Human trafficking, along with other forms of criminal and institutionalised exploitation of politically and economically disadvantaged people, is among the most pressing and horrific problems of our time. Considering their gravity and scale, these issues are relatively marginalised in the public domain. Yet they do make an occasional appearance in information campaigns, high-profile cases reported by the media and in films. The analysis of cinematic and television narratives on human trafficking is the main concern of Moving People, Moving Images.
It provides a comprehensive, informed and critically eloquent survey of the available filmic output, considering its place on the cinematic map and within other discourses about the representation of people trafficking. The book is divided into three parts: an investigation of the theoretical and conceptual issues related to the films; close readings of 15 cinematic texts; and a discussion of the ways in which they are used to raise public awareness of trafficking and to influence national and international policy.
In "Negotiating the invisible", William Brown positions the existence and meaning of the European trafficking movie within a wider political and economic context. He discusses issues of Eurocentrism and the legacy of colonial oppression, focusing on the dimensions of trafficking and slavery that, as he argues, ensure that it is largely overlooked. "Contemporary slavery is systematically kept illegal, but it is paradoxically this illegality that enables it to persist invisibly within the system." This institutionalised enabling of illegal slavery and trafficking leads him to suggest that even the seemingly uninvolved citizens of the West play a contributory role in the victims' suffering.
Brown explores the facets and implications of notions of visibility and invisibility, including their relation to film form. This exploration results in a number of questions not only about trafficking, but also about the politics of its representation: "can there be a film by a person trafficked into Europe, or must trafficked peoples be represented by the Europeans that are complicit in their fates? For a trafficking film to be made by a trafficked person, the trafficked person must by definition be liberated from their imprisonment/slavery."
Leshu Torchin further explores the worldwide relevance of trafficking in "Foreign exchange". She provides a firm historical and theoretical grounding for the films, while emphasising their necessary positioning within the context of economic globalisation.
Dina Iordanova outlines and explores the narrative and stylistic patterns of the considered films. She seems particularly interested in characterisation. For instance, when discussing the portrayal of villains, she writes: "While logical, the choice of the ethnic identity of the traffic leaders in filmic narratives is indicative of the assumptions about the homogeneity of the audience for which the film is made: the rings are set up by 'others', the criminals are as foreign as the victims, and therefore the problem that is shown, while awful, does not have much to do with 'us', the viewers."
Moving People, Moving Images is an important book. Even though it sometimes struggles with the simultaneous address of so many different issues, and occasionally slips into generalisation and repetition, it presents a thoughtful and necessary study of a troubling phenomenon, and the way it is communicated. Seeing and critiquing film as a part of a bigger effort to address trafficking is the publication's particular strength.
Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe
By William Brown, Dina Iordanova and Leshu Torchin
St Andrews Film Studies, 257pp, £17.99
Published 1 February 2010