In schools, we are taught the harrowing history of slavery, but the fact is that servitude still scars our world. For proof, look no further than new Storyville documentary A Woman Captured. Part of the Why Slavery? season, the film observes in harrowing detail just one case, in Hungary, but reveals it to be symptomatic of a widespread sickness.
Marish is 52 but appears much older. She works 12 hours a day in a factory, hard enough in itself, but has to hand over all her salary to a woman for whom she cooks and cleans, and by whom she is repeatedly abused.
Given only scraps and cigarettes, she endures unbelievable cruelty (“You’re not worth anything”) and beatings (her arm is in a cast). She’s been here ten years, and dreams of seeing her children, but is clearly terrified of being caught if she tries to escape. Once when she went to the shops, “She beat me as soon as I got back.”
The miracle amid such horrors is that Marish (not her real name) can still smile. Her kindness and courtesy to film-maker Bernadett Tuza-Ritter, in the face of her living nightmare, will make you cry.
At the end of one interview on camera, she asks Tuza-Ritter for permission to stand up, and her reaction to the words “You can do whatever you want” suggests she has never heard those words before, or anything like them.
Director Bernadett Tuza-Ritter at the Sundance Film Festival in January
The details of the story defy belief – Marish is one of three servants for the woman, who wanted money for permission to film in the family home, and though we don’t see their faces, we hear their mockery, taunts and scoldings. And later we learn that, previously, Marish managed to escape a similar situation where she had all her teeth broken.
She believes the film-maker’s intervention will only lead to reprisals. Tuza-Ritter does, however, contact the police anonymously, but shockingly, “they told me they were aware of the phenomenon, but there was nothing they could do about it”.
Gradually, however, Marish takes heart from her relationship with Tuza-Ritter, and a plan begins to form in her mind. “Everyone deserves respect,” says Marish, “even those who have lost everything.”
“Im strong, believe me,” says Marish, when asked how she has endured such hardship
When she can tolerate her persecution no longer, she phones a friend for help (“My hand is fractured as we speak”) and explains that she just needs to wait for her next pay day.
Marish is among 22,000 modern-day slaves in Hungary, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Europe and the rest of the world are concerned…
There’s no getting around the fact that this award-winning film is a tough watch, but it’s an unbelievably moving one, so it’s important that you stay to the end. To see the impact that the film has already had in Marish’s home country, but also to witness the blissfully normal life that she now enjoys. And if anyone deserves a happy ending, it is Marish.
A A Woman Captured is on BBC4 on Monday 22 October at 10pm