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“Butterfly Man” exposes underbelly
of Cambodian sex industry

by Diane Raab

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 Film Festival.

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 planet.”

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 issue.

“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,” Fitzgerald said.

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.

“It was 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.”

In order 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 said.

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.

 As 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 street.”

“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.

“I don’t agree. Hopefully people will come out thinking ‘I didn’t know this existed,’ and be outraged enough to want to do something,” Darrah said.  

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