BBC announces Why Slavery? season

The BBC has today announced a series of powerful films about slavery in the modern age for the Why Slavery? season.

Published: 14 October 2018
The Why Slavery? season is a hugely important range of films illuminating and questioning slavery in our modern world.
— Patrick Holland

Timed for International Anti-Slavery day on 18 October, and in collaboration with The Open University, the BBC has commissioned and produced six new films for BBC Two, BBC Four and BBC iPlayer and has resurfaced films for BBC Three and BBC World News that will uncover aspects of the various forms of slavery that exist today. With an estimated 40.3 million people living in some form of slavery today, these films will provide a heart-breaking insight into human struggles, but also look at the systems that allow modern slavery to exist.

Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two, says: “The Why Slavery? season is a hugely important range of films illuminating and questioning slavery in our modern world. Films like the extraordinary factual drama Doing Money reveal how coercion and control operates in plain sight, demanding that we look and listen harder. I am proud that BBC Two sits at the heart of this season and for our partnership with the Why Foundation and the network of global broadcasters committed to highlighting this issue.”

Mandy Chang, Editor, BBC Storyville, who oversaw the season says: “These programmes are important because they shine a light on slavery in our contemporary times. The overall picture painted by these films is a terrible indictment of the systems that allow slavery to take place. Slavery is a human rights abuse that is more common than we realise and the films we commissioned go some way to addressing why and how such misery is inflicted on the human beings who find themselves enslaved. From children forced into sexual and manual slavery across the rapidly developing Indian continent, to domestic servants, in places like the Middle East and EU countries like Hungary, we wanted the message of the existence of slavery in today’s world to be shared with our British audiences, to highlight the suffering of victims and the exploitation perpetrated by those who enforce it.”

As part of the season, BBC Two will be showing the previously announced drama, Doing Money, which focuses on the true story of Ana, who was snatched in broad daylight from a London street, trafficked to Ireland and used as a sex slave in a series of 'pop up’ brothels. Whilst Maid in Hell exposes the secretive inner workings of the Kafala System, a set of laws governing migrant labour in the Middle East that binds labourers to their employers.

On BBC Four, award-winning documentary strand Storyville, will present two films, A Woman Captured and Selling Children. A Woman Captured focuses on the story of Marish, a 52-year-old Hungarian that has been kept by a family as an entirely unpaid domestic slave for a decade. In Selling Children, Pakaj Johar travels India to try and understand how, in the world’s largest democracy, it is possible for vulnerable children to be bought and sold with such ease.

Also on BBC Four is Jailed in America, where filmmaker Roger Ross Williams goes on an a deeply personal journey into the heart of the US prison system to try and understand how it works and to evaluate the human cost and impact prison has on families on the outside. Whilst I Was a Yazidi Slave tells the story of Shirin and Lewiza, two Yazidi women captured by IS who were forced into slavery.

Dollar Heroes will be available on BBC iPlayer and tells the story of one of the world’s largest forced labour systems, the ‘Work Brigades’ in North Korea.

Additionally, films from across all four BBC channels that have been resurfaced for the season. These include Simon Schama: Rough Crossings on BBC Two, Making a Slave on BBC Three and Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners on BBC World News.

The Why Slavery? season follows the two previous, award-winning (Peabody, Oscar and Emmy awards) global documentary seasons Why Democracy? (2007) and Why Poverty? (2012), both shown by the BBC. The BBC has collaborated on a partnership with the Open University to fund and oversee the films and they will also be broadcast by eight International Public Service Broadcasters who have co-produced the project. The broadcasters include DR Denmark, SVT Sweden, EO The Netherlands, CBC Canada, NHK Japan, NRK Norway and SRF/RTS Switzerland as well as the BBC. The global broadcasts will be timed for International Anti-Slavery day on 18 October.

Dr Avi Boukli, Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University, says: “The ever-expanding notion of slavery tests our legislation, and it is fascinating to see how notions of freedom and slavery are being redefined and for what political purposes. You may agree or disagree with the series, but you will find the ways in which the series questions what ‘slavery’ is today thought provoking”.



On May 28 2016, in Nairobi, flight MS849 arrives in Kenya. On board is a woman returning home from her job as a maid in Jordan. 35 year old Mary Kibwana, a mother of four, is in a wheelchair - 70 percent of her body has been burned. She is picked up by an ambulance and rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital. At the hospital, her relatives gather, not knowing if she will survive.

They hear her recall a shocking story of events that unfolded in Jordan. What Mary experienced is beyond imagination. Every year, thousands of women from poor countries in Africa and Asia return from the Middle East with similar horrifying accounts of trying to find work and ending up trapped in modern slavery. Unpaid for their labour, they experience severe beatings and sexual assault as a norm.

These women have become trapped in the Kafala System - a set of laws governing migrant labour in the Middle East that binds labourers to their employers. Their passports are confiscated and trying to escape means they risk harsh punishments or imprisonment. Woven into this system is a network of unscrupulous employment agents who put hundreds of thousands of women at risk of physical assault, harassment and extreme exploitation for personal gain.

Most often the perpetrators of these crimes will never see the inside of a courtroom. Poor and often illiterate women are up against rich and powerful families in the Middle East. An uneven battle forces most victims to simply give up and try to forget the trauma they experienced. But Mary Kibwana is the exception. The images of her burned body cause a national outcry in Kenya and two weeks later her brother-in-law gets on a plane to Jordan and rallies activists and politicians to seek justice. It is one of the first high profile cases to reveal the truth about an employment system hiding a reality of torture and humiliation.

Giving unprecedented access to one of the most frightening and brutal forms of forced labour in the modern world, Maid in Hell exposes the secretive inner workings of the Kafala System. By following employment agents who vividly describe the trade, as well as maids who struggle to find a way home after both traumatic and degrading experiences, we come to understand the horrific reality faced by thousands of women each day.

Maid in Hell (1x60') was commissioned for Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two. The Executive Producer's for the Why Foundation are Nick Fraser and Mette Hoffman Meyer. The BBC Commissioner Editor is Mandy Chang.

BBC Four

For middle-class Indian director Pankaj Johar, child slavery was an issue seemingly far removed from his daily life. Despite seeing children in the marketplace, factories and street corners, Pankaj rarely considered the circumstances which led millions of children to be forced into labour. This all changed when Cecilia, a long-serving maid employed by Pankaj’s family, suffered a devastating loss. Discovering that her 14 year old daughter had committed suicide following the trauma of being trafficked into sexual slavery. Cecilia’s suffering awakened Pankaj to the dark reality of child trafficking across India.

Pankaj sets out to understand how, in the world’s largest democracy, it is possible for vulnerable children to be bought and sold with such ease. Meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner and child rights activist, Kailash, gives Pankaj a sense of the magnitude of the issue, as well as a better understanding of the ways in which poverty, illiteracy and corruption conspire to provide a breeding ground for child trafficking.

He travels the entire country, meeting with both trafficked children and the traffickers themselves as well as activists, legal experts and the Police. Working with activists, from the organizations; Save the Childhood and Guria, Pankaj gets exclusive access to film rescue operations and speak with some of the enslaved children. These interviews offer a shocking insight into the lives of children who have been denied a childhood and an education, to be sold to work in mica mines and brick factories, to work as domestic helpers and even those sold into sexual slavery as young girls.

As he delves deeper into the issue, Pankaj discovers how bigoted attitudes and widespread corruption have lead to a state-wide failure to protect those who are most vulnerable. Discovering an India with values he can no longer identify with, he exposes a nation in which abuse, exploitation and systematic injustice of the cruellest kind tear apart the lives of children and their parents from the most marginalized sectors of society.

While Pankaj struggles to reconcile India’s rapid economic development with the absolute poverty and lack of opportunity, which defines the lives of so many victims of child trafficking, an uncomfortable truth emerges: India’s booming economy and the subsequent rise of the middle-class is a major force which fuels the demand for cheap labour in the form of child slaves. Exposing this uncomfortable truth, Pankaj invites us to take responsibility, as consumers and as passive bystanders, to put an end to the selling of children in India and the world over.

Selling Children (1x60') was commissioned for Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor BBC Four. The Executive Producers for The Why Foundation are Nick Fraser and Mette Hoffman Meyer. The BBC Commissioner is Mandy Chang.

BBC Four

A Woman Captured is a raw and intimate portrayal of the psychology behind enslavement. Director Bernadett Tuza-Ritter offers an evocative study of a woman so debased and disregarded that even she has lost sight of her own life.

A 52-year-old Hungarian woman has been kept by a family as a domestic slave for a decade. Marish has been exploited and abused by a woman for whom she toils as a housekeeper - entirely unpaid, performing all manner of back-breaking household duties seven days a week. In exchange she only gets cigarettes, leftovers and a couch to sleep on. The money she earns from night shifts in a factory are taken away from her. Deprived of her ID and deep in forced debt, she is forbidden to even leave the house without permission.

Marish’s 16-year-old daughter ran away a couple of years ago unable to bear her circumstances any longer. Marish lives with too much fear in her heart to leave, but dreams of being reunited with her daughter.

A Woman Captured (1x72') was commissioned for Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor BBC Four. The Executive Producers for The Why Foundation are Nick Fraser and Mette Hoffman Meyer. The BBC Commissioner is Mandy Chang.

BBC Four

In June 2014 so-called Islamic State fighters occupied huge areas of Syria and Iraq, entirely overwhelming the Yazidi settlements grouped around Mount Sinjar. Yazidi men were killed, young women forced into slavery.

This film tells the story of Shirin and Lewiza, two Yazidi women captured by IS, who escape to Germany thanks to the intervention of Dr Jan Kizilhan, a world-acknowledged expert on trauma. In all, he brings one thousand women and girls - all victims of IS sexual violence - from the refugee camps in Iraq to his clinic in the Black Forest for treatment.

Yazidis believe that sexual contact with a non-Yazidi, even through rape, results in a loss of Yazidi identity. As a way of destroying the community, the rape of women and girls is almost as effective as the execution of the men. Kizilhan believes it will aid the women’s recovery if they know that the enormity of what happened to them is recognised. With international lawyer Philippe Sands he explores the possibility of a genocide trial: we meet investigators gathering evidence of IS crimes, a German prosecutor intent on bringing perpetrators to justice, and consider the relevance of ongoing trials in Iraq.

I Was a Yazidi Slave (1x60') was commissioned for Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor BBC Four. The Executive Producers for Oxford TV are Nicholas Kent and David Evans and for The Why Foundation, Mette Hoffman Meyer and Nick Fraser. The BBC Commissioner is Mandy Chang.

BBC Four

For director Roger Ross Williams, prison was not a distant possibility when he was growing up, but a daily threat: “As a young Black man in a chaotic environment, I always felt there was a chance that, whether or not I committed a crime, I could end up behind bars.” Determined to avoid this fate, Roger left his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania as a teenager to pursue his dreams of being a filmmaker. Overcoming the odds, he became the first Black director to win an Academy Award. As his success grew, he thought about Easton less and less, until the day he heard about the suicide of his old friend, Tommy Alvin.

Now, after thirty years, Roger returns home to pay his respects and reconnect with close childhood friends. He is shocked and distressed to learn virtually all of the men in the Alvin family are, have been, or currently are, in prison. Haunted by how easily this could have happened to him, Roger embarks on a deeply personal journey into the heart of the American prison system to try and understand how this is possible. He starts in his own hometown, but soon finds himself navigating a Byzantine maze of powerful institutions: police precincts, courtrooms, local jails, maximum security prisons, and corporate empires. As he begins to explore a massive and dysfunctional system, he encounters complicit politicians and prison profiteers, each with their own self-serving motivations to maintain the status quo.

Roger discovers prison administrators who recognize that most of their inmates should be free, yet are helpless to release them. He seeks counsel and knowledge from frustrated community leaders and activists including the tireless Adam Foss. Foss’ mission is to personally reeducate America’s 31,000 prosecutors to 'cut off the supply' of people flowing into the system, and also try and save lives in his own neighborhood, one young man at a time.

Roger comes face to face with the endless hoard of Americans trapped behind the walls of our prison industrial complex, and the families struggling to survive on the outside. He searches for solutions within the tangled web of political, social, and economic forces that drive the biased system, which has ensnared so many of his friends.

The film is a reckoning with America's conscience, and a rebuke, not just of power, and of greed, but of silence - the stain of comfort, willful ignorance of real costs. Roger’s pursuit of an answer propels the film to examine all strata of our society. From the free-market ideals that America is founded upon, to the savage ways in which our country has manifested those ideals. There is no single villain and no obvious solution. Real change requires a new philosophy across a spectrum of industries. Not just the reining in of corporate influence, but reform in political, financial, legal, educational, and mental health care spheres as well. What can Roger offer? To return home and take a long hard look at the human toll. Will viewers look away, as he once did? At what price?

Jailed in America (1x60') It was commissioned for Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor BBC Four. The Executive Producer's for The Why Foundation are Nick Fraser and Mette Hoffman Meyer. The BBC Commissioner is Mandy Chang.

Dollar Heroes

BBC iPlayer

The North Korean regime maintains one of the world's largest forced labour systems. The government, short of cash due to international economic sanctions, sells its own people as labourers to work in construction in Russia, China and other countries around the world - including member states of the European Union.

Experts estimate that since Kim Jong-un has come to power, the number of ‘Work Brigades’ has risen to more than 150,000. While in North Korea they are lured with a promise of high wages. They find themselves in completely foreign territories, often unable to speak the language and working up to 14-hour days, under harsh conditions, for little or no pay. Their wages are transferred directly to the government. They live under constant surveillance by Korean agents and local supervisors, and their contracts last for years.

The film is based on covert footage and conversations with workers, middlemen and employers in Poland, Russia and China. The workers’ sometimes shocking stories show the cynicism and inhumanity of this system. The beneficiary is the North Korean state, which finances its nuclear programme with money generated through this forced labour. However, this film also shows how construction companies, food manufacturers and shipyards in dozens of countries around the world are complicit in this gigantic scheme of modern-day slavery.

Filmed over two years, this documentary shows how the North Korean regime and the forces of globalization have made a Faustian pact: Underpaid workers toil for the dictator's nuclear program while the United Nations and the European Union look away.