Judge Christopher Kulik was surpirsed to learn this film did not prepare him for a career as a skilled craftsman.
When human trafficking hits home…
In the Fall of 2007, few people seemed to notice the release of an extremely independent drama called Trade, which disturbingly depicts underground human trafficking networks. Given the subject matter, though, that's not much of a big surprise. While it's not one of the best films of the year, it is certainly one of the most important and chilling, as it addresses an internationally illegal practice that cannot be ignored. The film is now out on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate, and it's the perfect time for it to find a wider audience.
Facts of the Case
Trade is based on Peter Landesman's New York Times article "The Girls Next Door," and adapted by Jose Rivera, the Oscar-nominated writer of The Motorcycle Diaries. In Mexico, we encounter 17-year-old Jorge (newcomer Cesar Ramos) robbing tourists, when his 13-year-old sister Adriana (Paulina Gaitlan) is kidnapped by a group of scummy sex traffickers. While being held hostage, she watches in horror as they bring in Weronika (Alicja Bachleda-Curus, Summer Storm), a young Polish girl who they brutally beat and rape. Weronika and her passport were abducted at the airport leaving her with no form of identification and under constant threat that if she doesn't obey her young son back in Poland will be murdered.
Feeling extreme guilt over what happened to his sister, Jorge embarks on a rescue mission and quickly discovers this network of pedophiliac pimps is prepping to take her to New Jersey to be auctioned off. The sex traffickers illegally cross the border into Texas, and Jorge finds his own means of transportation by jumping into the trunk of Ray Sheridan (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), a law enforcement officer in search of his daughter. As Adriana and Weronika come to know and depend on each other emotionally, Jorge and Ray forge an unusual friendship while on the road.
While I won't reveal more of the plot, I will say that the final sequences in New Jersey made me more squeamish than most films in recent memory.
I was completely ignorant to the existence of sex traffickers, until I saw the 2005 TV movie Human Trafficking. The film is set in Europe and features Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland as immigration officials trying to put a hold on these sick lowlifes. It sounds mind-boggling that sex slavery could actually exist in this day and age, and watching Trade angered me on so many levels—-particularly when it's happening in the U.S. with not much being done to rectify it. Think about it: girls as young as three years old are being stolen, physically abused, sexually controlled, drugged up, and being sold for thousands of dollars to pedophiles and other sex traffickers who have no remorse whatsoever for human life. Families have no idea what happened to their children, and the latter are constantly warned that if they attempt to escape or do not listen to orders, violence or even death will be brought upon their loved ones. What are they supposed to do?
In 2002, an actual New Jersey home (in a peaceful community) was raided by authorities. According to Peter Landesman's article, the police described it as a "squalid, land-based equivalent of a 19th century slave ship, with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and a stash of penicillin, morning-after pills, and misoprostol, an antiulcer medication that can induce abortion." The basement was full of young girls, all "pale, exhausted, and malnourished." And this is only one house in America used as a place where girls are either auctioned off or used as sex slaves. The phenomenon may be more widespread in Europe and Mexico, however this country is catching up, with an estimated 20,000 young girls (and boys) being trafficked every year. Landesman spent several years doing research and interviewing a number of subjects before publishing his article. Trade is a dramatization that manages to visualize the complex tunnel system the sex traffickers use to carry on their business.
Director Marco Kreuzpaintner, who directed Bachleda-Curus in Summer Storm, works hard to not make the story exploitative (considering the fact it is ironically about exploitation), but is committed to showing the horrifying reality of this evil enterprise. Some of the sequences will be too much for some viewers to stomach (particularly the rape scene), and to most it may be bearable at best. Roger Ebert gave the film an extremely negative review (as did many others), and commented that Kreuzpaintner spends too much time on the road. I agree with him there. There is one extended sequence in which the girls escape from their captors which is all wrong because they don't take advantage of a perfect opportunity to go to the police. That being said, the scene immediately following packs an emotional punch I found hard to shake off.
Footnote: I found it interesting that Roland Emmerich, director of diverting disaster epics such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow was originally slated to helm the picture. His production company, Centropolis Entertainment, financed Trade but he bailed out of the project early on.
Kevin Kline is one of my favorite actors, and one of the few that seem to get even better with age. Here, he plays a physically (and mentally) exhausted retired Texas cop, searching for his daughter for years. Sheridan is convinced she was sold into sex slavery by her own mother, and thus reveals his decision to help out the determined Jorge. As with many other fine performances Kline has contributed, he isn't showy or overly dramatic, but feels effortlessly natural. Ramos is pretty good, though it took me time to actually warm up to his character. At first, I found Jorge unsympathetic because of his criminal behavior, and it predictably serves as a character trait to be acknowledged and terminated because of what happens to his sister. Bachleda-Curus and Gaitlan are both excellent as the girls, and Zack Ward (remember Scott Farkus from A Christmas Story?) is positively frightening as the contracted American coyote who drives the girls to New Jersey.
The DVD presentation of Trade has several elements that are noteworthy. The sun-baked look of the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is splendid, despite its low-budget liabilities. Viewers get the choice between two Dolby Digital Stereo tracks (5.1 and 2.0) as well as subtitles in English or Spanish. Special features begin with an audio commentary by director Marco Kreuzpaintner and producer Rosilyn Heller; sometimes it's informative and other times it's rambling, as Kreuzpaintner makes several "anec-duh-dotes." A making of documentary is essentially split into two featurettes. The first, "Chasing Shadlows," runs 20 minutes, covering pre-production and casting, alongside interviews with most of the principals involved. The second, "Paper to Print," runs eight minutes, with Landesman and Rivera talking about the writing process. We also have sixteen deleted scenes for a total of 20 minutes, all of which don't really add anything of value to the story, and I think Kreuzpaintner made a wise choice to discard them. While there is no theatrical trailer, there are previews for other releases by Lionsgate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The biggest problem with Trade is not necessarily stretching its luridness too far at times, but it does so for far too long. Some of the scenes on the road, particularly the one I mentioned earlier, could have been scrapped, and the revelation of Kline's character is all too predictable, even though his performance is a privilege to watch. In essence, its parts are better than the whole, as there is one climax too many. Rivera's script is not near as well constructed or tightened as The Motorcycle Diaries, and the denouement—-which is meant to be touching—-is practically impossible to buy. Finally, forgive me for stating the obvious, but Trade is certainly not for all tastes, as its gritty thematic material is on full display…though for understandable reasons. I would like to urge first-time viewers to rent the film before even thinking about purchasing.
The shortcomings of the script may be present, though the powerful message the film delivers is both timely and immensely pertinent. And, yet, the U.S. State's Department Advisor on Trafficking has stated: "We are not finding victims in the United States because we are not looking for them." That is mentioned in Landesman's article as well as Kreuzpaintner's film, and I think for good reason. Homeland Security and border patrols can only do so much, because they are more concerned about illegal immigration than sex slavery networks. However, this issue screams for a solution, and the fact it's now a growing reality in the U.S. makes it all the more relevant. As Thomas Jefferson said about people being treated as property: "The rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this infamous practice," the same could easily be applied to this 21st century plague or property and prostitution.
Lionsgate and Trade are hereby acquitted, and the court prays for the health and safety of all the girls still imprisoned in the sex trafficking business.
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