Arts & Events

Sold: A Tale of Abuse That's Difficult to Watch

Gar Smith
Friday April 15, 2016 - 02:58:00 PM

Opens April 15 at Berkeley's Elmwood Cinema

(2:00, 4:10, 7:00, 9:15)

The US-produced, India-filmed feature, Sold, is it praiseworthy project with much to recommend. It is based on a best-selling book by Patricia McCormick that has been translated into 32 languages. It is directed by Academy Award winner Jeffrey D. Brown. It has been honored at film festivals from Albuquerque to Abu Dhabi. It was executive-produced by the multi-talented British film star Emma Thompson. And the cast includes Gillian Anderson and David Arquette and stars Niyar Saikia as Lakshmi, an innocent village girl from the mountains of Nepal who is sold into bondage in a Kolkatta brothel.

The issue of human trafficking deserves the utmost attention. The story of Lakshmi's plight is clearly designed to ignite global concern. But, for this reviewer, there were some problems.




The first problem is not one that would trouble a general theater audience. It only afflicts film critics. In this case, the DVD "screener" arrived stamped with a proprietary "watermark" (a semi-transparent line of type intended to brand the product and prevent it from being copied or screened for non-press purposes). Typically, these watermarks are placed in the upper corner of the screen, where they can be quickly forgotten as the eye follows the action in mid-screen. On our screener, however, the watermark was placed smack in the middle of the frame, where remains for all 97 minutes of the film's running time. While Sold is beautifully shot and fervently acted, the presence of the watermark proved a constant and irritating visual distraction. 

Also distracting was the discovery that—contrary to expectations—the film is not subtitled. While it would not be surprising to hear the denizens of cosmopolitan Kolkatta conversing in English, it is unexpected to hear a family of poor Nepalese villagers chatting amongst themselves in English. It creates a sense of front-door artifice that is hard to shake. 

The plot gets underway during a village celebration when 13-year-old Lakshmi is approached by a worldly woman on scouting mission. She offers the dazzled girl the chance to work in the home of a "good family" in the bustling Indian capital. Lakshmi is hesitant, but her ailing father is desperate and it seems like the kind of offer that would be a "blessing." 

Lakshmi makes her mother a promise: she will earn enough money to buy the family a tin roof. (The little girl has spent her entire life living beneath a straw roof that cannot protect her family from the rain.) 

After arriving in Kolkatta, however, the young girl finds herself incarcerated in a building called "Happiness House." It is anything but—unless, of course, you happen to be one of the brothel's well-to-do male customers. 

It is an uneasy task to watch this innocent girl's reaction as a world she could never have imagined slowly begins to close in around her. Making it worse—and unrealistic from both a narrative and practical standpoint—is the manner of the house madam and the other "girls." Instead of slowly bringing the shy young child "up to speed" about what is "expected" of her, they simply dress her up, coat her face in eyeshade and lipstick, sit her on a bed, and open the door to one of their pampered male clients. 

Because (inexplicably) nobody has bothered to prepare little Lakshmi for what she is expected to endure, the situation does not go well. The frightened girl resists and actually makes a break for it, running through the crowded streets until she is captured, threatened with a knife, and dragged by the hair back to the brothel where she is beaten by the women who had pretended to be her guardians. 

It was at this point—about 20 minutes into the film—that this reviewer called it quits. I simply couldn't stomach any more scenes of this young girl being abused—not even in the name of do-good consciousness-raising. 

Even knowing that Lakshmi will eventually succeed is escaping the brothel—thanks to the intervention of two American saviors (Gillian Anderson as a photographer and David Arquette as a helpful volunteer)—I was unable to return to the film. 

Had the poor girl trapped in a life of "debt bondage" been 19, or even 16, it might have been bearable. But Niyar Saikia is barely 13. Just watching the film made me feel as though I was complicit in a form of child abuse. 

(By comparison, while the new Disney-Pixar reinvention of Jungle Book stars an even younger child facing even greater mortal dangers, the Jungle Book is clearly a CGI fantasy and we all know how it turns out. Sold is an immersion in horrific realism. And the more successful it is at presenting that reality, the harder it becomes to watch.) 

Still, the fact remains that an estimated 1 million children are victims of the $32 billion global sex-trafficking market. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years. In the US alone, as many as 300,000 underage girls are believe to be working as sex slaves. According to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, 55 percent of the world's Internet child pornography is produced in the US. 

In a press release, Jeffrey Brown explained the goal that he shares with his producer, Emma Thompson: "Our hope is that our film will foster global policy change and raise substantial funds for survivors in India, Nepal and the United States." 

Regardless of whether you see or don't see Sold, the filmmakers have provided a host of alternatives to get people engaged in addressing this global problem. Under the campaign banner of TaughtNotTrafficked, the filmmakers have joined forces with a number of leading organizations including ECPAT, Save the Children, World Vision, United Way, Rotary International, ATEST, the Walk Free Campaign, Stolen Youth, Childreach International, Innocents at Risk, Apne Aap, Shakti Samuha, and others. 

You can engage with TaughtNotTrafficked by contacting the film's Facebook website


The US Role in the Sexual Trafficking of Children 


Although reliable figures are not available, government information suggests that there are at least 100,000 children exploited through prostitution every year in the United States. While studies indicate that most child victims of exploitation in the sex industry 

are girls, there has also been an increase in the numbers of boys exploited. Runaway and homeless children, especially of Native American origin, are identified as the most vulnerable groups. However, a large number of sources and statistics on child prostitution are outdated, calling for a need to collect data on recent demographics. 

The United States is primarily a destination country for children trafficked for sexual purposes. Adult and children are trafficked from all over the world for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation; however, internal or domestic sex trafficking also occurs. 

The United States is one of the main hosts of commercial child pornography websites and more than half of the child sexual abuse images that are sold worldwide are generated from the United States. Although, the United States has instituted various programs to identify child pornography on the Internet, online "grooming" of children for exploitation remains a serious problem. 

United States citizens constitute a significant portion of international child sex tourists.