Eastern Boys and the Western Gaze: Representations of Trafficking in Film

Often Hollywood, the commercial film industry, and directors will explicitly take up the issue of human trafficking/sex trafficking in their works. Many of are likely very familiar with works like the Taken series. Others familiar with representations of sex trafficking may have heard of Lilya 4 Ever and Sestre (Sisters), while still others may know Take Out in a human smuggling/labor trafficking context.

To add to add to the “representations of human trafficking” canon I would submit for your consideration a work of commercial European cinema that, despite some of its pitfalls, excels in portraying the complexity of the issue. Robin Campillo’s 2013 film Eastern Boys (whether or not it intends to) disrupts highly gendered and heteronormative narratives of sex-trafficking, draws connections between sex- and labor-trafficking, and complicates the boundary between human smuggling and human trafficking.

While many aspects of Eastern Boys are incredibly insightful and its representation productive, it remains important to acknowledge that the film reproduces its fair share of harmful racialized narratives and complexes in terms of a global East/West binary. The responses, policies, and politics in which the film appears to be invested may also prove to be inadequate or inappropriate to a viewer with a broader understanding of anti-trafficking efforts. However, even these representational “flaws” seem to be problematized throughout the course of the film.

I think it is important to remain aware that neither Eastern Boys as a film nor Campillo (from what I’ve found) claim to be concerned with trafficking anti-, labor-, sex-, or otherwise. It is, however, explicitly concerned with the movement of people, considering that irregular migration is a key plot point. This blog post is a vehicle for my critique of the film, based on the work of scholars of migration, (anti-)trafficking, sex work, and their representations in the medium of film. Based on my reception, I believe Eastern Boys has simply too much potential not to be discussed in the realm of anti-trafficking.

About the film

Eastern Boys is a French-language film written and directed by Robin Campillo that premiere in August 2013 at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. The film follows the interconnected stories of Marek/Rouslan, an “illegal” Ukrainian immigrant in Paris by way of Chechnya, and Daniel, a lonely but successful middle-aged gay Parisian businessman. After the title, the movie opens on the street in front of the Gare du Nord. The scene is full of diegetic sound typical of a bustling train station and follows a group of men and boys, all behaving atypically (at worst being rowdy, at best loitering) and speaking in what the subtitles only call “a foreign language.” Clearly the subjects of the scene are neither Parisian nor French, and unless you were familiar with Slavic languages, you wouldn’t understand from the outset that they are all in fact speaking Russian. As the scene progresses an older gentleman, Daniel, catching the eye of one of the “eastern boys,” Marek, cruises the ambiguously aged young man at the station, and self-consciously schedules a paid sexual rendezvous to take place at his address the following evening. However, the next evening, Daniel is shocked when a 14-year-old boy appears at his door, claiming to be Marek. The young boy pushes past him into the apartment and reprimands him for allegedly trying to engage a minor in sex work. Not long after this confusing event the boy lets in two other young Eastern European men. Soon, to Daniel’s horror, they are joined by a whole retinue of similar men (the gang of foreigners from the opening scene) led by a Russian referred to only as “Boss.” Daniel stands by unable to do anything while they invade his expensive and well-furnished apartment. They flood in, helping themselves to his kitchen, computer, workout equipment. All the while, Boss taunts Daniel about his helplessness and repressed homosexuality, before suggesting to him that it was he who invited them over. He then launches a raucous party in Daniel’s living room, while the other young strip the apartment of his belongings. When the real Marek shows up, he takes part as well, seemingly unaffected by the longing and hurt look in Daniel’s eyes.

What starts off as story of particular offenses in unofficial realms of sexual economies and organized crime, morphs quickly into one of sexual romance then filial love. Marek returns to Daniel’s apartment (apparently apologetic) and they establish a relationship where the latter regularly pays the former for sex. The more often they meet, the more comfortable they become with each other. Marek seems relatively happy for the financial stability, and Daniel gains a lot from the sexual and interpersonal connection. Without trying to romanticize sex work, the two form a very close bond. With this bond there comes a shift in their relationship. Marek, who reveals that his real name is Rouslan, tells Daniel about his past. He migrated to France because of a “War in Chechnya,” where his mother was killed in the bombing of their house, and his father was eventually found dead, dismembered. Daniel becomes less sexually interested in Marek, and more empathically and filially invested. He wants to get Marek away from the gang, with whom he has been living in the meantime. However, Marek tells him this is difficult because Boss restricts his and the gang members’ opportunities and movement by keeping their documents from them, locked in storage at the hotel where they are provided residence by French social services.

The final act of the movie is possibly the most entangled with issues of irregular migration. How it encompasses and so quickly can become trafficking. Returning to the hotel for what he hopes to be the last time, so that he can collect his documents and move into the spare room in Daniel’s apartment, Marek is intercepted by Boss. He claims that none of the members of the gang are trapped with him, or at the hotel, but this is immediately belied by his rough treatment of Marek. He attacks him, crushing his head under his foot, leaving him unconscious, before having two other boys restrain, gag, and lock him in the room that houses their stolen goods. Eventually, after not hearing from Marek, Daniel goes to the hotel looking for him. A woman at the counter rents him a room on the floor of the Eastern Europeans and he hears moaning from the next room that he is sure is Marek’s. He pleads with the manager to help him check, to open the locked door, but she says it is not within her jurisdiction and that he may have to call the police if he is worried. Daniel worries that if he calls the police Marek will be arrested and deported with the other migrants on the floor. Eventually the manager does help by unlocking the door, and once Daniel has Marek safely away from the others he calls the police, reporting the gang as illegal immigrants. The authorities then arrive and arrest all residents of the social security floor indiscriminately, the Eastern European, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern families alike. Daniel makes it out of the fray with Marek safely squirreled in the trunk of his station wagon, and Boss is the only other member of the gang who evades arrest. The film ends in court where a panel of judges question the legality of allowing Daniel to adopt Marek (now officially known by his legal name Rouslan Geurasiev) as his son. Their lawyer tells them outside the courtroom that they shouldn’t worry because their case is cut and dry. Credits roll after a long still shot of the two leaving the building together.

The Productive

Several aspects of the film are really fascinating for how they subvert the usual images and narratives associated with anti-trafficking efforts and anti-trafficking works/films.

  • The first is that the film clearly focuses on a male victim. Anti-trafficking discourse is primarily evocative and connoted by sex-trafficking in which women are hyper represented (as opposed to labor trafficking where its men). As Sine Plambech puts it, writing about the utilization of female victimhood narratives in film, “certain representations of suffering and victimhood construct only certain bodies and populations as victims, and…these are incorporated into human rights discourses geared toward humanitarian intervention.” Therefore, works (like Lilya 4 Ever and Taken) largely rely on the image empathetically ideal, innocent, naïve female victim, coerced into sex work and exploited for her sexual labor. While these victims and cases do exist, focusing exclusively on them obscures other, no less real cases. In Eastern Boys, we have Marek, a young ostensibly gay man whose “work” with his smuggler/trafficker does not fit the same paradigm as “pimp/sex-slave” narratives, but revolves nonetheless in sex work. The fact that women play such a small role in a film, the plot of which is situated in the circuits of human smuggling, sex work, and possibly sex-trafficking, helps expand the image and definition of a sex-trafficking victim. Because trafficking is a crime that demands a victim, that diversified image, following a carceral approach, would then help in identifying more possible victims for more possible arrests.

  • Additionally, the film depicts a non-heteronormative example of sexual economy. Marek engages in sex work with Daniel, although the his motives remain somewhat unclear and the two seem to develop beyond a simple and professional client/service relationship. While Eastern Boys does portray this in a romantic(ized) way (an odd-couple sexual romance), it is important to understand the ways in which LGBT people are susceptible to trafficking that are appreciably different from the standard heteronormative female model. As this pdf from the Polaris Project describes, “LGBTQ youth face higher rates of discrimination, violence, and economic instability than their nonLGBTQ peers. When faced with fewer resources, employment opportunities, or social supports, LGBTQ youth who are away from home must find ways to meet their basic needs and may therefore enter the street economy, engaging in commercial sex to meet these needs.” These vulnerabilities and survival strategies can then be exploited by a third party offering stability, or a sense of family and belonging (as with Boss’ gang) that results in the individual becoming a victim of trafficking.

Marek’s documents (like those of the sochi construction workers in my last blogpost) are withheld from him keeping him beholden to his boss. This type of extortion, unexpected by the migrant, is grounds for the Human Rights Watch consider labor trafficking. In Take Out, the male protagonist’s labor is exploited because of his status as an “illegal immigrant” a smuggled worker. In Sestre the female protagonists are deceived into forced sex work. Yet, In Marek then we see how, as a gay man, he bridges aspects of labor and sex-trafficking through subversions of common conceptions of gender and sexuality. His legal status keeps him bound to his trafficker, but he engages willingly in sex work as an additional survival strategy because of his limited options.

The Unproductive

In contrast to its merits Eastern Boys does, however, fall victim to certain culturally and politically overrepresented discursive tropes, that are not incredibly productive in a broad approach to anti-trafficking efforts

  • The film, even as early as its title sequence, sets up an opposition between the disenfranchised, lawless precarity of Global East, and the bastion of liberal freedom and security in the Global West (see Yana Hashamova’s Screening Trafficking). In perpetuating this binary, it also works to reproduce the image of the ethnically and culturally othered criminal villain/perpetrator. As stated before, the film appears to show this bias not only narratively but formally. The eastern gang, led by the Boss the Russian, speaks almost exclusively in Russian, but the film’s subtitles don’t track or illuminate their speech, simply reading “speaking a foreign language.” They don’t even go so far as to say speaking Russian; instead, the group of Russophone Moravians, Daghestanis, Ukrainians, etc. are homogenized into a single racialized (brown of white) identity that originates just too far East to be considered Globally Western.

 

  • Furthermore, it perpetuates the trope of the Western Savior complex. If Boss represents the foreign “big bad” invader, bringing issues of trafficking with him (that is in opposition to the idea that trafficking could be a result of internal Western factors of law, migration, and economies), then Daniel comes to represent the strong Western arm of the law taking a carceral approach to trafficking. He may end up saving Marek, but he is only able to do so by relying on the same state apparatuses that endanger the young migrant. Daniel gives himself and Marek enough time to escape by calling the police, who arrest and detain every migrant residing on the social service floor of the Hotel. The gang of criminals that acted as his makeshift family are brought into custody (with the exception of Boss, who escapes, highlighting the imperfection of these kinds of strategies) but Marek could have just as easily been been detained had Daniel not lied to the police officer looking for fugitives and smuggled him away from the scene in the trunk of his car.

 

Representation plays a crucial role in advocacy efforts because of its role in far-reaching, often global discourses. For human rights issues like human trafficking reproduction of idealized, clear-cut (or contrarily) inaccurate, incomplete, or simplified narratives and images can have harmful effects. As Plambech writes, “few of these films articulate the complexities of sex work, poverty, immigration law and human desires for social mobility, but rather often constitute a site for production of generalized and sensationalized understandings of sex work-related migration and ‘women as victims’.” Eastern Boys is refreshing for this very reason. Despite the end of the film being rather sensationalized, and its generally othering tone with regard to Central and Eastern European characters, it still manages to highlight the push, pull, and social mobility factors for a young male irregular migrant engaged in sexual economies (a figure severely lacking in representation). Eastern Boys is an incredibly complex film, which I believe is reflected in what it manages to get right and wrong simultaneously. Films reach a much wider audience than academic literature, and so they have amazingly far-reaching potential. When seeing a film, even one that does not explicitly claim to engage with anti-trafficking discourses, it is useful to interrogate the kind of images, narratives, and tropes it may be reproducing. Are they reductive? Overly simplistic? Or can we take away something slightly new? We need more examples of films that highlight complexity with regard to general human/sex trafficking. What are the underlying factors and stakes for the victims represented, and how do they relate to the laws and economies in which they are situated? Answering some of these questions when watching a film that for you is resonant with human trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts may help you determine its use for you and others.

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