Monday, September 14, 2009

Expose: Fatal Promises

Mind your business and don’t get involved. Those are words many New Yorkers live by, but it allows some pretty disturbing crimes to continue unchecked behind closed doors. Much to her horror, Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson learned Eastern European women had been held in sexual servitude behind the blinds of a house in her own tony London neighborhood. That revelation led to her involvement in the international anti-slavery movement and Kat Rohrer’s documentary Fatal Promises, which opens in New York on Wednesday.

Human-trafficking is one trade that does not need any economic stimulus. Second only to drugs, human beings generate an estimated seventy times more illicit profit than the arms trade, according to the film. It is not just women sold into sexual bondage, though that is certainly a considerable percentage. To underscore that point, Rohrer interviews five survivors of modern slavery, two of whom are men.

Katja and Nadja endured the sort of sexual abuse conjured up by the term “white slavery.” Anja would be considered an “economic” slave, forced to toil in an apple orchard without pay, but she was also sexually assaulted during her ordeal. The eighteen-year old Eugene and forty-five year old Nikolai were not afraid of hard work, but were physically broken by their time held captive on Russian crab ships. Their harrowing stories vividly illustrate this is an international problem far greater than a few women sold into brothels.

Rohrer also turns her camera on the international campaign to stop human trafficking, but what she documents does not always inspire confidence. The UN’s GIFT (Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking) spent almost three million dollars on a conference in Vienna that produced no results, but at least the delegates heard a lovely opera aria. After addressing the confab, Thompson derisively described it as “karaoke of the concerned.”

For her part, Thompson comes off far better than most celebrity activists, perhaps because she has a personal connection to the issue. Having befriended one of the women held in bondage in the “massage parlor” that once operated on her street, she has since become involved with The Journey, a multi-media installation dramatizing the experiences of her friend and women like her. (It is scheduled to come to New York in November.) She was even willing to do a Q&A for the film on last Saturday morning in New York, where she never sounded the least bit patronizing or self-important, but like someone genuinely concerned.

Although there are certainly political ramifications to Promises, Rohrer wisely tacks a non-partisan course. When documenting the passage of a New York State anti-trafficking bill, Republican State Sen. Frank Padavan gets credit for shepherding the bill through the State Senate. The documentary also acknowledges the irony that soon after Eliot Spitzer signed the bill he resigned due to a prostitution scandal. As a result, Promises maintains its credibility, making it particularly effective as an advocacy film.

Promises is a disturbing documenting, shining a much needed spotlight on the hidden horrors of a shameful practice. While Putin’s Russia is identified as arguably the most conducive environment, it is clear modern day trafficking rings operate around the world including suburban America and High Street in London. While it might sound like a depressing viewing experience, Promises is an informative film, produced with admirable passion. It opens in New York this Wednesday at the Cinema Village.