Deus Ex Machina of Human Trafficking: A Review of Christopher Bessette’s “Trade of Innocents”

“Justice Needs a Hero,” – proudly claims the trailer1 of Christopher Bessette’s 2012 film Trade of Innocents.2 However, this evocation of a savior narrative is precisely what could undermine the director’s noteworthy efforts to introduce important complexity into the discussion of the controversies surrounding global human trafficking. While the film attempts to reveal the structural and systemic underpinnings of the problem, the incessant and permeating reliance on the Western hero trope, in my opinion, is more likely to perpetuate colonial stereotypes3 rather than raise awareness about human trafficking and labour exploitation in general.

In this blog post, I would like to discuss the pros and cons of Bessette’s vision of human trafficking in Trade of Innocents and to offer a critique (hopefully objective) of the choices he makes as a director.

Pros

One of the main positive aspects of Trade of Innocents is that it makes a genuine attempt to address the structural roots of trafficking, the so-called “push” and “pull” factors, which, according to United Nations Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons, include extreme poverty, cultural norms and practices, and corruption of government officials.4 In fact, poverty and corruption are precisely the social ills that Bessette’s film centers on. The film is allegedly set in Cambodia5 that, according to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, is still plagued by corruption on a wide range of levels:

“Despite endemic corruption that contributes to trafficking in many sectors and among several vulnerable demographics, the government did not investigate, prosecute, or convict any complicit officials.”6

In Bessette’s film, Captain Pheakdey (Sahajak Boonthanakit7) serves as a telling example of a depraved law enforcement officer. He accepts a bribe to cloak the operations of a brothel that subjects young children to sexual exploitation and then ensures that Duke (Trieu Tran8), the brothel manager and the main antagonist of the film, is killed and therefore silenced before he could testify and disclose Pheakdey’s affiliation with the underground sex industry.

In another scene, the mother of a teenage girl who was forced to return to a brothel (Tharinee Thaima9) grudgingly admits that her daughter’s decision was motivated by the desire to provide financial support for her family, which definitely speaks to the relatively high level of poverty that Cambodia continues to struggle with even today.10

It is also important to note that in Bessette’s film, the viewer does not encounter a particularly heavy use of a narrative that Claudia Cojocaru would identify as the “ideal victim trope.”11 While the young women and girls in Trade of Innocents are clearly exploited and abused, they are not portrayed as “passive” – a feature that serves as a key element to Cojocaru’s definition.12 Many female characters in the film are actively involved in the progression of the story: they either consciously enter into exploitation, e.g. Kim Ly, or equally actively strive to regain their freedom or protect the ones they love. For instance, Lie-U (Guzjung Pitakporntrakul13) continuously deceives Duke to hide her little sister, and even after the truth comes out, Lie-U courageously refuses to disclose her sister’s whereabouts despite being brutally abused.

Cons

“Secondary Exploitation”14

First and foremost, despite the director’s noble intentions,15 the making of the film itself may be viewed as an example of “secondary exploitation” of trafficking survivors that Cojocaru describes as follows:

“Artists, writers, actors, directors, internet and mainstream media journalists are exploring their ‘feelings and ideas’ about prostitution and trafficking and packaging these as artworks, books, articles and films. These moral entrepreneurs are often privileged and have access to mainstream cultural and political spaces, reaching a receptive audience. In this way, through their own success, moral entrepreneurs are helping disseminate the abolitionist construction of victimhood while gaining public exposure and ‘positioning themselves as white saviours.’”16

While it seems that Bessette has embarked on this cinematographic project with the awareness that he was creating a “Hollywood movie with motorcycle chases, and fights, and chasing down the bad guys, and big elaborate sets” and nevertheless was hoping to make a difference in the world with his work,17 it is important to keep in mind that the final product at its core was still a business endeavor, conceived of and brought to fruition by a male and college-educated Canadian citizen.18

Oversimplification of an Intricate Issue

Another point of concern related to Bessette’s film is that it exposes only one side of an extremely multi-faceted problem. First of all, according to the International Labour Office (ILO) statistics, sex trafficking represents only a small element of the global labour exploitation epidemic.19

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, with regard to adult (or at least depicted as such) female characters, the film on the whole fails to differentiate between voluntary involvement in sex work and sex trafficking. Specifically, Trade of Innocents features female characters who appear to be young, but still well over 18, and who at the same time often act as if they were relatively content with their circumstances. For example, a scene at the beginning of the movie portrays three older sex workers quite joyfully showing off their manicure to one another. Another scene showing the consequences of Lie-U’s brutal beating also portrays the laments of a young woman about the fact that she and her colleague have now lost favor with Duke and can no longer enjoy the privileges of living in the village. If the filmmaker had no intention of opening the film to the debate about personal agency, why include such equivocal imaginary?

In fact, this artistic choice points to an issue that, as Denise Brennan has demonstrated, remains highly intricate and contentious, even in the United States that, according to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Reportis classified as a Tier 1 country20:

“…[V]oluntary sexual exchanges between adults for money have been described as sex trafficking, thereby linking voluntary prostitution to sex trafficking… [This] diverts attention away from serious discussions about, and investigations into, the relationship between migrants’ undocumented status and exploitative labor conditions—particularly through the practice of subcontracting” [emphasis mine].21

A similar concern has been expressed by Juno Mac in a TED presentation on sex workers’ rights that she gave in 2016:

“The way the term trafficking is thrown around implies that all undocumented migration into prostitution is forced. In fact, many migrants have made a decision, out of economic need, to place themselves into the hands of people smugglers. Many do this with the full knowledge that they’ll be selling sex when they reach their destination… Ultimately, nobody wants to be forced to do any kind of work, but that’s a risk many migrants are willing to take, because of what they’re leaving behind. If people were allowed to migrate legally they wouldn’t have to place their lives into the hands of people smugglers. The problems arise from the criminalization of migration, just as they do from the criminalization of sex work itself.”22

Put simply, what Brennan and Mac are arguing is that by labelling all varieties of adult “sexual labor,” to borrow the term of Boris et al.,23 and other kinds of exploitation as human trafficking we are dangerously overlooking the primary causes of trafficking itself; not only does this often fail to resolve the issue but actually puts at risk an extensive number of already vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

The director’s choice to center the film primarily on child exploitation (even though the film features a handful of trafficking victims who look like they may well be adults) is also problematic because it essentially justifies the conflation of sex work and trafficking. A child obviously cannot consent to a sexual act,24 and no one in a sound mind would would even propose to argue the opposite, so on a surface level the subject matter of the film does not warrant further discussion of the controversy surrounding “sexual labor.”25 In all fairness, Bessette’s decision is understandable – there is only so much one can do in a film that is only an hour and a half long, and it is also probably easier for a typical viewer to sympathize with a child than with an adult. However, it is important to keep in mind that both may find themselves in a context of exploitation, fear, and abuse.

Another problem with the stance that Trade of Innocents takes on trafficking is that this film fails to sufficiently address the fear of coming forward and cooperating with the law enforcement officers that many trafficking victims share. As Brennan notes, a variety of factors can preclude a victim from seeking help, including the fear for the safety of themselves and their families, debt bondage, “concern[s] that their coworkers would lose their jobs,” “fear of law enforcement itself, which may be corrupt or untrustworthy in their home countries,” as well as the risk of deportation.”26 Although the film contains a scene that portrays the abused girls as being afraid of an under-cover anti-trafficking agent who enters the brothel as a potential client and then suddenly reveals his identity, their panic clearly comes from simply being in anxiety-inducing circumstances (a stranger – an adult white male – all of a sudden starts pulling one of them by the hand), not from the realization that they are interacting with a law enforcement representative.

Perpetuation of Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes

The film is set in Southeast Asia, while the action takes place in what looks like a poor rural community. This interpretation is highly problematic because the viewer may be left thinking that trafficking is a problem endemic only of a developing country and is therefore completely alien to places like the United States or the European Union, which, according to 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, is clearly not the case.27 It is truly puzzling to me why the director has made this choice despite the fact that in one of his interviews, he demonstrates complete awareness of the global status of human trafficking.28

My main criticism, however, is not even so much that the motivation behind location selection seems somewhat equivocal. What I personally find truly disturbing is the way Bessette has decided to portray the protagonist of the film, Alex Becker (Dermot Mulroney29). He quite unambiguously overshadows all other anti-trafficking advocates, especially the ones who are local and/or female, and his implied intelligence, impeccable moral code, and bravery appear to be in sharp contrast with the personal qualities of the members of the local community (regular people and law enforcement officers alike) who are often shown as backward, corrupt, helpless, uneducated, and overall in need of a Western savior, preferably white and male. To me it seems like a very dangerous interpretation; in fact, the “white saviour” trope that Cojocaru’s piece brings up,30 is disturbingly applicable to Becker’s portrayal which seems to perpetuate colonial stereotypes of the inferiority of the Other.31

Overall, while it would likely not be fair to make the claim that the director has approached the making of Trade of Innocents with a mindset of moral superiority, the aftertaste that the film leaves behind unfortunately suggests otherwise.

References

1 “Trade of Innocents: Film Trailer,” accessed April 22, 2018, 2 minutes 24 seconds, http://montereymedia.com/theatrical/films/trade_of_innocents.html#synopsis.

2 Christopher Bessette, Trade of Innocents, Drama, Suspense (Monterey Media, 2012), 1 hour, 29 minutes, https://www.amazon.com/Trade-Innocents-Mira-Sorvino/dp/B00TKIHE4I/ref=sr_1_4_dvt_4_wnzw?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1523839600&sr=1-4&keywords=human+trafficking&dpID=51BHrX-pNqL&preST=_SY300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch.

3 Sunil Bhatia captures the essence of colonial bias by indicating that “[u]ntil about the last decade of the 19thcentury, many European intellectuals and administrators believed that Europeans were superior to Asians and Africans, especially in terms of scientific and technological accomplishments. However, such judgments and claims of European superiority were based on cultural attainments rather than innate biological differences.”

See Sunil Bhatia, “Orientalism in Euro-American and Indian Psychology: Historical Representations of ‘Natives’ in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts,” History of Psychology5, no. 4 (2002): 379, https://doi.org/10.1037/1093-4510.5.4.376.

4 “Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons. Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings” (New York: United Nations. Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008), 423-24, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/2008/electronic-toolkit/electronic-toolkit-to-combat-trafficking-in-persons—index.html.

5 The characters in the film make multiple references to speaking Khmer, as well as to the Angkor Wat temple that is located in Cambodia. See “Angkor Wat – 7th Wonder of the World,” TourismCambodia.com, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.tourismcambodia.com/attractions/angkor/angkor-wat.htm.

However, the film itself was shot in Bangkok, Thailand. See Nicki Richesin, “Conversations With Christopher Bessette and Dermot Mulroney on Trade of Innocents,” Huffington Post(blog), April 3, 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nicki-richesin/conversations-with-christ_b_1397383.html.

6 “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017” (U.S. Department of State, June 2017), 113, https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2017/index.htm.

7 “Sahajak Boonthanakit. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0095552/bio.

8 “Trieu Tran. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0870913/bio.

9 “Tharinee Thaima. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5467311/.

10 “Poverty in Cambodia,” Asian Development Bank | Adb.com, 2017, https://www.adb.org/countries/cambodia/poverty.

11 Claudia Cojocaru, “My Experience Is Mine to Tell: Challenging the Abolitionist Victimhood Framework,” Anti-Trafficking Review, no. 7 (2016): 9, https://doi.org/10.14197/atr.20121772.

12 Cojocaru, “My Experience Is Mine to Tell: Challenging the Abolitionist Victimhood Framework,” 9.

13 “Jirantanin Pitakporntrakul. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3823724/bio.

14Cojocaru, “My Experience Is Mine to Tell,” 2.

15 Richesin, “Conversations With Christopher Bessette and Dermot Mulroney on Trade of Innocents.”

16 Cojocaru, “My Experience Is Mine to Tell,” 2.

17 “Trade of Innocents” Christoper Bessette [Sic], Youtube Video (100 Huntley Street, 2012), 7:29-7:47, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM_Z5ZQNkcg.

18 “Christopher M. Bessette. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1140844/bio.

19 International Labour Office (ILO), “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage” (Geneva: International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation, 2017), ISBN 978-92-2-130132-5, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf.

20 “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017,” 415-20.

21 Denise Brennan, “Competing Claims of Victimhood? Foreign and Domestic Victims of Trafficking in the United States,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy5, no. 4 (December 2008): 49, https://doi.org/10.1525/srsp.2008.5.4.45.

22 The Laws That Sex Workers Really Want. Video Transcript, TED Talk video (TEDxEastEnd, 2016), https://www.ted.com/talks/juno_mac_the_laws_that_sex_workers_really_want/transcript.

23 Eileen Boris, Stephanie Gilmore, and Rhacel Parreñas, “Sexual Labors: Interdisciplinary Perspectives Toward Sex as Work,” Sexualities13, no. 2 (April 1, 2010): 131–37, https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460709359228.

24 According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, “When a child (under 18 years of age) is recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, obtained, patronized, solicited, or maintained to perform a commercial sex act, proving force, fraud, orcoercion is not necessary for the offense to be prosecuted as human trafficking” [emphasis mine]. See “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017,”17.

A similar approach is reflected in the definition of human trafficking introduced by the United Nations. While a human trafficking crime is required to involve certain “means” of exploitation – “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” – this component is not required for victims who are “under eighteen years of age.” See “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto” (United Nations. Office on Drugs and Crime, 2004), 42-43, https://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf.

25 Boris, Gilmore, and Parreñas, “Sexual Labors: Interdisciplinary Perspectives Toward Sex as Work.”

26 Brennan, “Competing Claims of Victimhood?,” 53-54.

27 For data on the United States see “Trafficking in Persons Report 2017,” 415-20.

28 “Trade of Innocents” Christoper Bessette [sic], Youtube Video (100 Huntley Street, 2012), 4:30-4:56, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM_Z5ZQNkcg.

29 “Dermot Mulroney. Biography,” IMDb, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000551/bio.

30 Cojocaru, “My Experience Is Mine to Tell,” 2.

31 Bhatia, “Orientalism in Euro-American and Indian Psychology: Historical Representations of ‘Natives’ in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts,” 379.

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