Scoville Units Unite

08 Jul

Review: Nefarious Merchant of Souls

A friend told me about a showing of a film called Nefarious: Merchant of Souls at a church in Dundee. I was a bit weary at first as to say I don’t agree with that church is a bit of an understatement. But given the content of the film I thought I would give it the benefit of the doubt and if nothing else, going to see a film about sex trafficking in a church is a new experience.

I was also curious what the conclusion (if any would be) as the interesting debate which took place in the SSP a few years back resulted in support for the Swedish Model. (see pamphlet: Prostitution:a contribution to the debate available freely online).

As an information piece it was very good, concludes on the Swedish Model, has a number of really interesting interviews and explores worldwide sex trafficking and the various forms it takes. It is however deeply flawed as a documentary and as a film.

The film starts with the filmmakers discussing how they found out about sex trafficking taking place and how horrified they were by it. They got some money and went to one country to investigate the issue, over a 3 year period they visited over 40 countries interviewing prostituted women, pimps, johns, brothel owners, traffickers and those working to rescue kids from child prostitution in Thailand/Cambodia.

In Amsterdam you see secret filming down the streets to show what it is like, a brothel owner is interviewed about his business and the like. A focus on Eastern Europe shows how vulnerable women are tricked or kidnapped into being trafficked. The brutal breaking process and the lasting psychological damage that it causes.

In the Far East horrifying reality of child prostitution is exposed including parents selling their children into it. A pastor who buys the children to free them has some heartbreaking interviews during this portion of the film.

The dangers faced in the UK and American are also discussed with former prostitutes from Nevada interviewed too.

The movie switches to look at Sweden and the model adopted there which has both massively cut prostitution and made it safer for those who are involved in it.

The final segment was basically everyone in the film talking about how Jesus saved them.

The negatives

This may make it sound compelling, and it is, but it is not, sadly, good.

I have been very generous in splitting the film into segments, when in reality it jumps all over the place from story to story and back again. As a film it would have been much more effective to explore one area at a time and then compare and contrast and show the conclusion of the investigation.

But that alone investigation gives the film too much credit. At the start they discuss how they wanted to find out information about trafficking and that was their motivation. A number of points in the film made me uneasy about the film-makers position as observers of the situation. Early on they show a blurred out mans face in Cambodia or Thailand as they chase him of declaring that he is a paedophile and threatening him should he return to the city again. All the viewer sees though is a band of vigilantes chasing a man and threatening him. You don’t actually see what he did or how they know that he is a paedophile. That’s leaving aside them actually taking agency in the situation.

Late in the film one of them also discusses how they set out with the intention of saving girls, rescuing them and so on. These are all admirable things to do and they interview some people who are doing just that. But for those filming a documentary to try and take part in the activities of some of the subjects of the film made me very uneasy and broke the trust you have in the information provided being objective.

Similarly a number of sourced statistics are shown on screen. The most horrifying though were not sourced though. The pair that stuck out (and I may be remembering wrongly) was that there are 800,000 Cambodian child prostitutes in Thailand. And that 80-90% of Cambodian families have sold their children into sex slavery. If true is is horrifying but without any source presented to check it presented in the film the power of them is lessened.

During most interviews instead of showing the emotional reaction of those telling their stories (as they did at the end – accept Jesus – part) there are really terribly acted re-enactments of their stories. Maybe for some audience members this would be a welcome addition but it did put a dampener on it for me. Maybe that’s just my preference for how I like information to be presented though.

The other major flaw for me was the obvious inclusion of proselytising. I had hoped that I was seeing an objective film shown by a concerned group trying to spread the information as far as possible. Everyone in the film spoke about how Jesus saved them and now they are happy, not because they are out of the business but because they have accepted Jesus, etc etc. This turns a documentary into a progopaganda piece for religious conversion. Worst of all though it limits the audience of the film. If it had concluded at the natural conclusion – adopt the Swedish model, I would have no hesitation in recommending this film, flaws and all, far and wide. But the tacked on conversion stories broke the flow of the film completely. I would add for me. Maybe the intended audience is the religious or already revivalist/fundamentalist/evangelical audience. It may well be the piece added they need to move the issue higher up their agenda. If so then great. But it is quite sad that it may result in a small number of people caring a bit more about the issue when with some minor changes it could have resulted in a far greater number of people moving the issues up their agenda.

Secondly, everyone interviewed had turned to Jesus and was no longer involved in the sex industry. An objective film would have had a far wider look at people. Only discussing the issue with people who are very close to your belief system and don’t represent those involved is not a good way to make a documentary. To show why this is a real issue and not just me whinging about religion: a number of formerly prostituted women are interviewed. Not a single currently working prostitute is interviewed. One of the statistics discussed in the film is how 96% of women who leave prostitution very quickly return to it (one of the story follow ups at the end says one interviewee did just that). (in fairness I think there was a very very brief interview with one current John who did not discuss Jesus and a short piece with a brothel owner but a genuine documentary would have had a far higher proportion of the film taken up by interviews with people currently involved in those positions. Or at least attempts to interview)

The religious portions

Having concluded on those flaw it would be remiss of me not to discuss the religious elements of the film and the reality of that message if followed to it’s conclusion.

To take one example, a woman discusses how she was kidnapped, beaten, repeatedly raped, dehumanised and forced into prostitution. Then at some later date, she asks God for help and he saves her, isn’t he wonderful. Well maybe. But given she was kidnapped, beaten, raped and forced into a several year long career of sexual abuse was he a bit too busy to do anything during that time? Are we to believe that during that entire time, it was only once that she cried out to God for help?

How anyone can hear the stories in this and have it aid their faith in a Christian deity is beyond me. An omnipresent, omnibenevolent, omnicious being who stands and does nothing whilst children are sold into sex slavery to be raped and abused by sick men is not one I would worship. Even if we are to believe that it was their cries to God/conversion that prompted him to interfere (not that I do, clearly) then it poses a serious question. What kind of self-absorbed insecure asshole stands and lets someone be repeatedly abused until they worship it?

Not only that but he is everywhere watching everything we do. So every time one of those trafficked children is raped he is right there watching it. Of course as most of them will be Buddhist and some of them about 6 or 7 years old they might not even know what Christianity is. It’s their tough luck though if they don’t reach out to him to be saved or are lucky enough to be rescued by a Christian though.

The material

At the showing we were also presented with 3 pieces of material (none of which I have read, just scanned through).

The first was a sort of viewers guide to the film. Interviews with the filmmakers and so on. It discusses the organisations which try to help victims of prostitution as well as more information on the Swedish model.

The second is a 31 day prayer guide for the Olympics. The horrendous expectation that thousands more women will be trafficked into the UK for the forthcoming Olympics, as seems to happen at most large sporting tournaments is discussed with a different issue to think about each day. All of these are through a religious lens. So although I might agree with day 27s prostitution devalues women takes away from their precious standing the addition of in the sight of the Lord both stops my agreement and undermines the message. Surely the most immediate impact is the devaluation of women and the effects that has on women, men and children now.

The third is an issue of Scottish Christian Broadcast which seems like it would go down very well with the intended audience. It contains an article by my pal David Robertson.

The showing itself

The turn out was very high – at least 200 on a Saturday night. The film was introduced by someone from the filmmakers church. I rolled my eyes at some of the parts, was very happy at some of the issues discussed but really really annoyed at one in particular. The church had everyone pray over an issue all night. The next day they found out an internationally co-ordinated raid had busted a large trafficking ring. Prayer works everyone. Because no doubt a massive internationally co-ordinated police action was only decided that night. It won’t have been meticulously planned for weeks or months on the basis of months or even years of intelligence gathering and undercover work. It was that small group praying which did it. Praise Jesus. Oh yeah, and maybe we can find time to thank the work of the police for doing it, nah, let’s ignore that.

After the film some information was presented – but after twice saying the most important thing to do was to pray in this sprititual battle it was then suggested that we contact the MSP who is currently trying to change the law in Scotland to be close to the Swedish Model. As everyone was getting their pens and paper to take the details some biblical readings started. It was at this point my friend and I left.

The bill seems to be Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill, and mentioned supporter Rhoda Grant. It was proposed by Trish Godman, so I don’t know why it was Rhoda getting the credit unless there is a different bill and I have it wrong.

To conclude

If you are able to go to a free showing – go and see it. If it eventually ends up on YouTube or the like – watch it until after the Swedish Model conclusion part. It is worth watching for the subject matter and information presented up until that point but the quality of the film really lets it down. Also if you can’t see it, but are interested in the subject – watch Lilya 4-Ever instead.

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