Daytime TV: Object lesson

Gary Day on a harrowing tale of modern-day slavery that he fears will have no impact on its reality

September 9, 2010

There ought to be more bank holidays - that way, the economy will have time to recover from the damage inflicted on it by our great financial institutions. And while it is convalescing, we could be learning yet more about the horrors of the world. For what else is education but the discovery of evil and the depressing sense that there is little we can do about it? Thousands fought to abolish slavery but it still exists.

The message of Channel 4's holiday offering, I Am Slave (Channel 4, Monday 30 August, 8.30pm), seemed to be that if you were deprived of your freedom, then it was up to you to do something about it. All right, I suppose that's a bit unfair. Any connection between such thinking and Tory attitudes to the poor was purely coincidental. The play was, after all, a condemnation of slavery. And it was all the more powerful for being based on a true story.

At the age of 12, Mende Nazer was snatched from her home in the Sudanese Nuba mountains by Murahaleen raiders. They shot one fleeing child in the back. What a waste. They could have captured and sold her. That's what they did with Mende, or Malia as she was named in the film. She was put on sale in Khartoum. Those who couldn't do their own cooking came to look. "Open your mouth," commanded a rich lady. "Stick out your tongue." The woman was so amused by the "little monkey" that she just had to, you know, buy her.

After a tour of the kitchen, telling Malia where the plates went, where the glasses went, where the knives and forks went, her new owner smiled and said: "I've built you a little house in the courtyard." It was a filthy shed with a few rags and broken boxes. But to do her justice, she had put in a bed and the dog had donated his blanket. "Say thank you," said the woman. It's good to know that there are still some people who believe in teaching children manners.

And so it went on. We saw Malia whipped with a hosepipe for daring to play with the mistress's little girl. We saw her drudgery, we saw her dispatched to London, we saw her sexually assaulted, we saw her passport taken for "safe keeping", and we saw her asked by one owner what she could possibly have to be sad about. We also saw her father's six-year search for her, we saw him come heartbreakingly close to finding her, and we saw him return, defeated, to his village.

As an exposé of slavery, the film could not be faulted. Or rather it could, but it would be petty to do so. A more pressing question is what are we expected to do with such knowledge, beyond being shocked at the brutality and inhumanity of it all? What difference will I Am Slave make to the 5,000 or so young women whose lives are being rubbed out in big houses all over London? The awful truth is that the portrayal of Mende's experience will have no effect on slave-owners beyond making them even more vigilant towards those they hold in subjection.

It's terrifying to think that there really are people who are so morally stunted that they cannot conceive of others except as a means of satisfying their needs. "You are nothing to them," says the chauffeur to Malia. "Nothing." And these people are rich. Seriously wealthy. Which begs the question, does too much money shrivel the imagination and destroy the capacity to empathise with others? Add to that the fact that viewing others as objects or, in the modern parlance, "units of resource" is an essential part of consumer capitalism and you begin to realise that slavery is just the most extreme version of an already existing condition.

Art can't reverse this process but it may give us pause for thought. Seeing a film like I Am Slave as art, though, carries dangers of its own. Take the image of the telephone. The first time Malia uses it she gets the whine of a disconnected number. The second time she is caught and punished. The third time she picks up a phone she is free. Her father is on the other end. They can barely speak. But it is a rich silence compared with the one imposed on her as a slave.

The problem is that the appreciation of art can come at the expense of the reality it depicts. I Am Slave was so beautifully crafted that you could easily end up talking about Hegel's theory of the master-slave relationship instead of the nature of slavery in the modern world. Which may or may not be better than nothing.

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