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'Sex Slaves' is brave, but invites questions

It's hard not to be a bit cynical at the start of ''Sex Slaves," the Frontline documentary that premieres tonight. Sex trafficking in Turkey is serious, of course, but it also provides PBS with a chance to air shots of breasts and midriffs heading repeatedly toward the camera.

The larger cause for eyebrow-raising, though, comes from the role the documentary crew plays in this hourlong film -- shifting, at some point, from inquiring observers to renegade pseudo-cops. True, it's compelling to watch a man, wired with a secret camera and microphone, try to rescue his wife from captivity. But it's the stuff you'd expect from a John Grisham book-turned-feature-film, not a justifiably revered journalistic enterprise.

''Sex Slaves" begins in Ukraine and Moldova, where many poor women, desperate for money, answer ads to do domestic work in Turkey. Along the way, some are diverted to the hands of pimps and hustlers who immediately press them into service. These men -- and often women -- don't seem to care whether their victims are pregnant or have left children and husbands at home. The victims' families seem helpless and, in some cases, resigned to their loss.

This is a frightening look at human cruelty and its victims. But at some point, it morphs into a cops-and-robbers tale, as the crew follows Viorel, a Moldovan man whose wife, Katia, has been trapped by a particularly heartless pimp. His first attempt to retrieve her, with help from the Turkish police, seems to have backfired. So now he is posing as a rival pimp who wants Katia back. The filmmakers, led by producer-director Ric Bienstock, become his accomplice.

There's something to be said for letting a narrative unfold, but this story is littered with frustrating questions about how the sex trade works, how its victims get out, and whether ''Frontline" has raced directly to the international police. Some are eventually answered -- we ultimately learn how some women escape and why the authorities sometimes can't help. But we never get a full reckoning of why the crew has decided to run its own sting operation.

And, in this case, it's unclear whether the filmmakers' assistance is actually putting Viorel and Katia at risk. ''Viorel's plan has put the crew in an ethical bind," the narrator says at one point. That's for sure. There is a happy ending, of sorts -- Viorel and Katia are reunited -- but it's unclear how much credit the crew deserves.

The film's unanswered questions are among its most compelling. Some women, we discover, come to accept their situations. Some, poor and desperate, return to prostitution on their own. Some clients take pity on the women and help them to escape. Some traffickers eventually show remorse.

Understanding human motivations might go further toward explaining why the sex-slave trade remains so vibrant. That's the sort of work Bienstock did in her recent work, ''Impact of Terror," a CNN Presents documentary that explored the seldom-seen aftermath of a terrorist bombing. In that case, she did it through compelling interviews and an unflinching look at her subject. It's possible to do fine journalism and still remain on the sidelines.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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