Thursday, September 17, 2009

VIFF Previews, Continued: Playground

I do not in any way understand the desire to have sex with, or to get off on sexualized pictures of, children.

At some point, after I moved to Japan in 1999 for my three year stay there, I quite innocently bought a couple of Japanese porn mags at a 7-11, expecting run of the mill wank material, but with Asian models. I was shocked to find that - though these were apparently widely distributed commercially produced magazines, not under-the-counter taboo stuff - there were images of girls as young as 15 inside. Unlike the adult women also in these mags, the 15 year olds - their ages were given - were not naked, but were shown, for example, cavorting on the beach in a bikini, seemingly innocent of the purposes for which they were being photographed; in fact, if they were in any way sexually aware, they were encouraged not to show it in these pictures (we ain't talkin' Traci Lords in a devil costume, here). This made the pics all the creepier, since the context made it seem that the intended audience was readers who were turned on by this very innocence, people whose sexuality connected to the utter lack of same in the kids. They sell this at a 7-11? Confronted by such images, in flipping through the magazines, I had to ask myself, Jesus, what kind of guy gets off on this kind of thing? I tried to imagine the target market for these pics, and couldn't; it was particularly unsettling in that these images apparently must have seemed normal to the average Japanese consumer of such magazines - like the "please don't molest the schoolchildren" posters you'd see at train stations now and then...

Apparently quite a few men are sexually drawn to children, tho'. Playground (official site here), Libby Spears' documentary about child sexual exploitation in America, talks to a host of people - police, lawyers, government officials, NGO workers, and both sex offenders and sex trade workers - to show that the sexual exploitation of children is widespread, not just in Cambodia or the Third World, but in North America. Some time is even spent in Vancouver, detailing the 2001 case of Michelle Brown, an 11 year old runaway from Oregon who was brought up here by three Americans to work the streets, where, after four days (during which time she was apparently drugged with acid and ecstacy and "rented" to who-knows-how-many men) she was finally brought to the attention of (rather stunned) authorities and returned to Oregon. Thus began a few years of cycling through the foster-care system, until, at 14, she ran away. Michelle's story provides a running thread through the film, as Spears and co. seek to find Michelle, and find background on her story. (One of the headlines shown in the film about the case can be traced online to a Vancouver Province news article, here).

Playground, while it will likely prove to be an important film, is by no means a perfect one. The cute Japanese animations that underscore the innocence of children seemed to me, in context - particularly since I'm quite aware the Japanese have a greater tolerance for what we regard as "child porn" - to be as creepy as hell; the music is oft-cloying and saccharine (I really don't need gentle lullaby-esque tunes as counterpoint to stories of child exploitation in order to feel the appropriate horror, thanks; in particular, the use of a singularly lachrymose Radiohead song to illustrate "Missing Children" posters had me crawling in my seat). There is, in fact - as with true crime TV, which it resembles at moments - generally too much time spent appealing to the emotions, emphasizing how horrible and sad child sexual exploitation is, something I think most people would agree with without the ample coaching. I would have preferred a film that just assumed my disagreement with the sexual exploitation of kids, and tried to educate me about it, rather than constantly reiterating how awful it is and inviting me to bond with the filmmakers in their horror and sorrow...
I have quibbles with content, too: perhaps because they're more likely to be viewed as the "victims" of sexual transactions, there's a decided emphasis on the sexual exploitation of girls, when it's my impression that there are also large numbers of boys victimized by sex offenders and/or working the streets. (Male prostitutes are mentioned in passing only once; the film prefers to have women in the "victims" corner and men in the "victimizers"). I'm also not entirely sure that the problem of sexual exploitation of children is really, as the film claims, one that transcends issues of class; it seems to me that the real demon here isn't some sweaty-palmed pedophile or predatory pimp, but poverty itself - that without a large portion of the population in North America being poor, miserable, and alienated, there would be far less problematic drug use, prostitution, and concomitant child exploitation and abuse. One final issue: the film illustrates various stories of sexually exploited kids with images of perfectly normal porn shops and strip clubs, in no way connected to the stories told or with child prostitution or kiddie porn, as if the desire of men to masturbate or look at naked women is in itself morally suspect (rather than damn-near universal, quite natural, and - outside Japan, anyhow - completely seperate from the deeply abnormal sexuality under focus here). This stock-footage level of drumming up moral indignation (porn = bad) seems at the very least lazy filmmaking, and has the unfortunate side-effect of calling into question other images in the film, such as those of young prostitutes being arrested - because who knows how old they really are; if the film is willing to show us a perfectly blameless porno shop to illustrate a story about kiddie porn, maybe this-girl-or-that shown handcuffed is really in her 20's?
On the other hand, there are interesting details and interviews throughout - especially the time spent with the late Jan Hindman, an expert on child sexual abuse who talks about, among other things, the bizarre practices of treating all sex offenders as equal, and of registering even children as sex offenders, apparently for relatively innocent horseplay. Hindman - one of the few people to try to address the problem on a cultural level - also talks about the failure of Americans - too caught up in moral sanctimony, self-delusion and righteousness - to really talk to their kids about sex or to teach them sexual respect (which she illustrates with reference to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction," pointing out how revealing it was - no pun intended - that it was Jackson who was the focus of blame, not Justin Timberlake, for the apparently culturally acceptable action of ripping Jackson's top off). When the filmmakers finally find Michelle, now living in Oakland with her own children, her story, too - when not intercut with animation or commented on with music - is compelling and worth considering: she describes in very matter-of-fact terms how her mother was a prostitute and drug user who would have sex right in front of her (Michelle tells how she was first sexually abused by one of her mother's tricks, who is shown being released from prison, serving time for an offense unrelated to his repeated ventures into child sexual abuse). Amanda Bonella (founder of SurreyGirlz), too, is singularly educational - a former sex-trade worker who is shown talking to the men attending a Vancouver "john's school," a sort of educational facility/ support group for men who have been arrested for using the services of prostitutes (tho' again, the film makes no distinction between men who are there for having done business with adult prostitutes as opposed to men who have bought underaged girls; while I don't personally approve of the purchasing of sex of any form, these seem two significantly different cans o' worms. The now-disbanded Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver has actually had fairly critical things to say about the values behind johns' schools - see here for more, and further note that though the laws concerning prostitution are very different in Canada and the USA, the film, while crossing the border repeatedly, does not mention this; it emphasizes how unfair it is that it's the woman who gets arrested in the USA, but the fact that it's done differently here is not on their radar).
One lingering question remains by the film's end: since we're talking about the sexualization of pre-pubescent and barely pubescent girls, it would have been interesting to find out whether Libby Spears is related to a certain other Spears out there. There's a streak in our culture that absolutely revels in the sexualization of teenaged girls, with figures like Britney and Madonna seeming to encourage their (mostly teenaged and female) audience to "empower" themselves by embracing a brazen and brattish sexuality, flaunting what they got. This is something briefly touched on by the film, in fact, but not made much of. If anyone knows whether the same last name is a coincidence, do please enlighten me...

2 comments:

Amanda Bonella said...

I hope that other will hear the message, it’s a complicated one and really this film is only scratching the surface. You can’t possibly understand all the dynamics going on, I can’t imagine tying to decide how to explain those lives both in an out of the child sex industry, never mind in film. Amongst the more empowered adult sex workers there’s such varying points of view, never mind the children who witness them and who deal with the ‘customers’ who prefer them to their adult counterparts. Its scary to be involved in these projects, to have an opinion based on your own experience and then to sit and watch the peanut gallery hash it out. Its just my perspective and Libby’s translation of our experiences. Someone needs to shed a light on this, I hope she won’t be the last.

ammacinn said...

Sure, I hope the film does well; it's an important issue.

A.