The real-life story behind BBC2’s modern slavery drama Doing Money is even worse, says writer Gwyneth Hughes

As her new film tackles the shockingly prevalent issue of modern slavery, Hughes reveals “worse things happened to Ana” – but she had to leave them out

Anca Dumitra in Doing Money (BBC, EH)

“The only parts of Ana’s story I left out were the moments when I went, ‘Oh, god, I wish I didn’t know that. I can never un-know that,’” says Gwyneth Hughes of her new modern slavery drama, Doing Money.

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Hughes’ one-off BBC2 film is part of the broadcaster’s Why Slavery? season, and tells the horrific real-life story of Ana (not her real name), a young Romanian woman who was snatched off a London street in broad daylight, trafficked to Ireland and forced to be a sex slave in pop-up brothels around the country for ten months.

Dealing with one woman’s kidnap and relentless experience of rape and torture, Doing Money is a distressing piece of television. It succeeds in showing why the victims of sexual slavery find it so difficult to escape their captors: pimps threaten to kill the women’s families if they run, lock them up at night and starve them unless they “do money” (sell their bodies), and use constant psychological manipulation to make them feel dependent on the gang.

As we see in the film, Ana, who was enslaved in 2011, eventually did escape and her testimony helped to bring about a historic change to the slavery law. Hughes says she interviewed Ana “at length” which was “very challenging because she was in such a state”.

“She would be fine for a bit and then she would fall off her trolley,” explains the writer. “I think it helped her to talk about it on one level, and she was thrilled with the film even though it took her five hours to watch it – she kept having to stop to cry, remembering how awful it was.” 

Hughes says that Ana’s strife is “really best thought of as torture, like when rape is used as a weapon of war in war zones”. Today, Ana is “on the mend” but her memory is “foggy” due to the sheer number of head injuries she sustained while held in captivity.

This made the interviews even more complex and repetitive, but the process was essential to Hughes who wanted to get the story right. “It’s a big pressure that you feel and it’s not really about pleasing the subject but it’s about making sure you are telling a truth that they will recognise. You hope you can become part of the recovery for someone and I hope we have, we’re all friends now and we all want to look after Ana and keep her safe, and that’s why her anonymity is terribly important to all of us.”

Anca Dumitra, Doing Money (BBC, EH)
Anca Dumitra as Ana in Doing Money (BBC)

Hughes confirms that the most depraved details in the drama are true: Ana was raped by 300 men in 13 days, half of her teeth were shattered from beatings (her dentist said he’d never seen anything like that kind of dental damage outside a car crash) – and her glasses were taken from her when she was kidnapped, with her pimps nicknaming her “the blind one” as she could hardly see without them.

And yet, “worse things happened to Ana”, says Hughes, explaining her decision to omit these events from Doing Money as she feared the TV audience would find it too upsetting and switch the film off.

One of the many shocking aspects of the story to viewers will be the fact that these pop-up brothels are largely based out of Airbnbs. “Google this and you’ll find people complaining that they came back to their place and found it full of used condoms because someone has taken it over as an Airbnb and used it as a brothel,” says Hughes. “It’s really common, it’s put me off ever doing it.”

These brothels have a habit of emerging wherever there are big sporting events to cater for inebriated fans and in recent years police have focused on preventative tactics with a series of raids, including a focus on Olympic boroughs in the lead-up to London 2012.

Doing Money (BBC, EH)
Doing Money (BBC)

In Doing Money, Ana eventually managed to escape after ten months of enslavement. When her pimps brought in Laura, the woman covered in scars who appeared to be an S&M sex slave, Ana made a run for it and sought refuge in the home of drug dealer Sean. But when he broke the conditions of his bail and was sent to prison, Ana turned to the police.

What was the exact turning point that made her feel able to flee? “It’s a good question,” says Hughes. “In a drama, there’d be one thing. In real life, it’s not like that. In real life everything slow burns and then there’s a sort of butterfly effect.

“We had to ask ourselves the same question because we know the drama audience expects a decision, so we had the betrayal by Declan, her coming back to hear she would be sold on to Dubai, and her meeting Laura, the really badly injured woman. Ana agreed that yes, the decisive moment was looking at Laura and thinking, ‘That’s my future.’

“The thing I’ve learned on this really is that it’s terrifyingly easy to terrorise another human being into doing your will. You just have to say things like, ‘I’m going to kill your mother’ and for it to be believed. Or ‘I’m going to hurt you now but it’s not nearly as much as I’m going to hurt you if you don’t obey me.’ Job done. Over the months in between Ana got so bashed and desensitised, she wasn’t seeing clearly anymore.

“Laura arrived and it was so horrendous, in fact originally Ancuta [the mother pimp] had said she didn’t want her because there’s a lot of noise in her line of work, she’s high risk. And she was really badly heroin addicted, really badly, she had children at home, poor thing, just kept in this state of heroin fug to do this work.

“I think for Ana, seeing Laura was like, ‘That’s my future, there’s no way out of this situation except in a box, and between here and the box is this, is Laura, is sadism and cruelty.’ No wonder she ran then.”

Is Laura safe now? “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think the police ever came across her. Who knows what’s happened to her, Ana doesn’t think she’s still alive.”

Doing Money (BBC, EH)
Doing Money (BBC)

As for Ancuta, Hughes explains that in criminal gangs such as this, the men who run the show “need a woman to act as the mother pimp who ‘looks after’ the young women”.

Ancuta, who was prostituted in the past, was infatuated with head pimp Ionut and would do anything for him, says Hughes. She also saw the whole situation as a huge money-making opportunity and did not value intercourse in the same intimate way as Ana, snarling: “Silly b***h it’s only sex, why are you making such a fuss?”

Ionut and Ancuta served a mere three years in prison for what they did to Ana and all of the other girls that passed through their pop-up brothels. Hughes says the police remember Ancuta grinning in the dock at the shortness of the sentence.

Now, since the new law that Ana campaigned for, the worst offenders in Northern Ireland can get life. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, passed in 2015, made Northern Ireland the first and only place in the UK where the act of buying sex is a crime.

However this law came into effect after Ana’s case, and Ancuta and Ionut finished their sentences and walked free last year, during the making of Doing Money.

Cosmina Stratan as Ancuta in Doing Money (BBC, EH)
Cosmina Stratan as Ancuta in Doing Money (BBC)

The 2017 Estimates of Modern Slavery report calculates that of the 24.9 million victims of forced labour across the world, 4.8 million are in forced sexual exploitation. Hughes hopes that Doing Money will raise awareness of the prevalence of modern slavery and will help people to spot a criminal network that is hiding in plain sight.

She explains: “The scene in the motorway service station when Ana gets her glasses back, when you talk to her about that, she says ‘I put my glasses on and I could see the people but they still didn’t seem able to see me. We were filthy, we were hardly dressed, we were bruised, who did people walking by with their trays of food think we were?’ Their invisibility was very shocking.

“If there are funny noises or there seems to be weird mess or there are girls who don’t look right, just don’t turn the other way. Until quite recently you might have rung the police and not got anywhere, but I think that slavery is now such a big deal. A senior policeman in West Yorkshire who we were talking to earlier this year said that slavery is his biggest priority. How mad is that? Not just sexual slavery obviously, and we formally abolished slavery in this country in 1833 – not.”

Anca Dumitra, Doing Money (BBC, EH)
Anca Dumitra as Ana in Doing Money (BBC)

Hughes believes, however, that it’s extremely difficult to raise awareness of sexual slavery because those the message most needs to reach (the men using the brothels) are the ones who are least likely to watch Doing Money. “I’ve tried very hard not to moralise or pass judgement, it’s not called the oldest profession for nothing, I’m not going to stop prostitution with one film, that’s not my intention,” she says.

“My intention is to stop slavery, so if a bloke goes into a brothel where it all seems incredibly dodgy and the girl has bruises and looks thin and unhappy, maybe he might like to call the police, too.

“If there are dodgy scary blokes hanging around, if you don’t think the girl is consenting, unless that’s what you’re paying for which is the case for some of them, if it doesn’t look right, go elsewhere and report it.”

Hughes also wants Doing Money to show people that even if these women aren’t physically chained up at all times, they are still unable to run. “I think it’s really important to imagine what constant total terror is like. And when you’re in a state of constant, total terror you can’t move, you have no adrenaline. I think Ana was always terrified that what would happen next was worse than what was already happening.

“Any woman, we’ve all been in a situation where you will go along with something because what might happen next will be worse. People say, ‘Why didn’t she fight back?’ Oh, come on. We all know why. Because what might happen next will be worse. They might kill your mother, they might also kill you.”

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To report a case of modern slavery call the helpline on 0800 0121 700 or report it online at the modern slavery helpline website