July 2011, and presumed trafficked into China

In May 2014, I succeeded in locating and meeting with M in a distant region of China. It was the first time since her abduction that M had seen anyone she'd known from Vietnam. 

For the first time, M had an opportunity to go home, and was desperate to do so - but her decision was not an easy one. 

M had been forced into marriage with a local man, and had given birth in China. If M went home, what would happen with her baby girl? 

M spent a year agonising over her decision, ultimately deciding to remain in China for the sake of her child. 

At one point, M's husband even let her travel 3,000 km south to the visit her family in Vietnam - only to call her back north before she'd even crossed the border. 

In 2015, 'The Human, Earth Project' came under attack by a Vietnamese-based organisation which spread vicious rumours about me and my anti-trafficking work. 

This organisation succeeded in destroying many of my friendships in Vietnam - the very friendships which had inspired my work. 

After several months, it seemed that these rumours had reached M in China, who suddenly seemed less trusting of me and my motives. 

After having given all I could to help M for years, this was very difficult for me, and I considered shutting down 'The Human, Earth Project' altogether. 

M no longer needed me to check in on her - she'd made her decision to remain in China, and I'd long since put her in touch with other friends she could speak to. 

If there was no longer any friendship between us, and nothing more I could do to help her, there was no reason for me to keep calling. 

I began calling M less and less often - until finally, I stopped calling altogether. I had her contact via social media. I could see that she was alive and well, and that was enough. 

Then this year - for several weeks, and then months - I didn't see anything new from M on social media. I told myself I should call her - and kept finding excuses to delay that call. 

I didn't want any more bad news. 

Last week, someone tried video-calling me via Facebook. It was a Hmong name I didn't recognise, and I rejected the call. 

When I checked the profile picture, I realised it was M - she'd changed the name of her account. I called her back immediately. 

It was the first time we'd spoken in a long time. M looked well - in fact, she looked really happy. 

In the background, I expected to see the walls of M's home in China. Instead, I saw a simple wooden hut - a hut I recognised. 

It was M's family home, in Vietnam. 

For the first time in 6 years and 4 months, M was home. 

This was the impossible dream I'd spent years waiting for and working towards. I'd lost all hope of ever seeing it - then suddenly, here it was, made real. It was a surreal moment, to say the least. 

M and I spoke for half an hour - we had plenty to catch up on. 

M's little girl was still in China, with her husband. Amazingly, he'd given M permission to visit her family in Vietnam for three months, until the Hmong new year in mid-February. 

M wanted to see me again. I told her I could come and see her while she was there in Vietnam. I said the documentary was almost finished, and I could show it to her there. She was excited. 

As soon as I hung up, I cancelled all my plans, and began searching for flights to Vietnam. I hadn't been back since January 2015, and hadn't expected to return. Now everything had changed. 

I tried to call M again, two days later, and couldn't get through. I spoke to her again on the third day, just before I booked my flight. 

M's husband had changed his mind, and called her back to China. He'd already booked a ticket for her, in two days' time. She had no choice, she said. 

She could escape China, but she couldn't escape her culture. 

We wouldn't have a chance to meet, after all. I wouldn't have a chance to show her the documentary - not yet. 

Maybe next year, she said. 

M left Vietnam for China today. 

To keep up with all the news on 'Sisters For Sale' and 'The Human, Earth Project', subscribe here

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Speaking in tongues

Posted November 06

Today I want to recognise a few of the unsung heroes behind the scenes here at 'The Human, Earth Project' - the interpreters and translators who have made 'Sisters For Sale' possible.

'Sisters For Sale', our feature documentary, tells the story of the search for my kidnapped friends in Vietnam and China. 

Not only did this search involve investigating extensive criminal networks, but doing so in regions where I couldn't even speak the language. 

While I was fortunate that the central figures in the film all spoke English, others did not, and I could never have done it alone. 

The search itself, and the later translation of footage for the documentary, was made possible by an amazing group of people, including some very good friends of mine. 

Some of these people I've been working closely with for years, others have contributed just a few lines of translation, and I'm deeply grateful to all of them for their time, energy and talents in making this happen.

(I hope I haven't forgotten anyone!) 

Giang Thi Chan and Giang Thi Chu worked with me during the investigation, appearing as interpreters within the film itself. 

My friend and human trafficking survivor P also assisted with interpretation. 

Acquiring more precise translations of the Hmong language proved especially challenging, as the dialect spoken in the film is very regional, and local literacy levels are low. 

Another Hmong friend, who has chosen to remain anonymous, spent a great deal of time working with me in translating interviews more fully. 

Further Hmong translations were made by Giang Thi Vu, Hang Thi Dinh, Suong Mai and Vu Thi Bao Ngan. 

This summer, I met with Lo Thi Mai and her family at their home in Belgium, where Mai worked with me on the final Hmong translations and corrections for the film. 

But English and Hmong are not the only languages in the film. 

From the very beginning of 'The Human, Earth Project', Qiuda Guo has been of immeasureable assistance with the Chinese language, culture and local knowledge. 

Nicole Zhao and Yuqing Zhang have assisted with more region-specific Chinese parts, while my good friend Catherine Gibson provided translations from French. 

Translating everything into English was the first step - the next is making 'Sisters For Sale' accessible to a broader international audience. 

Ultimately, I'd love to have the documentary subtitled in numerous languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Hmong itself - for the moment, I'm focusing on some of the major European languages. 

Jaen Nieto Amat, Natalia Glargaard, Johanna Leiner and Maria Julia Ravera worked on the French, German and Spanish translations of the 'Sisters For Sale' trailer. 

Last month, we embarked on the most ambitious translation project to date: producing our very first foreign translation of the entire documentary, in French. 

It was a huge job, involving 1,529 individual subtitles, 26 name titles, 9 titles for the beginning and the end of the film, and 7 animations. 

I personally spent over 47 hours working on it - and I wasn't even doing any of the translations! 

We had a fantastic translation team, including some close friends who have been involved with the project from the very beginning, and some new faces: Leila Azul, the unstoppable Alexandre Boulianne, Anna Bromwich, the merveilleux Mireille Maheu, and Emmanuelle Vallières-Léveillé. 

The work was supervised by the professionally-qualified English-French translator Elisabeth De Sa Barbaro, who was an absolute rockstar. 

Thank you all! 

And French is only the beginning... 

Our next translation project will be making 'Sisters For Sale' available to the Spanish world - if you know anyone who is fluent in both English and Spanish and wants to get onboard, let me know! 


I'd like to thank all the women who responded to the question I posed in my last blog post, and via Facebook - answers are still coming in, six weeks later! 

I was fascinated by the spectrum of thoughts and feelings on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. 

The explosion of the #metoo campaign on social media last month helped highlight some of the challenges women face every day, and just how much work remains to be done, even in more progressive cultures. 


It's been a strange time for 'The Human, Earth Project', with several of the people closest to the project facing challenging times. 

The project has been spinning somewhat off-centre, and things have been progressing more slowly than expected. 

I want to send love and hugs out to those people, and gratitude for all you've done and are doing - you've been amazing :)

The documentary itself is awaiting music and a final sound mix, and is coming soon! 


In late September, 'Sisters For Sale' was featured in an article by Jacek Pawlicki on the sale of young women from Vietnam into China, which was published in Newsweek's Polish edition. 


Earlier this year, I finally had a chance to read 'The Shut Eye', a fantastic crime novel by Belinda Bauer, which cites 'The Human, Earth Project' as an inspiration. 

If you're in the UK, for this week only you can grab a copy of 'The Shut Eye' for just 99 pence here


To keep up with all the news on 'Sisters For Sale' and 'The Human, Earth Project', subscribe here

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A touch of colour

Posted September 28

I met Marta Farina on my very first trip to Vietnam, seven years ago. 

I spent two weeks with Marta and her then-partner Fausto, getting to know Sapa and the Hmong girls who have now become the focus of our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale'. 

The next time I saw Marta and Fausto was in their hometown in northern Italy, two years later. 

It was a strange moment in my life - I'd heard about the abduction of my Hmong friend M from Sapa and wanted to do something about it, but didn't yet know what form that would take. 

I would never have suspected that that simple thought would become the dominant fact of my life for years to come. 

Marta is an amazing artist, and Fausto is a house painter. Together we painted a mural outside their hometown featuring M and Sapa's rice terraces (I can't find a photo right now, unfortunately!). 

Marta studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and the École Estienne in Paris, and her award-winning work has been widely published and exhibited. 

I first announced Marta's involvement in 'Sisters For Sale' three years ago

Marta was to illustrate an animated title sequence for the film - and she did, and it was beautiful. 

Sadly, it's among many parts of the film that have since been left on the cutting-room floor, for brevity's sake. 

Happily, Marta and I developed other animated sequences which feature elsewhere in 'Sisters For Sale', and are now among my favourite parts of the film. 

I'm a huge fan of Marta's work, have loved the process of creating something so beautiful together, and want to thank her for all the time and energy she has put into the film. 

As you know, the abduction and suspected trafficking of my friends from Vietnam inspired the work which has dominated the past 4.5 years of my life: raising awareness of the global human trafficking crisis. 

That work has, in turn, led me to an even greater global issue: the issue of women's rights around the world. 

It can be very easy, particularly as a male, to remain ignorant of the true depth and magnitude of this issue on a global scale. It can also be very easy for us to remain ignorant of the effects our own personal actions have on the women in our own lives.

I'm currently taking some time out from my work on 'Sisters For Sale', and am very interested to take a closer look at what it means to be a woman on planet Earth in 2017 - as determined by politics, by history, by men, and by women themselves.

I shared this very simple question on my personal Facebook page last week and have had an amazing response, so I've decided to share it here with the female supporters of 'The Human, Earth Project': 

What does being a woman mean to you?

I want to hear whatever you'd like to say - the good and bad, on strength and vulnerability, on childhood, on motherhood, on childlessness, on love, on marriage, on sexuality.

Here's the tricky part: if at all possible, I'd like you to keep your answers short, to try and get at the essence of a complex human experience in just a few sentences.

You can answer via our Facebook page or message me directly at Take as much time as you'd like. 

Please feel free to share this message - I'd like to hear as many responses as possible, though I may not be able to reply to them all personally. 

Thank you!

If you haven't pre-ordered 'Sisters For Sale', that's still the only guaranteed way of seeing it. 

To keep up with all the news on 'Sisters For Sale' and 'The Human, Earth Project', subscribe here

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Almost killed me

Posted September 18

I never imagined making a feature film would be easy, but I never knew how hard it was going to be. 

You pick the film apart. You put it back together. You watch it again, and again, until you just can't see it anymore. You push yourself, just a little further. 

Making 'Sisters For Sale' has never been an easy process. For years, I've put everything into this project - all of my time, all of my energy, all of my personal savings. 

I've been threatened with murder and extortion and legal action. I've been attacked, and accused of all sorts of things. 

I've lost friends, and people I cared about deeply. I lost myself. I've lost contact even with the friends I started this work for. 

This project has left me in personally very difficult places, much more so than I've been willing to admit publicly. I've relied on the help of others far more than I've been comfortable with. 

I've watched as those around me have advanced in their careers, grown their businesses, bought homes, started families, settled into more comfortable lives. 

I can hardly remember who I was or what I wanted when I first began this project, so completely has it consumed my life. 

Anyone who knows me well knows I don't function properly without sleep. I can go without eating, and have a high tolerance for discomfort - but not sleeping just destroys me. 

This summer has been an odyssey of sleep deprivation, of making crucial technical and creative decisions in no fit state to do so. 

I've discovered that the key to working longer hours is simple: just remove regular meals, sleep and any meaningful human contact from your life. 

In the end, I wasn't working to finish a film: I was working to get my life back. I'm grateful to have survived the past few months without illness or any major technical issues.  

Last year, I spent long hours working through illness and exhaustion to meet the targets I set myself. I've already exceeded last year's total hours - four months early - and have now gone far beyond them. 

I don't want to tell you how much this project has cost, but I will say it has cost substantially more than the funds we raised last year, without my having been paid a cent. 

It could easily have cost four or five times as much if I hadn't been keeping a close eye on the finances, and handling so much of the work myself. 

At a certain point, you realise there is no finish line, that the film can be endlessly refined, that the process can continue indefinitely. 

At a certain point, you have to draw the line yourself. 

At a certain point, all that time and money and heartache, all those countless hours of footage shot, all those thousands of kilometres travelled, all boil down to a single video file, like a piece of yourself that has been cut out and preserved in digital format. 

We still don't have that file - others are still working on the music and sound - but my part in the post-production of the film is essentially over. 

Last year, I announced I was taking a break from this project - and took just five days off before launching into a long, emotionally-draining fundraising campaign. 

I realise now that I can't get away from the project so easily - there's always more work to be done - but I will be taking more time for myself over the coming months. 

I'd like to thank Claire, Curtis, Danilo, Jeppe, Laco, Mai, Marta, Qiuda, Roman and everyone else I've worked with this year - you've been amazing. 

If you haven't pre-ordered the film, that's still the only guaranteed way of seeing it. 

To keep up with all the news on 'Sisters For Sale' and 'The Human, Earth Project', subscribe here

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