Occasionally you come across movies that remind you what film is capable of. There’s nothing wrong with the whimsical escapism of movies like The Avengers or Jupiter Ascending, but we often forget this medium can do so much more. It can tell stories that deserve to be told, like Schindler’s List, which gave us a glimpse into the horror of the Holocaust, or awaken audiences to issues that require attention, like Hotel Rwanda‘s critique of international response to the Rwandan genocide.
While the 2007 Australian film The Jammed doesn’t take place in a war zone like the abovementioned films, its journey into the human trafficking industry handles similar themes of invisible victims and the extent of personal and cultural responsibility. It had a very limited release, shown in only fifty cinemas across Australia and New Zealand, but the issues it uncompromisingly addresses are relevant to any country in which human trafficking occurs.
The film starts from the perspective of Ashley (Veronica Sywak), an average Australian woman who accidentally crosses paths with recent arrival Sunee (Amanda Ma), who is desperately searching for her missing daughter. Ashley reluctantly becomes involved and finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into Melbourne’s seamy underbelly. Interspersed with her search is the story of Crystal (Emma Lung), a naÃ¯ve new immigrant enslaved to a Melbourne brothel.
The film is fictional only in the sense that it’s not based on one particular story. Director and screenwriter Dee McLachlan did a lot of research into human trafficking, drawing influence from court transcripts and police reports, and it shows in the film’s bleakly unrelenting realism. Most of the events take place at night or in darkened backrooms, subtly referencing the girls’ ghost-like existence. Their few journeys into the light show the stark differences between the world they’d hoped to enter when they came to Australia, and the one they actually live in. The name of the film is entirely appropriate, as these girls are effectively jammed, stuck between the ruthlessness of their captors and the indifference of the authorities.
However, McLachlan never forgets that her subjects are based on real people. One of the most admirable aspects of her work is the insistence on putting a human face on the victims. Although Ashley is initially used as an audience surrogate, it quickly becomes clear the story really belongs to Crystal and her friends Rubi (Sun Park) and Vanya (Saskia Burmeister). Their struggle is the emotional core of the film, as is their tight friendship that transcends language barriers. Burmeister was particularly riveting as the fiery Vanya, who never stops struggling to recover her agency and actually manages a moment or two of very satisfying retribution. Park and Lung don’t let down their ends either, poignantly portraying their characters’ respective despair and will to live.
If there is anything to criticise about this film, is that it is a little too grim. And yet there is simply no other way this subject could be handled and be given due justice. Plainly put, this is an industry where young people are brutally victimised. Softening the blow too far would defeat the purpose of the film. There’s no gore, but there are several scenes that are distressing to watch, and I judge no one if they choose to fast-forward or leave the room for a few minutes.
Those moments aside, this is a film that is impossible to look away from. Ashley’s self-imposed mission has superficial similarities to Taken – except that she doesn’t have ex-special forces training to call on, so her nail-biting efforts will have you on the edge of your seat. The villains are terrifying, all the more so for the banal normality with which they conduct their business, and the girls’ resilience in an impossible situation is both heartbreaking and hopeful. This isn’t a film to break out when you want to kill a couple of hours, but everyone should watch it at least once in their lifetime.