Film Interview: “Trafficked” — Siddharth Kara’s Disturbing Vision of Modern Slavery

“The purpose of the film is to take the audience on what I hope will be a riveting, challenging, and ultimately uplifting journey into the world of human trafficking in a way that moves them to contribute to efforts to eradicate slavery.”

By Bill Marx


The mainstream media has a lot to say about the doings of big business, though not much about one of the world’s most profitable. A line on the poster for Trafficked, a new film about the global sex trafficking industry, puts it succinctly: slave traders made 100 billion last year. Yet the lack of sustained discussion — as well as the political will  — necessary to combat the scourge is alarming. Thus the need for feature films on the subject, such as Trafficked and the recently released Kidnap Capital (written and directed by Felipe Rodriguez), whose broad appeal may help raise awareness and spur action. The issue of sex trafficking is also receiving attention, via a powerful theatrical treatment, by way of Deborah Lake Forston’s doc-u-drama Body & Sold.

Siddharth Kara, director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a renowned expert on modern bondage (he has written two books on the the subject) and wrote the screenplay for Trafficked. The film is based on a true story: three girls from America, Nigeria, and India are trafficked through an elaborate international network and enslaved in a Texas brothel. They take a risky chance to regain their freedom. Directed by Will Wallace and fielding a cast that includes Ashley Judd, Patrick Duffy, and Anne Archer, Trafficked has yet to be officially released.

Those who want a sneak peak will have an opportunity this week. There will be a screening of Trafficked on September 29th at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Knafel Center, 10 Garden Street, Cambridge from 4 to 7:30 p.m. The showing will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Kara, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, and Archer. (Note: this is a free but private screening; you must RSVP on the website to have a seat reserved.) I e-mailed some questions to Kara about the making of the film and his hopes for what changes it might encourage.

Arts Fuse: Why did you decide to make a fiction film based on your book Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery rather than a documentary? Wouldn’t the latter have been more effective?


Siddharth Kara: Actually, I chose sort of a hybrid approach in creating a film inspired by my book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. My goal from the outset with the film was to raise awareness of human trafficking on the broadest scale possible. I suspected a feature film would be seen by more people than typically see documentaries. However, it was of utmost importance to me that the film be grounded in truth, so I based most every character, scenario, and situation in the film on real cases I documented during fifteen years of research around the world. Naturally, I had to fictionalize certain elements in order to weave a coherent narrative and also convey as much information as possible about human trafficking in a single film, but the net result is, I believe, the first truly authentic and global feature film on human trafficking.

AF: What do you think film audiences need to know about the human trafficking industry that they don’t know? And that you tell them in Trafficked.

Kara: Trafficked tells audiences many things about human trafficking that I think will surprise them. First, it shows them that this issue is not just happening on the far side of the world in poorer countries, but it is happening right here in the United States as well. Second, the film stresses the point that human trafficking is a business, a giant global business that generates well over $100 billion in profits per year. Third, the film shows us that in the context of the United States, the foster care system is a considerable source of victims for sex traffickers. Fourth, the audience will learn through the journeys of the three main young women in the film (from the U.S., Nigeria, and India), just how complex, global, and nuanced the issue is. Some women are tricked, some women are abducted, and some women make a ‘choice’ to accept the offer from a trafficker, but that choice is not really a matter of free-will as you and I typically think of choices, but rather from a position of extreme duress, poverty, and lack of alternatives. Finally, I think the film will make it clear to people that human trafficking can only persist on a major scale because of corruption, including in the United States.

"Trafficked" screenwriter Siddharth Kara. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

“Trafficked” screenwriter Siddharth Kara. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

AF: Given the horrors of sex trafficking — its victimization of women — what were the challenges in writing the screenplay? Also, why are there no depictions of male sex trafficking in the film?

Kara: The biggest challenge for me in writing the script was to strike a balance between depicting the truth of the issue and not being too dark, sensationalistic, or exploitative. I don’t think it is appropriate to show on screen the kinds of tortures, abuses, and utter degradation that sex trafficking victims actually endure. No one, including me, would be able to see it. We all know rape is a violent, degrading, horrific act, all the more so when it relates to children, so you don’t need to make the point that sex trafficking is horrible by actually showing exactly how horrible it can be. I felt I needed to strike a balance by hinting at these horrors, then turning away. People’s imaginations can fill in the blanks. This approach also ensures that the film is in no way sensationalistic or further victimizing the victims by trading on their suffering, or trying to attract audiences through voyeurism and barbarity. On the other hand, if I wrote a script that overly sanitized the truth of sex trafficking, that would also be an injustice against the victims and their suffering. This was the very difficult balance I tried to find in writing the script, as well as in how the film was shot and edited. I hope we achieved this goal.

As to male sexual violence, this is a very good point. Across all my years of research, my data shows that sex trafficking is a highly gendered issue, with roughly 94% of cases that I documented being women and girls. That means of course that males and trans-genders are also trafficked, albeit in much smaller numbers. It felt like a major task just to convey the truths of the sex trafficking of women and girls in a single film without trying to do it all. That said, the film also touches on labor trafficking, organ trafficking, and child labor. All these issues are linked and it’s important for people to realize this.

AF: It is interesting to see some familiar Hollywood faces in the cast for the Trafficked. For example, Patrick Duffy of the TV series Dallas plays the head of a major Texas sex trafficking set-up. Did you want to set the film in America for that reason?

Kara: I wanted the film to be a global storyline that ultimately coalesced in the United States in order to show that this is a truly global issue, but that it also happens in rich countries, just like ours. I think people in the U.S. are largely under the impression that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment in 1865. The truth is, slavery ended on paper, but it has persisted in various forms since 1865 up to and including today. The U.S. has more resources and power to tackle slavery than any other country in the world, so I wanted to be sure to galvanize this country to help finish the work that was started by this nation’s great abolitionists centuries ago.

A scene from "Trafficked." Photo: Tony Pinto.

A glimpse of “Trafficked.” Photo: Tony Pinto.

AF: You don’t offer solutions to the international blight of human trafficking in the film — is the exposure of the crime enough? What more can be done — politically? Economically?

Kara: The purpose of the film is to take the audience on what I hope will be a riveting, challenging, and ultimately uplifting journey into the world of human trafficking in a way that moves them to contribute to efforts to eradicate slavery. We will have a specific call to action for viewers centered on the film’s release, with important steps that anyone can take to be a part of the solution. Human trafficking is a very complex issue that spans the global economy – from forced prostitution to slavery in agriculture, construction, mining, apparel, electronic device manufacturing, and so on. There is no one single solution to the issue, but major governments, NGOs, and the UN are all working on the issue vigorously. The anti-slavery movement, however, needs more grassroots involvement to turn the tide. For specific solutions on how to rid the world of sex trafficking, viewers could read my book, Sex Trafficking.

AF: Given the global reach of the crime and its profitability, there been relatively little about human trafficking in the mainstream media. How will a film like yours help turn this situation around?

Kara: The media is definitely doing a better job covering the issue than it did when I first started my research in the year 2000. The CNN Freedom Project, for example, is an excellent campaign by a major news media leader to cover human trafficking stories responsibly and comprehensively around the world. That said, much more coverage is needed of all aspects of the issue in the news media, as well as with documentaries, feature films, and television to effect a massive increase in awareness of what this crime is and how it touches our lives each and every day. I hope that Trafficked can be a part of that process, and perhaps inspire more coverage of the issue, along with a new generation of abolitionists to take up the fight of eradicating slavery from the world once and for all.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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