Human Trafficking in the movies

‘Cinema is a medium that can translate ideas’ – David Lynch

Over a century has passed since the beginning of moving images and the world’s love of movies doesn’t cease. Mainstream Hollywood movies dominate the global industry: films are ingrained in our everyday culture and have greatly impacted each generation, influencing the way we view the world around us. 

As the issue of human trafficking has garnered increasing attention in recent years, so have depictions of it on the big screen. The narrative of trafficking has the perfect makings of a movie: traffickers make quintessential villains, as they lure and kidnap their victims and trap them into the seedy web of exploitation. Then there are the victims, usually young girls who need rescuing. In comes the hero, to rescue the girl from the clutches of the trafficker and save the day.  

For NGOs, law enforcement, and other organisations working in this area, many will agree that they welcome the exposure of the issue. The reach a film can have with a worldwide cinematic release far exceeds the reach most NGOs can garner through awareness campaigns. Popular portrayals matter. They can help shape global understanding of human trafficking. Although movies can help raise awareness, they can also, unintentionally, peddle the myths and misconceptions which hinder the progress of eradicating it. 

When people think of human trafficking, the 2008 movie Taken may spring to mind. A retired CIA agent played by Liam Neeson travels to Paris intent on saving his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a child trafficking ring while on holiday. He uses his ‘special set of skills’ obtained over his years working for the CIA to locate his daughter and rescue her, just in time, before she is sold. Unfortunately, most victims of trafficking don’t have a father who is an ex-CIA agent to rescue them out of their situation.  

Director Martin Scorsese once said, ‘cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out’.  Here are the ways in which movies use the human trafficking narrative, the myths they often reinforce and crucial plot points they leave out. 

Myth 1: People who are trafficked are always taken by force

In Taken, the two young girls are kidnapped from their hotel room, taken by force. Although true in some cases, in reality, traffickers use tools like deception and manipulation which means they often don’t use force. Usually a process of grooming incurs, an establishment of a friendship or relationship, trust gained and false promises made, before exploitation happens. This narrative appears in the 2002 Swedish-Danish drama Lilya 4-Ever. The film follows a 16-year-old girl from the former Soviet Union who is abandoned by her mother and left in poverty to fend for herself. The first two-thirds of the film focus on her vulnerable situation and how she places her faith in the wrong person, who she believes can offer her a better life. Using a recruitment tactic referred to as the ‘loverboy method’ he doesn’t need to take her by force. Instead, he tricks her, before selling her into prostitution. Even 18 years after its release, the film shows the reality of how traffickers use deception and manipulation and not force to take away peoples’ freedom. 

Myth 2: People being trafficked are locked in and held against their will  

Most movies show victims of trafficking unable to physically leave their situation. While true in some cases, people are not always held. They stay for more complicated reasons including threats of violence made against themselves, their family members or loved ones. Traffickers may also trap them through ‘debt bondage’, a control method used to keep people in a trafficking situation long term. People are forced to work to repay a real or perceived debt incurred through their travel and employment. Often the debt grows at a rate they are unable to meet, and they have no hope of ever being free of it. 

Myth 3: Trafficking is only sex trafficking 

Sex trafficking is the main type of exploitation depicted in cinema. For film producers, it’s a ready-made narrative and fits mainstream movie plot conventions. However, there are many other types of trafficking that are left out by cinema. These include labour trafficking, domestic servitude, forced criminality and forced marriage. Whilst focusing on sexual exploitation, cinema is missing the opportunity to develop narratives of other types of exploitation. People cleaning offices, working in a restaurant or a construction site can be trafficked and experience horrific ordeals at the hands of their trafficker. Although an unusual example, the much-loved musical Oliver! depicts forced criminality. Oliver Twist, poverty stricken in London, meets a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the criminal ringleader Fagin. Oliver Twist is a victim of child exploitation. Fagin is the trafficker, forcing young people into criminality, using them for his own financial gain.  

Whilst 71% of trafficking victims are female, 29% are male. Yet movies focus on the exploitation of woman and girls rather than men and boys. 

Final thoughts  

Propagating the falsehoods of human trafficking is a real problem and hinders preventative action. Organisations like STOP THE TRAFFIK aim to dispel myths. To prevent and disrupt human trafficking, the world needs to understand it and know what it looks like when it manifests itself in communities. Just because someone hasn’t been taken by force, isn’t physically chained or hasn’t been trafficked for sex, it doesn’t mean they are not a victim of exploitation. When undertaking research for our Lithuania campaign, people who experienced exploitation told us that the extreme depictions are unrealistic and may stop people identifying it in their community. Even worse, trafficked people may not identify themselves as victims because they are not in physical chains and so don’t feel able to get help or support. They are trapped by the invisible chains of psychological and emotional abuse. 

One of our Lithuania NGO partners told us that in Lithuania, the common perception of human trafficking amongst people is that it doesn’t exist and ‘only happens in movies.’ Trafficking takes many forms and manifests itself in communities everywhere. Only through awareness and education can it be prevented. There are numerous ways to portray human trafficking and it’s complexities that are yet to be explored in mainstream cinema. As David Lynch said, cinema can translate ideas. Film makers have the opportunity and platform to translate the reality and make a change. 

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