In March, I had the opportunity to interview British filmmaker Anya Camilleri. Camilleri’s award-winning short film “A Girl of No Importance,” made in partnership with agency Stella’s Voice, brings awareness to human trafficking and sex slavery. “A Girl of No Importance” is about a teenage prostitute who escapes from her traffickers but finds herself lost in Rome. Camilleri has also written the feature film “Highway of Love,” also based on true stories. “Highway of love,” also known as the brothel of cheap love, is a place that exists today on the German/Czech border.
Camilleri is passionate about telling the unseen stories of women. “I regard myself as an intelligent, aware person, yet I didn’t know much about trafficking—that women were sold like properties, on the street and everywhere. They are tattooed like cattle to show the pimp’s ownership,” Camilleri said. “When I discovered this, and started talking to people, a lot of educated people, they didn’t know anything either. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got to bring this to the world. It’s a story that has to be told.’ So then I wrote a feature film called ‘Highway of Love.'” This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?
ANYA CAMILLERI: I’m a woman of the world. My father was the national composer of a small, beautiful island called Malta, but he didn’t see the world as the small island; music was global to him. Our life was all over the place. So every five years we moved. I was born in Canada in fact, Toronto, where my father was working at the time. Then we went to England, and then we went to Paris. We had a house in London, we had a house in Malta. And we moved around.
MARTIN: Where is Malta?
CAMILLERI: Malta is a small island in the center of the Mediterranean Sea; it’s nineteen miles by nine.
We lived in Malta for what seemed the longest stretch—between age about nine to fifteen—which are quite formative years. It was an idyllic childhood, we ran free in the fields surrounding our house and had summers on the beach, outdoor discos.
When I was about thirteen, I started directing plays at school and staging them for the public. I didn’t know what directing really was; I instinctively organized all the actors and knew what stories I wanted to tell.
I didn’t know what a director really was, we just created these incredible, ambitious productions. Then one day, I realized I wanted to be a director, it was exciting. At seventeen, I said to my parents, all I want is a camera. I only want a camera. I didn’t want any presents for the rest of my life, I just wanted a camera. So they bought me this Super 8 camera.
I wrote a script, hired professional actors for free, and made a film in Malta that was quite unusual, and was talked about a lot… and then I went to film school in England.
MARTIN: Where did you go to film school?
CAMILLERI: I read Film and Theatre at Reading University, so I studied the history of cinema, and the history of theatre. It was a great course; you had to act, direct plays, stage manage, make movies. It was a really good background.
After the course ended, the tutors, who were brilliant, sat us down and said, “None of you are going to get employed; it’s impossible to get into the film or theatre business unless you are connected.” When I came out of university, I didn’t know a single person in film or theatre, but I was determined to prove them wrong.
COOKING FOR TINA
CAMILLERI: I searched all the newspapers looking for a job; all the wrong ones, because I didn’t know where to look. After fruitless searches, hundreds of applications, I found this tiny advert at the bottom of the page of the local paper. It said “Chef, cook, in film studios.” When I got to the interview, there were hundreds of applicants, so I sat in the middle of the vast room on the boss’s armchair where no one else was sitting and I got the job, even though I couldn’t boil an egg.
I started work at the film studio, and knew I had to learn to cook—fast. Tina Turner came in to make a huge budget video with hundreds of extras, my brother Charlie Camilleri was playing the drums, and I was cooking for like five hundred people, learning/bluffing as I went along.
MARTIN: That is insane.
CAMILLERI: In the kitchen there was a book of seasonal cooking that I followed, but I was clueless.
And so I was in this kitchen, during the filming of the video, which was downstairs, and Tina Turner comes storming off the set, and heading to the kitchen. I was shitting myself because stars never came to the kitchen, because it’s a different part of the studio. So I was like, damn, I’m going to be fired. Tina arrives yelling, “Who’s the cook? Who’s the cook?” I was like “Me.” She said, “Come with me, come with me.” Now I’m like, oh no, I’m going to be fired publicly.
So she took me down to the set, it was lunchtime and everyone was eating all the food I had prepared. Standing there with Tina Turner, I assumed it was all a disaster and wanted the earth to swallow me up.
MARTIN: Oh my god, I love it.
CAMILLERI: And then she said, “Here is the amazing woman who makes all this great food—this is Anya, everyone!” All the crew and cast started clapping. One of the funniest moments of my life, because I was just like, I literally didn’t know what I was doing.
TV AND FILMMAKING TRANSITION
CAMILLERI: In my pre-kids career I directed mainly TV drama, films with the BBC, and my husband screenwriter Simon Burke and I cocreated an original seven-hour TV series, called “NY-LON” (2004), about a transatlantic love affair starring Rashida Jones and Stephen Moyer, for C4 in the UK.
Simon and I created another TV series called “Liverpool 1” (1998) which was a brilliant series about the families of policemen, set in the North of England. There were some big stars in that. The series went for two years running. Then I directed a movie which starred Tara Reid, “Incubus” (2006). But I had two young children, Alice and Jack. My friends would say to me, “How can you do all this, when you’re filming all night?”
We didn’t want our kids to be brought up by nannies, so I stayed home. I was happy with the family but at the same time hurting because I missed directing so much. But I wrote scripts, and I developed my storytelling passion in this period.
Also I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful agent, Elizabeth Dench at Seifert Dench in London, who is extraordinary. This is how special she is, she did not mind if I wasn’t earning money during those years. She said, “I know your talent.” And that gave me a wonderful feeling, that I could be with my children, and not feeling I couldn’t direct anymore. So she stuck with me all the way.
ROAD TO “A GIRL OF NO IMPORTANCE”
CAMILLERI: I came back into directing recently. What happened was I was in Rome, traveling up and down a particular motorway, where I kept seeing these really beautiful women on the side of the road, who didn’t look like prostitutes. They were just too young and beautiful. I thought, why don’t they become receptionists, why are they doing this shitty job? Why do they do that? It doesn’t make sense. Something didn’t add up.
I went to find them, I went through charities and channels, it took me awhile. I met and interviewed girls who had been trafficked. It was quite scary, because one of them, the guy who trafficked her was living down the road. But it was incredible hearing their stories, stories which I knew would never be told, as no one cares about these lost girls.
They were kidnapped, they were not girls who were ever thinking of prostitution, and they were forced on the road, and they were told, “We know where you live, we’ll kill your parents, we will kill your baby brother. If you do anything, you’re dead.” So they were blackmailed in to prostitution.
I felt compelled to tell their story, so we made this film, “A Girl of No Importance” (2017), with the incredible Mark Morgan from Stella’s Voice who saves girls from trafficking and a financier who is in invested in stopping sex trafficking. All these people got together, and I said, I have this vision for this film, but it’s not ugly, it’s actually very beautiful, because if it’s too ugly no one’s going to want to watch it. I wanted the ugliness to transmit through emotion as I felt it would be more powerful.
So with very little money we went to the center of medieval Rome and we filmed in locations that are very hard to access, but I love Ancient Rome and I think this transmits. Have you seen “A Girl of No Importance”?
MARTIN: Yes, I watched it, and I loved it.
CAMILLERI: In that film you’ll see sequences, with all of these Baroque ancient sculptures, and incredible Roman architecture.
MARTIN: Yeah, it was beautiful.
CAMILLERI: Nobody’s really allowed to film there, but I had this extraordinary determination, and we had an amazing team; line producer Stefano Daniele really helped me realize this vision. We wanted the film to look like a movie. The main character Alina is lost, she has never before been outside the room they held her captive in; when she escapes, she finds herself alone in this incredible medieval city. I wanted to have the beauty of Rome versus the ugliness of trafficking, as a contrast.
MARTIN: You could have gone the gritty route, you used a little bit of grit, but I liked the beauty contrasting. I loved it. Also Yuliia Sobol was stunning.
CAMILLERI: Thanks. Yuliia Sobol is a wonderful, instinctive actress. And she’s unafraid. So when I made the film, I came into contact with all of these people in trafficking, and I uncovered all of these facts that I want to share.
MARTIN: Please, go ahead.
CAMILLERI: Thirty-two billion is made off of sex trafficking in the US alone, forty-two million people right now trapped in prostitution on a global scale. Ninety-eight percent are women and girls. There are about two million in the United States alone. While most of the world’s illegal income comes from drugs and arms now, human trafficking is rapidly taking over. Listen to this one—if you sell a drug, it’s once and then it’s gone. But with a person, you can resell her or him, twenty-plus times; people are “reusable.”
MARTIN: That’s awful.
CAMILLERI: So a girl can make around $250,000 for a pimp per year. So if a pimp has like ten girls, can you imagine what he can earn?
MARTIN: That’s sick, that’s horrible, thank you for sharing this with me. I think a lot of people just don’t know about all of this. So I appreciate you telling this story, it’s really sad.
CAMILLERI: I regard myself as an intelligent, aware person, yet I didn’t know much about trafficking—that women were sold like properties, on the street and everywhere. They are tattooed like cattle to show the pimp’s ownership.
When I discovered this, and started talking to people, a lot of educated people, they didn’t know anything either. And I thought, bloody hell, we’ve got to bring this to the world. It’s a story that has to be told. So then I wrote a feature film called “Highway of Love.”
“HIGHWAY OF LOVE”
CAMILLERI: When I was researching the topic of sex trafficking, the facts I discovered were so overwhelming I couldn’t put them all into one little film. I decided to make a movie out of these true stories, and tell the world about these forgotten girls.
One of the girls in my movie, Nina, is fourteen years old. She’s like the girl in “A Girl of No Importance.” She’s taken in to sex slavery, then her pimps go online, put her image online, and sell her to the highest bidder. They get much more money for a virgin like Nina, 4,000 to 5,000 pounds, and they ship her like a product to the “client,” for twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours. The “client” can do what they want with her. So Nina, she is the heart of the story.
MARTIN: Is that the same actress as the short film?
CAMILLERI: Possibly, yeah, she’s such a great actress. She comes from Eastern Europe and she had a real connection with the whole story. Because it’s her country, it’s really important. This movie “Highway of Love” was inspired by films like “Babel” (2006), “21 Grams” (2003), and “Amores Perros” (2000). I knew it had to be more than one protagonist. It’s based on all true stories.
FILM AND TV
MARTIN: Do you feel the industry is changing for women?
CAMILLERI: I disagree with those people who say it’s going really slowly. There are so many opportunities out there right now—everyone wants women’s stories.
I love life, I love people. I think a filmmaker really has to live to tell good stories. I think film has an important role, especially now cinema has revolutionized. Even ten years ago, you could make a movie, anyone could make a movie about an interesting subject, or whatever. But now studios have really changed their minds, they thought, right, we know we could make a million, billion, trillion on this comic book film. We don’t give a fuck about you and your stories about your lover, or you and your friend, we don’t care, we’re here to make money. That’s what we’re here for. And that’s what they did. The whole of independent cinema has literally almost disappeared.
But before we get into the female perspective, to update ourselves to where the industry is going, it’s in a very different place now. Directors like me and all the brilliant indie filmmakers follow in the steps of the greats—Scorsese, Coppola, genius director of “Roma” Alfonso Cuarón, Kathryn Bigelow, to name a few—we’re storytellers and we want to tell stories, and nothing is going to stop us. In whatever medium, TV, Netflix, Amazon. If it’s a good story, it will resonate.
It’s a very interesting era, because while indie film is being eroded, TV is exploding. Years ago, you were either a TV director or a film director. Now we do both. The whole industry has revolutionized. While the demise of cinema has happened because of the studios producing mainly commercial comic book films, there’s been a huge rise in production.
Enormous, 400 percent or something like that. 400 percent in content. 400 percent is huge. Somebody somewhere is making something right now, whether it’s a web series, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube… Different people are jumping on board, because they see how much money Netflix is making. We are in a revolution right now, and it couldn’t be more exciting. There are many female directors emerging everywhere. And I’m working on TV shows right now where I’m being told, “We want to hire women directors.”