Human trafficking usually (but not always) involves sex trafficking, and documentaries on the subject generally follow suit. It’s a difficult subject made far more so by the fact that the victims of this globally ubiquitous crime are typically young—teens or even small children. Their stories, and their faces, will stick with you.
I’m not usually one for hyperbole, but I’m sure the 27 million people living in slavery right now might forgive a little drama. Call+Response is a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening film about the plight of modern-day slaves, from child soldiers in Uganda to child sex workers here in the U.S. It includes musical performances by Moby, Cold War Kids, Matisyahu, Imogen Heap, Switchfoot, Rocco DeLuca, Justin Dillon, Talib Kweli, Emmanuel Jal and Five for Fighting—and Dr. Cornal West steals the show. —Josh Jackson
While Not My Life focuses on the systemic subjugation and abuse of children, specifically, its scope is otherwise broad. Filmed on five continents and 13 countries, it explores the many ways young people—some 29 million of them—are enslaved and exploited, from forced labor and domestic servitude to sex trafficking to child soldiering. The victims’ first-person accounts are particularly powerful. Robert Bilheimer wrote, directed and produced Not My Life at the request of the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. A re-edited version of the documentary was released in 2014. —Allison Gorman
Benjamin Nolot wrote, directed and produced Nefarious, which examines child sex trafficking in the United States and overseas. It features interviews with people representing all facets of the topic—former victims and pimps, as well as psychologists, human rights activists and law enforcement. One downside to this obviously well-intentioned film is its dramatic reenactments of interviewees’ experiences as sex slaves—scenes that are meant to elicit righteous passion, but have a Lifetime movie vibe that feels uncomfortably prurient. —Allison Gorman
While much sex trafficking, particularly abroad, looks a lot like literal enslavement, Tricked examines the psychological bonds of prostitution in the United States—how girls and women are regularly lured into a system that destroys them, and why humans choose to exploit other humans by becoming pimps. (Spoiler: “Money” is the short answer to the second question.) Shot in New York, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago and Washington, Tricked was originally inspired by director Jane Wells’ interest in the dramatic surge in sex traffic in Miami during the 2010 Super Bowl. —Allison Gorman
The bold title reflects how seriously its main characters take the problem of child sex trafficking and their mission to liberate its victims. Dubbed Operation Underground Railroad, the mission is led by Tim Ballard, a former Homeland Security special agent who fought sex traffickers at home and abroad for a decade before deciding that he could do it better as a private citizen. The Abolitionists follows Ballard and his team as they travel overseas and pose as sex tourists, outwitting pimps and liberating their modern-day slaves. With millions of children being prostituted worldwide, the team’s 57 rescues (so far) are a drop in the bucket. But watching Ballard’s grassroots justice is gratifying and inspiring. —Allison Gorman