Not My Life

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Not to be confused with This Is Not My Life.
Not My Life
The words "NOT MY LIFE" in light yellow superimposed on a darker yellow background with the face of a child peering over the words
Directed by Robert Bilheimer
Richard Young
Produced by Robert Bilheimer
Heidi Ostertag
Jim Greenbaum
Amy Detweiler
Devon Higby
Johan Weijers
Written by Robert Bilheimer
Narrated by Glenn Close
Music by Chris Brubeck
Cinematography Richard Young
Craig Braden
Gerardo Puglia
Edited by Anthony DeLuca
JD Marlow
Distributed by Worldwide Documentaries
Release date(s)
Running time 73 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Not My Life is a 2011 American independent documentary film about human trafficking and contemporary slavery. The film was written, produced, and directed by Robert Bilheimer, who had been asked to make the film by Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Bilheimer planned Not My Life as the second installment in a trilogy, the first being A Closer Walk and the third being the unproduced Take Me Home. The title Not My Life came from a June 2009 interview with Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, who said that many people dismiss contemporary slavery with denialism, saying, "No, this is not my life." Filming of Not My Life took place over the space of four years, documenting human trafficking in thirteen countries: Albania, Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Italy, Nepal, Romania, Senegal, Uganda, and the United States. The first and last scenes of the film take place in Lake Volta, Ghana, and depict children who are forced to fish in the lake for 14 hours every day. The film also depicts sex trafficking victims, some of whom are only five or six years old.

Fifty people are interviewed in the film, including investigative journalist Paul Radu of Bucharest, Katherine Chon of the Polaris Project, and Somaly Mam of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Don Brewster of Agape International Missions says that the girls they have rescued from child sex tourism in Cambodia say that the clients who were the most abusive to them were Americans. Richard Young, the film's cinematographer and co-director, died in December 2010, and the film was subsequently dedicated to him. The film had its official premiere the following month at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, New York. That summer, the narration was completely rerecorded, replacing Ashley Judd's voice with that of Glenn Close. The final cut of the film, which was aired by CNN International as part of the CNN Freedom Project, was shorter than the version shown at the film's premiere.

Not My Life addresses a variety of forms of slavery, including the military use of children in Uganda, involuntary servitude in the United States, forced begging and garbage picking in India, sex trafficking in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and other kinds of child abuse. The film also investigates people who work against human trafficking. The film asserts that most human trafficking victims are children. Actress Lucy Liu said that people who watch Not My Life "will be shocked to find [human trafficking] is happening in America." Lucy Popescu of CineVue criticized the film for focusing on human trafficking victims, arguing that the perpetrators should have been dealt with more prominently. Not My Life was named Best World Documentary at the Harlem International Film Festival in September 2012.


Not My Life is a documentary film about human trafficking and contemporary slavery. The film addresses a variety of forms of slavery,[1] including the military use of children in Uganda, involuntary servitude in the United States, unfree labour in Ghana, forced begging and garbage picking in India, sex trafficking in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and other kinds of child abuse. The focus of the film is on human trafficking victims who are women and children. The film suggests that child human trafficking victims are often betrayed by those they trust.[2] The film also investigates people who work against human trafficking,[3] such as members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Free the Slaves, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), International Justice Mission (IJM), the Somaly Mam Foundation, Terre des hommes, Tostan, UNICEF, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the United States Department of State (US DoS).[4] Not My Life is a cautionary tale in that it depicts the commodification of millions of people and identifies traffickers as undermining the international community in various ways, such as in international economics, international security, sustainability, and international health.[5]

A photograph of a boy with short, black hair wearing a yellow t-shirt, looking at the viewer, and standing in front of two bicyclists
Not My Life depicts many different kinds of contemporary slavery, including forced child begging in India.

Not My Life calls attention to the fact that the criminal sentences for human trafficking in the United States are less severe than the sentences for drug trafficking in the United States.[6] The film indicates a relationship between contemporary slavery and globalization,[7] and asserts that most human trafficking victims are children,[8] although the filmmakers have recognized that there are millions of adult human trafficking victims as well.[9] The film depicts human trafficking as a matter of good and evil, provides interviews with survivors of human trafficking, and includes analysis from anti-trafficking advocates. Through the film, Robert Bilheimer encourages his audiences to personally combat human trafficking.[2] Bilheimer was sparing in his inclusion of statistics in the film in order to avoid numbing the audience to the issues.[10] The film provides a variety of evidence for its assertion that human trafficking is slavery.[11]

According to Nancy Keefe Rhodes of Stone Canoe, the film's audiences are likely to have the preconception that human trafficking is not slavery in the same sense that the Atlantic slave trade was slavery, and that many people believe that slavery was abolished a long time ago with such instruments as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[12] Rhodes states that Bilheimer uses the film to "reclaim the original term [slavery] and convince us that what is happening now is what happened then: highly organized and pervasive, intentional, highly profitable and... fully as coercive and wantonly cruel."[13] Rhodes suggests that audiences' views on contemporary slavery are indicated by such films as Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan;[12] the Academy-Award-winning Hustle & Flow portrays a pimp as the hero while Black Snake Moan features Christina Ricci as a sex slave who is addicted to sex,[14] suggesting that women want to be sex slaves. According to Rhodes, Bilheimer "rescue[s] modern slaves from representation as exotic creatures, to restore their humanity" and allow audiences to relate to them. For this purpose, Bilheimer tells stories of individuals in the context of their communities and families.[13] While Bilheimer had previously done extensive social justice work with religious organizations, he did not proselytize in the film,[15] despite the many opportunities the film afforded him to do so.[16]


Live footage[edit]

Not My Life begins with a black screen on which white words eventually appear, reading "Human trafficking is slavery."[10] The first scenes of the film take place in Lake Volta, Ghana, and depict children who are forced to fish in the lake for 14 hours every day, many of whom die as a result of the working conditions.[17] In particular, one 10-year-old boy swims through the lake's murky water towards the camera, looking at it.[18] He holds his breath underwater while trying to untie a fishing net.[10] Scenes in India depict children illegally sorting through piles of hazardous waste in landfills in Ghazipur[11] and New Delhi,[19] most of them wearing flip-flops.[11] Later scenes in India depict a police raid on a brothel.[17] The raid was spearheaded by Balkrishna Acharya of the Rescue Foundation in Mumbai. In one of these scenes, ten girls are coaxed out of a three-foot closet hidden in the attic. The madam of the brothel shouts angrily at the men for taking away her ability to make income through the prostitution of these children.[11]

A photograph of six boys looking at the viewer and sitting on the ground with the soles of their feet facing the viewer on a bright day
Not My Life documents forced child begging in Senegal. Approximately 50,000 talibes, Quranic schoolchildren, beg on the streets of Senegal with the threat of being beaten if they do not make their quotas.

Senegalese talibes, Muslim children who attend Quranic schools, appear in other scenes; there are approximately 50,000 talibes in Senegal who are forced to beg on the streets in order to make money for their teachers, and who are beaten if they do not make enough money. Many of these children suffer from cutaneous conditions and stomach disease because of their diet of spoiled food, and one of these children demonstrates his diseased hands to the camera, only to be pulled away by the ear by an adult.[11] The trafficking of children into the sex industry is depicted in both Romania and Cambodia.[19] Some scenes take place in Svay Pak, Phnom Penh, one of the cheapest sex tourism destinations in the Mekong Delta.[11] Women of the Somaly Mam Foundation are depicted working with girls who are former sex trafficking victims. A large number of these girls are pictured one by one in a doorway; the scenery of the doorway remains the same as each child fades into the next.[6]

In Guatemala City,[20] Guatemalan trafficker Efrain Ortiz is shown being given a prison sentence of 95 years;[6] Ortiz had two sons he had been using for waste collection labour and five daughters he had been abusing incestuously. Bilheimer accompanies IJM representatives Pablo Villeda, Amy Roth, and Gary Haugen as they join with the local police to arrest Ortiz; he is charged with exploitation of children and violence against women. Ortiz looks surprised as he is handcuffed. Villeda says that the message for onlookers is that, when it comes to child abuse, "you just don't do it."[20] The narrator says that the profits of human trafficking "are built on the backs and in the beds of our planet's youth."[21] Some of the sex trafficking victims depicted in the film are only five or six years old.[11]

The film concludes by dealing with efforts to rescue human trafficking victims.[19] The final scene of the film before the credits returns to the boy who had been holding his breath underwater in Ghana at the beginning of the film. His name is revealed to be Etse and it is stated that he and six other human trafficking victims appearing in the film have been rescued.[10] The last words in the film are those of Brazilian human rights advocate Leo Sakomoto, who appears in the film only in this one scene, saying, "I can't seize a good life while there are people living like animals. Not because I'm a good person, not because it's my duty, but because they are human—like me."[22]


A photograph of four men in a room, three of them sitting down, all surrounding a black videocamera on a black tripod with windows in the background
Investigative journalist Paul Radu of Bucharest is one of fifty people interviewed in Not My Life. (left to right: Radu, Richard Young, Robert Bilheimer)

Fifty people are interviewed in the film,[17] including Katherine Chon of the Polaris Project,[23] investigative journalist Paul Radu of Bucharest, Vincent Tournecuillert of Terre des hommes, Iana Matei of Reaching Out Romania,[4] UNICEF Director of Programmes Nicholas Alipui,[24] Susan Bissell of UNICEF's Child Protection Section, Antonio Maria Costa of UNODC, Somaly Mam of the Somaly Mam Foundation, Molly Melching of Tostan in Senegal, and First Lady of Egypt Suzanne Mubarak.[5] Tournecuillert speaks about his experiences in Albania, where he heard about the sex trafficking of girls and how some of the girls would be shot or burned to death as a warning to the other girls. Matei adds that, for the sake of amusement, some of the girls would be buried alive with only their heads remaining above ground.[4] Grace Akallo, a Ugandan woman[17] who was once abducted by Joseph Kony to be used as a child soldier[25] in the Lord's Resistance Army,[19] is interviewed, saying that "this kind of evil must be stopped."[3] As part of her initiation into the army, she was forced to kill another girl, a very common practice among armies that employ child soldiers. After six months, Akallo was skilled with an AK-47. She was eventually rehabilitated and became a mother.[25] Both Mam and Akallo are sexual slavery survivors.[17] Nun Eugenia Bonetti appears in the film and speaks about her work helping girls escape from slavery in Italy.[15] Tournecuillert explains how Albanian girls are commonly rounded up to be sexually trafficked in Italy and how the traffickers normally select one of the girls before the move to Italy and kill her in front of the others to demonstrate that they will not hesitate to kill any girl who ever tries to escape. Tournecuillert says that the method of execution is most often by burning or shooting.[25]

A man looking to the right while wearing a black suit jacket, a white dress shirt, and a necktie while standing in front of a microphone
American sex trafficking victim Sheila White is interviewed in Not My Life, and Barack Obama, President of the United States, later told her story during a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative (pictured).

Another interview is with a Wichita, Kansas woman named Angie who was prostituted with another girl, Melissa, in the Midwestern United States[26] when they were both teenagers.[27] Angie explains how the two of them were expected to have sex with truck drivers at a truck stop and steal their money. Angie said that, while looking through one of these drivers' wallets, she found pictures of the man's grandchildren and realized that he was old enough to be hers and Melissa's grandfather. She recounts this story disgustedly, almost crying, and says, "I wanted to die."[27] FBI agent Mike Beaver says, "It's not just truck drivers. We're seeing them purchased and abused by both white collar and blue collar individuals." This quotation is quickly followed by a scene in Washington, D.C. depicting two young teenaged girls on a K Street curb changing into alternate clothing in preparation for prostitution.[26] Outside the film, Bilheimer said that Angie did not fit the stereotype for a girl at risk of being sexually trafficked; she was from the heartland, attended a private school and, when her parents divorced, began acting out as a way of seeking attention. A man abducted her when she was 12 years old, violated the Mann Act by transporting her to another state, and began trafficking her sexually.[25] While being trafficked, Angie was expected to engage in 40 sex acts every night, charging $50 for oral sex, $60 for vaginal sex, and $70 for both.[28] Her trafficker threatened to kill her if she refused to perform these acts.[25] Bilheimer said that the truck drivers Angie was expected to service either did not know or did not want to know what would happen to her if she did not give all of the money she earned to her pimp.[29] Angie was rescued from sex trafficking during Operation Stormy Nights, an early major anti-human-trafficking operation by the FBI.[28] The sting operation that resulted in the arrest of Angie's trafficker was headed by Beaver, who was working as an undercover agent and said that Angie was "a normal, typical American teenager."[25] Once rescued by Stormy Nights, one of Angie's friends was sent to a district attorney (DA) in order to facilitate the preparation of her testimony, and the DA told the girl that he wouldn't talk to her until she had performed oral sex on him.[29] Bilheimer said that, while there is no way of being certain how many girls like Angie are being sexually trafficked, "diligent people out there have arrived at a bare minimum figure of... one hundred thousand girls, eight to fifteen [performing] ten sex acts a day" adding up to "a billion unpunished crimes of sexual violence on an annual basis." While Bilheimer interviewed Beaver at a Midwestern truck stop like the ones at which Angie was trafficked, someone wrote "Fuck you, asshole!" in the dirt on Beaver's car. Bilheimer said that this act demonstrated that many truck drivers hate law enforcement, although he said that "there are some good truckers out there",[29] like those who are part of Truckers Against Trafficking, an organization opposing human trafficking by raising awareness on the subject among truck drivers.[30] In another interview with an American sex trafficking victim, a black woman named Sheila White talks about having been battered next to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2003 without anyone even asking her if she needed help.[26] White eventually escaped from being trafficked and went on to work with GEMS in order to raise awareness on the issue in New York. Barack Obama, President of the United States, later recognized her work and told her story during a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative.[25]

A photograph of three people, the two in the foreground smiling, looking at the viewer, and together holding a plaque with writing on it
Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, appears in Not My Life participating in the arrest of Guatemalan human trafficker Efrain Ortiz. The 2012 United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report later named Haugen a TIP Hero.

In Zoha Prison in Romania,[26] there are interviews with traffickers who were in the midst of serving prison sentences that the film suggested were too short in light of the severity of the crime of human trafficking;[2] the typical sentence for this crime is six or seven years, while the sentence for trafficking in drugs is normally twenty years.[4] These two Romanian traffickers, Traian and Ovidiu, attest to having starved and battered the girls they trafficked,[31] punching and kicking them.[4] Ovidiu recounts a story, in an interview filmed in February 2007,[26] about kidnapping a prostitute and selling her for sex when he was 14. He shows no remorse for these actions.[4] The prison sentences served by the traffickers interviewed in the film were so short that these men had been released from prison by the time the film was released.[6] Ana, a girl Traian and Ovidiu trafficked, is also interviewed in the film, saying that she lost a tooth because of one of her beatings. She said that she had been pregnant at the time but had not revealed this fact to her captors because she had feared for the safety of her unborn child.[31]

Don Brewster of Agape International Missions is interviewed, and says that the girls they have rescued from child sex tourism in Cambodia say that the clients who were the most abusive to them were Americans.[20] In an interview outside the film, Bilheimer agreed with this assertion.[18] Bilheimer travelled to South Africa specifically to interview Desmond Tutu,[32] a bishop.[33] Years before, Bilheimer had interviewed Tutu for The Cry of Reason.[32] Gary Haugen, an interviewee in the film, is the president of IJM and went on to be named a Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Hero in the 2012 US DoS TIP Report.[28] An interview with one of the Somaly Mam Foundation workers, Sophea Chhun, reveals that her daughter, Sokny, was kidnapped in 2008 at age 23.[34] Sokny was likely trafficked after her kidnapping, and Chhun suggests that the police considered the crime unimportant because Sokny was an adopted child.[22] Desmond Tutu appears on-screen and says, "Each of us has the capacity to be a saint."[33] Bilheimer interviewed Tutu for the film because he felt that audiences might be in need of pastoral counseling after having watched Not My Life.[25]



A photograph of a smiling man with greying hair and a receding hairline looking to the right and wearing glasses, a grey tie, and a black dress coat
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, asked Robert Bilheimer to make a film about contemporary slavery, and the result was Not My Life.

The project that became Not My Life was initiated by the executive director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, who wanted to commission a film that would "bring the issue of modern slavery to the attention of public opinion, globally – especially the well-meaning, law-abiding and God-fearing people who do not believe something so horrible is happening in their own neighborhood." With this goal in mind, Costa approached Worldwide Documentaries,[18] an East Bloomfield, New York-based organization[10] that had produced two films with which he was familiar: The Cry of Reason, which documents internal resistance to South African apartheid by way of Beyers Naudé's story; and A Closer Walk, which is about the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS. Costa e-mailed Bilheimer,[18] Director of Worldwide Documentaries,[10] asking him to create the film he envisioned. Costa said that he choose Bilheimer because Bilheimer had developed a "solid reputation [for] addressing difficult topics... combining artistic talent, a philosophical view about development and a humanitarian sentiment about what to do about the issues."[18]

Bilheimer accepted Costa's proposition,[18] and subsequently wrote, produced, and directed Not My Life[2] as an independent film.[24] Bilheimer, who had received an Academy Award nomination for The Cry of Reason,[6] said that "the unrelenting, unpunished, and craven exploitation of millions of human beings for labor, sex, and hundreds of sub-categories thereof is simply the most appalling and damaging expression of so-called human civilization we have ever seen."[35] Bilheimer's wife, Heidi Ostertag, is Worldwide Documentaries' Senior Producer, and she coproduced Not My Life with him. She said that she found making a film about human trafficking difficult because "people do not want to talk about this issue." Bilheimer found that the connections he had made during the production of A Closer Walk were useful when producing Not My Life as well because the poor and the outcast are at the greatest risk of both HIV/AIDS and human trafficking; there is, for this reason, much overlap between the groups victimized by these two afflictions.[18] Bilheimer attempted to fashion the film in such a way that every portion of it would illustrate a statement by Abraham Lincoln: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."[36]

When making this 83-minute[37] feature film,[5] Bilheimer did not believe that a contemporary abolitionist movement yet existed, and his purpose in creating the film was to initiate such a movement.[1] He also wished to communicate to his audiences that not all human trafficking is sexual.[25] Bilheimer attempted to use the film to enlighten his audiences about the nature of reality, as he had sought to do with A Closer Walk in 2003.[5] In a 2012 interview, Bilheimer said that he considered A Closer Walk and Not My Life to be the first two installments in a trilogy; he intended to make an environmental film called Take Me Home as the third installment.[33] As of 2013, however, the Worldwide Documentaries website stated that Bilheimer was considering making his next film on a different subject, such as poverty in the United States, the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or posttraumatic stress disorder among United States Army soldiers who fought in the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.[38] Bilheimer said that traffickers "commit unspeakable, wanton acts of violence against their fellow human beings, and are rarely punished for their crimes."[3] Production of Not My Life was supported by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), UNICEF, and UNODC,[37] providing Worldwide Documentaries with $1 million in funding secured by Costa.[18] Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, and Dave Brubeck all contributed to the film score.[7]


A photograph of two men with a black video camera on a black tripod standing in front of a grey-bricked building with rounded arches
Italy was one of thirteen countries in which Not My Life was filmed. (left to right: Robert Bilheimer, Richard Young)

Bilheimer said that the level of cruelty he saw in filming Not My Life was greater than anything he saw when documenting apartheid in South Africa for The Cry of Reason.[4] Bilheimer attested to becoming more aware of the global extent of human trafficking as he went about making Not My Life.[6] The film's title came from a June 2009 interview with Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, an organization dedicated to human rights education operating in ten sovereign states in Africa. As Bilheimer and Melching spoke in Thiès, Senegal, discussing the denialism with which many people dismiss contemporary slavery, Melching said "People can say, 'No, this is not my life.' But my life can change. Let's change together."[39]

Filming of Not My Life took place over four years[2] in Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and Europe,[3] documenting human trafficking in thirteen countries: Albania, Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Italy, Nepal, Romania, Senegal, Uganda, and the United States.[10] Filming in Ghana took place over four 18-hour days, during which the film crew traversed washboard roads in Land Rovers and did not sleep.[18] Filming in Svay Pak took place in March 2010,[20] and shooting in Abusir, Egypt took place the following month.[40]

In Guatemala, Bilheimer facilitated the arrest of trafficker Ortiz by renting a car for the police to use, in order to film the arrest as part of Not My Life.[28] Bilheimer said that, during the making of Not My Life, he and his film crew were surprised to discover that, across most of the various forms of human trafficking in the various countries of the world, from debt bondage in India to prostitution in the United States, traffickers employ the same methods of intimidation "almost as if there were... unwritten bylaws and tactics... The lies are the same."[25]


A photograph of a girl and a man sitting side-by-side, both smiling, the man looking at the girl and wearing a green baseball cap and a t-shirt
The Arab Spring made content relating to Egyptian mixed-sex schools outdated, therefore Robert Bilheimer removed much of this content from the film's final cut.

After the initial screenings in early 2011, the film went through a series of revisions, taking into account information gathered from more than thirty screenings for focus groups. That summer, the narration was completely rerecorded,[33] replacing Ashley Judd's voice with that of Glenn Close. Close's narration was recorded at a studio in Boston, Massachusetts.[39] Close had previously worked with Bilheimer on A Closer Walk,[41] and Bilheimer stated that Close would also narrate the final film in the planned trilogy.[39] The final cut of the film, which was aired by CNN International, was shorter than the version shown at the film's premiere.[33] An even shorter version, only 30 minutes long, was created with school audiences in mind.[18]

Content relating to the Egyptian mixed-sex schools instituted by Suzanne Mubarak was gathered, but Bilheimer excluded much of this content from the film's final cut because the Arab Spring made the information in this portion of the film outdated.[33] Much of the interview with Molly Melching was removed as well.[39] During the editing of Not My Life, Bilheimer cut the interview with Tutu,[32] but later readded a single quotation.[33] In this interview, Bilheimer told Tutu about meeting normally reasonable, compassionate women who, when speaking about human traffickers, say things like "Hang him up by his balls and then cut 'em off!" Tutu, head of the truth and reconciliation commission, surprised Bilheimer with his response, saying that "these people have committed monstrous acts", but that, according to Christianity, traffickers can still be redeemed and become saints.[32]


A photograph of two smiling men looking at the viewer and standing in the middle of a dirt road next to three automobiles under a blue sky
Richard Young, the cinematographer for Not My Life, died before the film's official premiere, and the film was then dedicated to him. (left to right: Young, Robert Bilheimer)

As occurred previously with the film A Closer Walk, there were several preview screenings of Not My Life before the film's official release.[42] In February 2009, a trailer for the film was shown at the Jack Morton Auditorium of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs during an event at which Bilheimer spoke about documentary films and human rights.[1] The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted a preview screening for the film at the Willard InterContinental Washington that September, as part of a day-long symposium on the subject of human trafficking.[27] In December 2010, another preview screening took place at the International Forum against Human Trafficking in Luxor, Egypt.[5] This preview screening included the content relating to female education in Egypt that was not retained for the film's final cut.[33] Later that month, on December 15, Richard Young, the film's cinematographer and co-director, died. The film was subsequently dedicated to him.[43] Bilheimer said that Young believed in the film far more than he himself did.[44]

The film had its official premiere in Alice Tully Hall[45] at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City[41] on January 19, 2011.[7] Melanne Verveer, United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, spoke at this premiere, saying, "Each and everyone of us is called to act. I hope that tonight each of us will make their own commitment."[45] Additional screenings were held in Los Angeles and Chicago later that month.[7] That October, Not My Life had its official international premiere in London. A few days later,[36] CNN International aired the film in two parts[3] as part of the CNN Freedom Project.[2] The Swedish premiere was attended by Crown Princess Victoria.[18] Bilheimer recognized that people combatting human trafficking are in need of resources, so he considered various options with respect to the intellectual property of Not My Life, ultimately deciding to release the film at charge[46] in addition to selling licenses for unlimited private screenings.[47] On November 1,[48] the film was released on DVD by Worldwide Documentaries,[33] which also began digitally distributing the film and selling the unlimited licenses. LexisNexis, the governments of Arizona and Minnesota, and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF all purchased licenses. The latter organization planned to use the film as part of an anti-human-trafficking campaign.[18]

A photograph of a group of standing men, the one in the foreground smiling and wearing a green baseball cap, glasses, and a grey shirt
Once he was finished working on Not My Life, Robert Bilheimer sought to use the film to initiate a movement against human trafficking and contemporary slavery.

In 2012, having finished working on Not My Life, Bilheimer said that his goal was now to use the film to start a contemporary abolitionist movement. He quoted civil rights activist Calvin O. Butts, who suggested that the best way to start a justice movement is to get "a lot of angry people in the church basement." Bilheimer said that he was trying to determine what church basement equivalent to use.[18] Not My Life was screened for more than 400 high school students at the 2012 UNIS-UN Conference, the theme of which was human exploitation. The screening was preceded by a speech by Katherine Chon on the subject of slavery and human trafficking and followed by a debate between the students about how to effectively address these issues.[49] Syracuse University hosted a screening of the film at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications on February 9, and Bilheimer was in attendance. The auditorium was full and a question-and-answer period followed the screening. Another screening took place that same night in San Francisco.[33] In February 2012, an exhibition on the subject of contemporary slavery opened at President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home in Washington, DC and was scheduled to run until August 2013.[50] This exhibition was called Can You Walk Away? and included segments from Not My Life.[51] Brandeis University's Gender and International Development Initiative (GaIDI) screened Not My Life in March 2012 in conjunction with a lecture about human trafficking by Dr. Mei-Mei Ellerman, Board Director of the Polaris Project and member of GaIDI. The screening was followed by a discussion of the film and abolitionism strategies.[52]

In 2013, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was scheduled to sit on a discussion panel following a screening of Not My Life co-organized by the World Affairs Councils of America and the Minnesota International Center.

In the summer of 2012, Bilheimer initiated an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to allow local organizations opposing human trafficking to screen the film.[33] In preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a hotel chain presented the film to its staff in London to make them aware of human trafficking that might take place in conjunction with the events.[18] That October, the film was screened at the United Nations Association Film Festival.[8] Also that month, the Prevention Project hosted a screening of the film at Hermitage High School in Richmond, Virginia. This screening was attended by 300 people including Omega Wilson, the school's principal, despite a major school football game occurring at the same time.[9] In November, Oaxaca FilmFest screened the film.[53] Bilheimer expressed his willingness to release 15-minute excerpts from the film if that would reach a broader audience.[54] Throughout 2013, the World Affairs Councils of America hosted Not My Life screenings in a variety of cities across the United States, funded by the Carlson Family Foundation.[55] One of these screenings was hosted by the Mark Twain House in April.[25] Another was scheduled for August and was planned in partnership with the Minnesota International Center. This screening was planned to be held at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs' Cowles Auditorium. The screening was to be followed by a panel discussion featuring former human trafficking victim Bukola Oriola; Breaking Free's executive director, Vednita Carter; Ramsey County Attorney John Choi; and The Family Partnership's Jeff Bauer. DLA Piper's Kathleen Smith Ruhland was scheduled to moderate the discussion.[56] In April 2013, Bilheimer said that Not My Life "is not a perfect film by any means, but it is having an impact." He said that he would like to be moving on to a new film project, but he wanted to continue to promote Not My Life because he believed it could initiate positive change with respect to human trafficking. To that end, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency gave Worldwide Documentaries a substantial grant in order to do anti-human trafficking work over a three-year period.[25] Not My Life was selected to be screened at BORDEReview in Warsaw, Poland in May 2013[57] and the Pasadena International Film & New Media Festival in February 2014.[58]


A photograph of a woman with long, black hair wearing a black-and-gold bracelet and facing the left, all in front of a sign reading "USAID"
Actress Lucy Liu spoke at the United States Agency for International Development preview screening of Not My Life, saying that 80,000 women are victims of sexual assault every day.

At the USAID preview screening, actress Lucy Liu, who has worked with MTV EXIT and produced the documentary film Redlight, said that people who watch Not My Life "will be shocked to find [human trafficking] is happening in America"; she said that there were 80,000 women being sexually assaulted daily and she called human trafficking the "cannibalization of the planet's youth."[27] According to UN.GIFT, before Not My Life, there was "no single communication tool that effectively depict[ed] the problem as a whole for a mass audience."[5] Susan Bissell, UNICEF's Child Protection Section chief, agreed with this assertion,[18] and said that the film "takes a close look at the underlying causality that so many other filmmakers have missed [and] it will change the way we see our lives, in some very fundamental ways."[6] She also said that Not My Life is an important documentary because it brings attention to underreported forms of abuse. A reviewer from Medical News Today praised the film for "raising awareness and speaking about taboo subjects", arguing that these activities "are critical to empower families, communities, and governments to speak out honestly and take action against abuses."[24]

Lucy Popescu of CineVue called the film "a powerful indictment of the global trade in human beings and the abuse of vulnerable people", but criticized the film for focusing on human trafficking victims, arguing that the perpetrators should have been dealt with more prominently. She commended Bilheimer on the few interviews with traffickers that he did include, but she condemned as inadequate the "only passing reference to the thousands of men who engage in sexual tourism, like those who travel to Cambodia to 'buy' traumatized children who they can then abuse for weeks at a time." Popescu also called the film "simplistic", arguing that it should have more clearly expressed that sex trafficking victims are not able to provide legitimate consent for sexual activity because they are afraid that their lives might be in danger if they do not comply.[2] John Rash of the Star Tribune called the film "a cacophony of concerned voices speaking about a modern-day scourge." Rash praised the film for its global scope, but suggested that this geographical breadth allows American audiences to ignore the fact that the trafficking of children is prevalent in the United States and not just in other countries.[19]

Nancy Keefe Rhodes of Stone Canoe called Not My Life a "highly-distilled... remarkable film", saying that Bilheimer is "committed to strong story-telling and film-as-craft."[10] She called the scene of Ortiz's arrest "riveting" because he appears to not even believe he has done anything wrong.[20] She also commends Bilheimer on alternating between American scenes and scenes in other countries, allowing "the experiences of young women with whom an American audience may more readily identify [to] become one among many woven into the fabric of global trafficking."[26] Not My Life was named Best World Documentary at the Harlem International Film Festival in September 2012.[59]


  1. ^ a b c Caitie Daw (March 2, 2009). "Director speaks on human rights". The GW Hatchet. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Lucy Popescu (October 2011). "Special Feature: CNN's 'Not My Life'". CineVue. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Lynette Holloway (October 23, 2011). "Documentary Exposes Modern-Day Slavery". The Root. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Rhodes, p. 6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "not my life". United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Dreux Dougall (February 9, 2011). "A film enters the fight against modern slavery: An interview with Robert Bilheimer about "Not My Life"". Need to Know. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Documentário aborda globalização e trabalho escravo". Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labour. January 21, 2011. Retrieved August 1, 2013.  (Portuguese)
  8. ^ a b "Not My Life". United Nations Association Film Festival. October 22, 2012. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  9. ^ a b "Screening of Not My Life Documentary by Prevention Project Students". Richmond Justice Initiative. October 29, 2012. Retrieved August 21, 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Rhodes, p. 1.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Rhodes, p. 4.
  12. ^ a b Rhodes, p. 13.
  13. ^ a b Rhodes, p. 14.
  14. ^ Rhodes, p. 12.
  15. ^ a b Rhodes, p. 15.
  16. ^ Rhodes, p. 16.
  17. ^ a b c d e "Fighting Worldwide Trafficking Through Documentary: A Review of Not My Life". Do Something. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Gary Craig (October 21, 2012). "Oscar-nominated local filmmakers tackle sex trafficking". Democrat and Chronicle. Retrieved August 17, 2013.  (subscription required)
  19. ^ a b c d e John Rash (August 3, 2013). "Dehumanizing human trafficking on, off screen". Star Tribune. Retrieved August 16, 2013. 
  20. ^ a b c d e Rhodes, p. 5.
  21. ^ "Not My Life – 2011". Counter Trafficking in Persons. April 4, 2013. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  22. ^ a b Rhodes, p. 10.
  23. ^ "Katherine Chon". Worldwide Documentaries. Archived from the original on July 3, 2013. Retrieved August 15, 2013. 
  24. ^ a b c "Child Trafficking Film Premiere Spotlights Grave Child Rights Abuse". Medical News Today. January 21, 2011. Retrieved August 20, 2013. 
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l John Dankosky (April 17, 2013). Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery. Connecticut Public Radio. Retrieved August 21, 2013. 
  26. ^ a b c d e f Rhodes, p. 8.
  27. ^ a b c d Cindy Von Quednow (September 21, 2009). "Lucy Liu and Others Advocate Against Trafficking Sex, Domestic Workers". Kansas City infoZine. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  28. ^ a b c d Rhodes, p. 7.
  29. ^ a b c Rhodes, p. 46.
  30. ^ "Not My Life Discussion Guide". World Without Genocide. Retrieved August 16, 2013. 
  31. ^ a b "Traficanti romani de carne vie, intr-un documentar CNN". Ziare. October 23, 2011. Retrieved August 1, 2013.  (Romanian)
  32. ^ a b c d Rhodes, p. 35.
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Rhodes, p. 3.
  34. ^ Rhodes, p. 9.
  35. ^ Bright Mills (2011). Human Trafficking: Modern-Day Slavery. Trafford Publishing. p. 56. ISBN 1466947039. 
  36. ^ a b Becky Anderson (October 26, 2011). "Documentary Highlights Horrific Practices of Modern-Day Slavery". CNN International. Retrieved August 11, 2013. 
  37. ^ a b ""Not My Life", by Robert Bilheimer". UNRIC. March 6, 2012. Retrieved August 1, 2013. 
  38. ^ "Robert Bilheimer". Worldwide Documentaries. Retrieved November 6, 2013. 
  39. ^ a b c d Rhodes, p. 55.
  40. ^ Rhodes, p. 2.
  41. ^ a b N. Quỳnh (January 22, 2011). "Phim tài liệu đầu tiên về nạn buôn người". Sai Gon Giai Phong. Retrieved August 1, 2013.  (Vietnamese)
  42. ^ Rhodes, p. 25.
  43. ^ Rhodes, p. 43.
  44. ^ Rhodes, p. 52.
  45. ^ a b Liza Jansen (January 21, 2011). "Movie "Not My Life" aims to inspire global fight against human trafficking". Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved August 20, 2013. 
  46. ^ Rhodes, p. 38.
  47. ^ Rhodes, p. 39.
  48. ^ "Not My Life". JD Marlow. Retrieved August 15, 2013. 
  49. ^ "Ausbeutung geht jeden an". op-online. March 22, 2012. Retrieved August 1, 2013.  (German)
  50. ^ Rhodes, p. 58.
  51. ^ "Can You Walk Away?: A Special Exhibit at President Lincoln's Cottage". February 15, 2012. Retrieved August 20, 2013. 
  52. ^ "Not My Life". Brandeis University. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  53. ^ "Day 4: Sun 11 Nov". Oaxaca FilmFest. Retrieved August 11, 2013. 
  54. ^ Rhodes, p. 40.
  55. ^ "World Affairs Councils of America Programs". World Affairs Councils of America. Retrieved August 16, 2013. 
  56. ^ "Not My Life: Human Trafficking, Globally and Locally". Minnesota International Center. Retrieved August 16, 2013. 
  57. ^ "Schedule". BORDEReview. Retrieved August 21, 2013. 
  58. ^ "13 - 17 February 2014". Pasadena International Film & New Media Festival. Retrieved August 21, 2013. 
  59. ^ "2012 Award Winners". Harlem International Film Festival. Retrieved August 11, 2013. 


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