In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin gnawed into the hearts and consciences of the American people. More than just an exciting tale of fugitive slaves, family ties, and spiritual awakenings, the book’s depiction of slavery generated an epiphany among ordinary Americans. This fall, a film called Trade seeks to follow in the tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and create a similar moral awakening about a different sort of slavery that still plagues us — sex slavery.
Roughly 800,000 people, — mostly girls and often minors, — are trafficked across international borders each year according to the U.S. State Department. While sex trafficking may conjure images of the rubied lights of Bangkok or a sweltering alleyway in Mexico City, thousands of people are trafficked into the United States every year and held captive as sex slaves in our country.
Trade raises hosts of salient political issues: globalization, border security, and internet privacy to name a few. Yet the most important drama it depicts is purely human. Rather than didactically lecturing about the inconvenient truths of trafficking, it uses the issue as the landscape of a story about the loss of innocence. Alicja Bachleda-Curus, who plays Veronica in the film, points out that, “It doesn’t slap you in the face and throw cold water on you like a documentary. It treats it as a drama, which gives it a great power.”
The film opens with the abductions of two young women a hemisphere apart: Adriana — a 13-year old snatched off her pink bicycle — and Veronica — tricked into the clutches of the traffickers while searching for work to support her son. The narrative arc of the story is, quite literally, a race to save Adriana’s virginity. She is slated to be auctioned off online within the week, and her wily brother Jorge struggles to reach her before her buyer claims her maidenhead. Jorge teams up with Ray, a troubled Texas cop, and races across state and national lines from a filthy warehouse in Juarez to a tree-lined suburban street in New Jersey in pursuit of his sister.
A motif of Marian imagery emphasizes the striking centrality of Adriana’s innocence. Mary appears on walls, upon the lips of penitents, and as the link that binds two kidnapped women from separate hemispheres to each other. She overshadows the film, an elevated vision of purity and femininity, juxtaposed to the dirty, teary-faced women thrown into the back of a truck to be sold like chattel at dusty truck stops.
The victims, their captors, and their avengers alike, must all come to terms with the brutal transformations that ferment in each of them as a result of the horrifying violation they suffer; not a single character finishes the film with a spotless soul. Trade delicately yet confidently manages to portray complex and flawed characters without descending into moral relativism. The film explores why a trafficker might commoditize another human person without condoning the practice.
Perhaps one of the most admirable aspects of the film’s depiction of the inherently graphic sex trade is that the film avoids being, well, sexy. The temptation for many filmmakers is to push the envelope by being “unafraid” to indulge in splattering illustrations of perversion and violence across the screen. Trade leaves the depravity to the imagination. The audience squirms in their seats though nary a nether-region flickers into any scene. Alicja affirms that this was an intentional choice, “I am very glad it isn’t in the movie. It makes it that much stronger and more focused than just playing with pictures and maybe sending the wrong message. He [Marco Kreuzpaintner, the director] tried to avoid being erotic. It’s not erotic; it’s not sexy.”
Though the visceral disgust the film engenders in the viewer is, in many ways, its greatest strength; it is its greatest weakness as well. Who wants to grab a seventy-two ounce Slurpee, bucket of popcorn, and hit the town with the wife and kids to watch a film about sobbing girls getting repeatedly raped? Keep in mind that the film earns its R-rating, and the gut-churning experience of watching the film is not for the faint of heart. Alicja furrowed her brow and told NRO, “Maybe people don’t want to go to the movies to see how bad the reality is. I’m hoping it will have the audience, because that’s what can change things.”
The reality may be ugly, but the film itself is beautiful and well worth watching. Will Americans have the stomach to face what’s inside Uncle Tom’s Harem, or will we opt for another impotent sequel at the theater? One can only hope that filmgoers overcome their defensive desire for comforting comedies and heed the film’s bold tagline — “You’ll pay for this.”