Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Glimpse Into the Abyss: The Sex Traffic Industry in the UK

Yesterday I went into the West End to see Ocean’s 13 and meet up with Emma Thompson, a well-known actress and scriptwriter.

It was raining so I decided not to cycle in. Because of a late bus and traffic, I didn’t make it in time to see the movie, so I wandered around a bit then headed to Trafalgar Sq, where I was supposed to meet Emma later on. It was a very loose arrangement, made not with her but with one of her publicity people. Since ET lives nearby, I knew her address and had corresponded with her a few times recently, trying to get an interview for this magazine. Emma had passed on a message saying she was very busy (as usual) but that she'd be at “the installation” all week if I wanted to meet her. I had no idea what installation, so I did a Google search and found out she was taking part in a sort of art exhibition, designed to bring attention to the sex traffic industry.

“Every year thousands of young women are lured to the UK and brutally coerced into a life of sexual exploitation. Bought and sold, they are not visibly branded or shackled, but trapped in local massage parlors and behind the respectable net curtains of suburbia, they are forced to service punter after punter. These women are not sex objects, but daughters sisters and mothers with the same hopes and aspirations as you.”

I got to Trafalgar Sq and found the installation. It was a sort of makeshift tunnel or tube wrapped in black tauplin, and there was a long line of people waiting to go in. Since it was still raining and I was the only person in London without an umbrella, I didn’t feel like standing in line. I went to look for Emma but she was nowhere around. Since I wanted to say that I’d seen the installation when I did find her, I resigned myself to standing in line, and as it happened the line moved pretty fast.

The first stage of “the journey” entailed peering through small key-shaped holes at little scenes of cloth dolls and tiny furniture, showing the kind of environment that the future “sex slaves” had originally come from, then the arrival of a sex trafficker (a woman) to lure them away from their homes, into the hellish new circumstances. It wasn’t clear exactly how the girls were lured, but presumably it was with promises of easy passage to the new land, and of work when they got there, without ever specifying what such work would entail. Traffickers prey upon the naiveté and trusting nature of the girls, and it’s perhaps easy in retrospect to say that the girls ought to have suspected something. But how many of us have been fooled in similar ways—by our tendency to believe the best about people—out of a fervent desire to get what we want? (Which is why drug dealers find it so easy to con their clients, for example.)

The next stage involved standing in the darkness listening to music, mixed with women’s voices and sounds of despair and confusion. This led to the third stage, in which we were invited to peer through face-sized holes in the wall, only to find ourselves staring into a mirror. In the mirror, our own faces appeared atop photographic, life-size images of scantily clad female bodies, obviously prostitutes. This was a crude but effective device, and my first response was appreciatory (and perhaps defensive) laughter.

The next stage was by far the most powerful—a recreation of a room in which the business transaction occurred. There was a single bed, a mechanism underneath causing the mattress to undulate up and down rhythmically. On the sheet were what looked like shit stains. A trash can in the corner overflowed with soiled tissue paper; a box of condoms by the bed, make-up and other random trinkets on a mantelpiece, a mirror with lipstick stains, a board on the wall with the prices for various sex acts, and so forth. The room was rank and foul with the sticky, sweet and sour odor of sweat and despair. It was about now that I began to feel physically sick.

The next stage was about “the customer”: photographs on the walls (presumably of actors) showing various different types and ages of guys, drinking in pubs, hanging on the beach, playing darts, etc. On the audio, various male voices were discussing their experiences with paid sex. Whether or not the voices were of actors (my guess) or real punters, this part of the installation wasn't especially convincing, but it was interesting to hear the various justifications.

Then we were asked to gaze into a large black hole and imagine the Abyss. This seemed kind of superfluous to me. The whole thing was an abysmal experience.

The last stage entailed listening to a recorded interview with one of the girls who had been through the ordeal, and who eventually made it out the other side. She described the whole process from innocence to experience. When she arrived in the UK (aged 19), she had never seen a man naked; a month later, she was having sex with up to 40 guys a day. She described being unable to get their smell off her. She’d been told that once she earned 20,000 pounds for her traffickers, she'd be free to go. That didn’t happen; even after she’d earned the money, they kept her working. After a while she became numb, a machine. She no longer even knew who she was. The experiences were so relentlessly unpleasant that she began to black them out. People can adapt to anything to survive. But there is always a cost. Stick a relatively normal person in abominable circumstances, and eventually they will come to accept them as normal. In a sense, they must become aberrations themselves in order to fit in. Spend enough time in Hell and you have to let the demons in, just to get some peace.

Eventually she made it out. The police arrested her along with a bunch of other girls, and refused to believe her story. She is now living in London , and seems to be “over” her ordeal. Does one ever get over something like that? Let’s just say she has come through it.

I don’t normally write about this kind of thing. I mean, I write about it, but as fiction. I don’t report on it, and it is draining me just to try. I can’t find the words. It all sounds so mundane. There’s no way to “dramatize” something like this. It is too horrendous to need any dramatizing. Yet the mere facts don’t suffice either. I think it’s because it is both mundane and fantastic at the same time. Is there any horror greater than this, any worse a fate to endure? Yet it is absolutely inevitable given our current situation, our social, political, psychological and sexual condition—as human beings. When you put all these distorted factors together, this kind of thing is just one of the necessary outcomes. By “necessary,” I mean in the sense of reaping what we have sown. Horrendous as these circumstances are in and of themselves, they are actually only the symptoms of a greater condition: the disease called “the world.”

The Helen Bamber Foundation ( ), Michael Korzinski, Emma Thompson, and all the people involved with this need courage to do what they are doing. I don’t mean to stick their necks out politically (although the primary intent behind this is to get the UK government to cast their vote with the 9 other countries already committed—10 being the required number—and implement the laws necessary to prevent further exploitation). I mean that it is courageous of them to dedicate so much of their time and energy to something so palpably unpleasant, so unappetizing, to allow it to infiltrate their lives, their thoughts and dreams. Let’s face it, most of us would really rather not know about it. And if we have to know, we will do our damnedest not to think about it for too long. Such knowledge weighs heavy on the soul. There is a loss of innocence with every dark and ugly truth about human nature that is allowed to take root in us.

So yeah, seeing the installation was pretty disturbing. The timing was especially uncanny, because I am writing a script now about a guy who turns a young girl into his sex slave, keeps her in his basement for eight years, until she is little more than a machine for his own gratification. And here I was, confronted with a reality no less dark and twisted, in fact more so, because it is reality. Although my script certainly never glamorizes the subject, it does attempt to make it entertaining—it’s a movie, after all. There was nothing entertaining about this installation. I left feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Like I was polluted. Like I never wanted to have sex again.

It wasn’t guilt I felt, or even complicity exactly. But it wasn't moral outrage either. I didn’t feel anger or disgust at the people who engineered such atrocities. (I would if I saw them, of course.) What I felt was a sense of sadness and horror, a creeping nausea and despair at the state our souls are in, and the fact that our sexuality—the most sacred and powerful and creative force within us—has been reduced to this.

In the end, are the exploiters any less damned than their victims? Considerably more so, I’d say. The image that came to my mind, later, was of myriad souls trying desperately to claw their way out of Hell. And despite their all being in the same Hell together, there was no possibility of contact, communication, or compassion between them.

And yet there is complicity, all down the line. The young girls wanted to improve their conditions, hoping for a better life somewhere, and their desire overrode their innate sense of caution and common sense, making them easy prey for unscrupulous predators. The traffickers, taking their cue, exploited these young girls for profit, in order to improve their conditions and get a piece of the hellish pie which they no doubt consider their due. There is no end to the ways we justify what we do. They probably tell themselves that anyone dumb enough to trust them deserves whatever they get. Or that a few months of having sex with strangers never harmed anyone. They will say that everybody wins in such an arrangement: they get rich, the girls get what they want, and the punters get their jollies. And the punters, the closest to you and I, regular folk, can kid themselves that a little consensual exploitation never hurt anyone. But the truth is something else. The truth is that everybody loses.

There seems no sense in casting stones here. Souls in hell will do anything, ANYTHING, to get out. They don’t care how many other souls they have to drag down in their frantic attempt to get free. The tragedy is that the endless clawing and thrashing only digs us all deeper, into the Pit.

Seems like the only thing we can do is grow wings.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fast Food Nation, The Hoax, Hallstrom, Network, Kubrick

Fast Food Nation is a goddamn masterpiece, not a word I use often (masterpiece, that is, not goddamn). Linklater got it just right, the blend of documentary with drama, making his points without getting didactic or heavy-handed, and slowly building to the grisly climax: the cows happy in their pens and then showing us in the most ruthless fashion the horrendous fate in store for them. Kris Kristofferson is great, he has the best line in the movie: "It's like something out of science fiction." No shit. Without ever being ponderous or preachy, the movie shows how satanic/life-destroying modern society has become. Linklater is really the only guy doing this stuff, and with this movie, for the first time since Waking Life, he totally pulled it off. There was nothing at all wrong with the movie, that I could see, everyone in it was great, Hawke, Kinnear, Arquette, Willis, and all the unknowns. But boy was it dark. Probably the darkest movie to make the mainstream in a while. I guess critics (never mind mass audiences) didn't go for it, huh? No wonder. I bet a sizeable % of people who saw it wished they hadn't. They sure as shit didn't feel like stopping off at Burger King afterwards! The movie really blew me away.

Just saw The Hoax, loved it, though once it was over I realized that, though it was a wonderful story, it wasn't quite a wonderful movie. The reason is that Lasse Hallstrom has no distinguishing features as a director. He just tells the story and moves on, turning his films out like cookies. Once Around, Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules, An Unfinished Life, I even liked Casanova, and besides the confectionary of Chocolat, the only real misstep has been The Shipping News). Yet besides Grape, none of them quite rise above the level of delightful whimsy. The Hoax is his best, most substantial, movie since Grape, and mostly this is due to Gere, who is superb, and really beings Clifford Irving to life, creating one of the most memorable movie characters I've seen in years. This is probably his best role. Oh, yes, that is the same Clifford Irving from F for Fake, a great little underseen documentary film by Orson Welles.

I saw Network recently, having only seen it once years and years before. I was disappointed overall, thought it was a great script but only a good movie. Lumet's direction was flat and leaden,. Then I read Kael on the movie (she scorned it) and I wondered if it was even a good movie (don't you hate that, a great reviewer like Kael can make you doubt your own opinions – which is always my own objective as a film writer, the power of lucid prose to persuade). Talk about polemic – she's right I think in saying that the characters are all just mouthpieces for Chayefsky's rants. But boy, what rants! The best scene is Ned Beatty's speech to Howard, it really makes the head spin with its insights. A major flaw, however, is that the film doesn't manage to make us care when Beel gets shot. To me that causes the whole thing to fall apart, leaving me with a feeling of indifference, a real downer after some of the movies highs.

You could argue that it wasn't supposed to be emotionally involving, but only intellectually—like the films of Kubrick. But I'm detached enough already, and I don't care for these kinds of intellectual films any more than Kael did. I demand emotional involvement from a movie, that's what I love about movies! There are a few key exceptions (Badlands) in which the coldness is part of the beauty and even the meaning of the film – the result being that though I may not be involved with the characters, I am emotionally moved (Badlands is a euphoric experience because it's such awesome filmmaking). If a work doesn't move me emotionally, however, I don't really see how it can be called art. It might be intellectually stimulating, but that's just philosophy. I guess Godard is a good example, since he did film-essays which I loved (some of them) because they were exciting, the excitement of ideas (funnily enough, Kael was a big admirer of Godard). I think perhaps the key is whether a work that's "cold" or removed is pretentious or playful (Weekend was pretentious, Band of Outsiders was playful, god I love the dance sequence in that film – a rare case of what I would call "pure cinema"!). Barry Lyndon was beautiful to look at, but its coldness was a drag, it took itself too seriously, like all Kubrick's later films (post-Strangelove).

The reason Peckinpah is the quintessential filmmaker to me is that his films are imbued with passion—he's the opposite of Kubrick, who is the antithesis of a real moviemaker, to my mind, making it so ironic that he's lauded as the greatest of the greats! I think it's probably because people are in awe of the intellect. I'm not, however, since my own intellect is over-developed, and I know how easy it is to impress with a few cleverly chosen words (or images). But it's really just necrophilia, in the end. Only by bringing characters to life and engaging the audience to feel for them do we enter into the realms of true creation—alchemy.