Man” exposes underbelly
of Cambodian sex industry
It’s a subject no one likes to talk about - but filmmakers
Marlin Darrah and Skye Fitzgerald have opened the curtains
and trained the spotlight on the disturbing child sex industry
in Southeast Asia.
This phenomenon, common in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia,
is the subject matter for Darrah’s first feature film, “Butterfly
Man,” which made its world premier at the 2002 Sedona International
Girls as young as 10 years old are recruited, bartered,
sold, or tricked into leaving their remote villages in the
countryside of Cambodia for the prevalent sex industry in
the large cities of Phnom Penh and Battambong, many leaving
their home villages for the very first time. Once they arrive
in the city, they are overwhelmed by the cars, the buildings,
the pace of life, and the empty promises of big money.
Darrah and Fitzgerald co-produced the independent film,
shot on location in Cambodia in less than 30 days, with a
budget under one-million dollars. Five American actors and
a filmmaking crew (of about 30) flew to Cambodia last year
to shoot the film.
The story line features a young artist, Thomas, who
goes to Cambodia on a study grant, and stays long after the
grant runs out. His girlfriend, Crystal, writes him off, and
Thomas befriends another ex-patriot, Marty, falls in love
with a Cambodian woman, and tries to make a life for himself
in a place he has grown to love.
The inspiration for the film came from Darrah’s travels
in Asia, making documentaries and travel films. He saw widespread
prostitution in Phnom Penh and other cities.
“You’d walk into another brothel every three blocks.
They are always called ‘karoake hotels,’ and you can always
tell ... they have a string of colored lights. It’s so prevalent,
it’s insidious in a way.”
The film’s title, “Butterfly Man” is the name given
to the white male “sex tourists,” who arrive in the country
each day and flit from one woman to another.
“I personally feel a little bit outraged by it,” said
Darrah. “For some reason, it gets under my skin. . . That
men from the West can rent a wife or a woman for a whole week
for $70 ... It doesn’t seem like that should exist on the
His passion for his subject matter and his long-standing
desire to make a feature film came together in “Butterfly
Man,” when he realized that a dramatic narrative based on
the Cambodian sex trade would be a means to bring the issue
to a larger audience. Darrah believed in it so strongly he
and his wife Mika took a second mortgage on their house to
help fund the project.
Co-producer Fitzgerald said he knew very little about
Cambodia prior to taking on the film project, but said he
came to love that part of the world and feel strongly about
“The aim from the beginning was to simply bring the
issue of the burgeoning prostitution trade in Southeast Asia
to a larger audience. It’s devastating an entire generation
of women in Phnom Penh right now. One-third of the women involved
are HIV-infected. It’s part of the fallout of a developing
nation still trying to recover from so much devastation,”
Suspecting the Cambodian government might not appreciate
an exposŽ on the sex industry, Darrah and Fitzgerald obtained
what they called “spot permits” as needed. Fees were paid
to film in or near the brothels, paid to the Cambodian organized
crime members, and other “permits” as needed. Salaries were
paid to the actresses hired to portray the sex workers - most
of whom were actual sex workers.
“I had this feeling we could do this, come in under
the radar and “get away with it” in a sense. We were running
and gunning guerrilla style ... we were lucky to get the footage
we got without getting stopped,” Darrah said.
His company is called Living Dangerously Films, an homage
to the 1983 film “A Year of Living Dangerously.” In some instances,
filming “Butterfly Man” lived up to the film company’s name.
The filmmakers shot five scenes a day. In some cases,
their lights and cameras were clearly unwelcome, forcing them
to quickly load people and equipment back into their rented
vans for safety. Fitzgerald said the project was worth the
risk - not only the physical challenges, but also the risk
of how the film would be received by critics and audiences.
“The job of the artist is to show the world as he or
she sees it without censorship. We risked outraging people
because we thought it was worth telling the story that won’t
get coverage in the mainstream media,” Fitzgerald said.
Tourism is still young in Cambodia, and what the filmmakers
saw and filmed in Phnom Penh was only a fraction of what is
commonplace in neighboring Thailand.
Recent statistics state there are one-million sex workers
in Thailand, in a country with a population of 50 million.
“One in every 50 people work in the sex trade - that’s
men, women and children,” Darrah said.
Other statistics, cited on the filmmakers’ Web site
(butterflymen.com), indicate that 35 percent of the prostitutes
are between the ages of 15 and 18, and 68 percent are sold
to brothels after being deceived or abducted. Over the last
two decades, at least 13 percent of Cambodian children lost
one or both parents.
“There are a lot of orphans. Some of the girls we hired
(for the film) didn’t even know their names. They just had
their working names, like ‘Sunshine,’” Darrah said.
The young girls are kept on display behind a glass window,
and the going rate is $5 an hour. Darrah said he paid some
of the fees in order to see the back rooms.
just incredible. It’s pretty dirty, with a mattress on the
floor, a makeshift closet. On the walls, there were animal
pictures, posters of pop stars, stuffed animals in their cubicles,”
he said, noting the poignancy of children just barely out
of the single digits working in these brothels.
Darrah had worked shooting news for an ABC and CBS affiliate
in Oregon for a year and a half, and said his news and documentary
background came together in “Butterfly Man.”
to take the hard edge off the subject matter, Darrah’s hybrid
movie mixes feature and documentary elements. One character,
Cliff, a college buddy of Thomas who comes to seek out the
sex industry, brings a handicam, which he turns on his subjects
and himself. The black and white footage the character shoots
is shown in the film, including street footage taken from
the back of a small motorcycle, or “moto,” and footage of
his escapades in the back rooms of the brothels.
“We wanted to make people feel very repelled, but we
took a risk that they would also be repelled by the movie.
We may ultimately have to trim those scenes back a bit,” Darrah
The soundtrack included two powerful pieces of music,
“Wicked Game,” by Chris Isaac, and “Brothers in Arms,” by
Dire Straits. The producers obtained festival rights to the
songs, but will replace them with original compositions prior
to wider distribution.
independent filmmmakers, Darrah said he and Fitzgerald are
offering “a good, controversial, hard-hitting drama as well
as a unique international location. It makes the audience
feel like they’ve spent a week with the characters on the
“Butterfly Man” was shown twice at the Sedona Film Festival
to full theaters.
“We didn’t have a huge theater. The intimate audiences
were quite receptive to being challenged,” Darrah said. “It
was very gratifying to shake all those hands after the show
and hear encouraging comments, and to hear tough questions.”
Darrah said he had never worked with actors, and was
a first time director in “Butterfly Man.” Actor McGeorge Robinson,
who had never been overseas, was asked to portray the ex-patriot
Thomas, who had lived in a Third World culture for three years.
Robinson rose to the occasion and played a convincing Thomas.
Fitzgerald and Darrah plan to donate a percentage of
the film’s profits to organizations working to end child prostitution
in Asia. Two organizations they have come in contact with
are End Child Prostitution in Asia Today (ECPAT) and the Cambodian
Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) based in Phnom-Penh.
“People are risking their lives to save these girls,”
Fitzgerald said. “The whole culture is built up around prostitution.
It’s not just tourists coming into the country to do this.
It’s an accepted part of Cambodian culture for males to do
that while they are young.”
Darrah said some film distributors may take issue with
the advocacy element of his film, thinking the audience should
be left to draw their own conclusions.
agree. Hopefully people will come out thinking ‘I didn’t know
this existed,’ and be outraged enough to want to do something,”