'Human Trafficking': Exploiting Misery, And Creating It

Mira Sorvino stars in Lifetime's
Mira Sorvino stars in Lifetime's "Human Trafficking," an appalling problem with or without the quote marks. (Reuters)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2005

Honk if you hate human trafficking. What's human trafficking? It has nothing to do with rush hour. According to a new miniseries airing on the Lifetime Television cable network, trafficking in human beings, young women and even children who are railroaded into lives of sexual slavery, is globally epidemic and very, very bad.

Unfortunately, it is also a convenient peg on which to hang a lurid, let's-play-peekaboo movie that is also very, very bad -- and regularly punctuated with scenes of female victims being stripped of their clothes and approached menacingly by fat creepy men unbuckling their belts. The unbuckling of belts is the virtual visual motif of the film, with shots of terrorized girls screaming and clinging to shreds of clothing a close second.

It's a dubious public service for producer Robert Halmi Sr. and Lifetime to offer a film that aspires to expose a worldwide scandal and just happens to expose vast amounts of flesh in the process -- exploitation about exploitation. The subject, obviously, would be more properly treated in a documentary format, and was, on MSNBC in January. Lifetime's miniseries -- tonight and tomorrow night at 9 -- reeks of tawdry rather than timely.

Almost as deplorable as the film is the sneaky way it was promoted yesterday on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. President Bush used the phrase "human trafficking" in public remarks he made last week, so a segment in "This Week" was devoted to the film of the same name and to remarks from its star Mira Sorvino (who apparently was wearing a strapless top and, as framed by the photographer, looked oddly naked).

With her Hollywood hair coiffed to an almost blindingly golden glow, Sorvino sounded a trifle facile speaking of the ordeals that impoverished and primarily Third World women undergo at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers. But Sorvino wasn't there because the problem has reached some new stage of urgency. She was there because the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, also jointly operates Lifetime (with the Hearst Corp.). Or, as the Disney Web site puts it, Disney has an "equity interest" in Lifetime and its ventures.

How accommodating, and deplorable, of ABC News and Stephanopoulos to put themselves in the service of that equity interest and try to pass off this corporate synergy as legitimate news.

It would help Lifetime's case if the movie were any good. Except for a few suspenseful sequences in which women and, occasionally, sympathetic parties try to escape the clutches of the slave traders, the miniseries is muddled, confused and diffuse. Instead of taking one or two case studies and recounting them coherently and in depth, the script hopscotches the world for cursory examples, barely dramatizing them at all, much less in a way that would be productively moving and alarming.

Thus we leap about from Prague to Kiev to Manila to Manhattan to Vienna to "Northern Luzon, The Philippines," to JFK Airport, then make the rounds again and again. In most locations, we see amateurish actors playing the terrorists and the terrorized as women and children are snatched up, sometimes in broad daylight, and carted off to grimy quarters where they will be brutally mistreated.

The worst of the bad guys involved -- Robert Carlyle (so affable in "The Full Monty") as Sergei Karpovich -- has established what is referred to as a chain of brothels throughout the civilized world (McSex, perhaps?). Sorvino, who won an Oscar nearly a decade ago and seems to have squandered the cachet that came with it, now sinks to this, basic cable -- and the role of a New York City cop who tries to put Karpovich and associates out of business. She's aided in her efforts by an immigration official mumblingly played by Donald Sutherland, who tries to talk without moving his lips as though practicing ventriloquism. In the last quarter of the film, Sorvino goes undercover as one of the unwilling prostitutes -- a ploy that seems preposterous but at least creates tension.

Christian Duguay directed, photographed and co-produced the film. It's hard to decide at which role he was least competent. As director, he has a hard time just imparting basic information, such as who's in the room and doing what to whom. His cinematography, meanwhile, is occasionally laughable, as when he indulges in the visual cliche of putting something -- anything -- between the camera and its subject. An entire conversation between Sorvino and Sutherland is shot from behind Venetian blinds. Jeez Louise, couldn't somebody have opened the darn things?

No one is doubting the severity of the problem depicted in the film, nor the despicable nature of the perpetrators. But Halmi and Duguay are perpetrating something, too. "Human Trafficking" inadvertently says less about its alleged topic than it does about using sleazy titillation to keep people watching the otherwise unwatchable.

Human Trafficking (two hours each night) airs tonight and tomorrow night at 9 on Lifetime.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company