Jenny Halper on “Trade”

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Inspired by Peter Landesman’s NY Times article, “The Girls Next Door,” “Trade” exposes traffickers who lure young, naïve girls to Mexico for supposedly legit jobs, only to drug and smuggle them into the US, where they are crammed into basement brothels and kept as sex slaves.

Alicja Bachleda plays Veronica, a young Polish mother expecting to earn money to send home to her small son. When the actress flew home to Crakow, taking a break from the Mexican location shoot of “Trade,” it wasn’t easy for her to have a merry Christmas. In character and on the set, she spends most of the time suffering various levels of degradation.

Like her twelve-year-old co-captor Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), Veronica is forced to take sleep-inducing pills after she’s been raped in the back of a truck, dragged to a “whorehouse” that’s actually a vast marshland of reeds, and violently handled by the lowest trafficker in a Russian ring, a doggish man who prays frequently to the Virgin Mary.

Screenwriter Jose Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) says Veronica’s rape is the most graphic scene in the film.? It’s also among the most disturbing.

Screen sexuality isn’t something Rivera is shy about, but he, Landesman, and director Marco Kruetzpainter were adamant that this film not be titillating. “We were walking that fine line of having a sexually explicit film that wasn’t sexually titillating, (and) we wanted to make sure that whatever sex there was, was harsh,” Rivera said, describing the scene in the reeds. “You see a roll of toilet paper. You see a girl in a communion dress. To me that’s more powerful than showing any sex at all.”

Perhaps that’s why Bachleda felt comfortable exposing herself emotionally–and physically.? ? “I’m not the first actress who would get undressed,” she said.? “I’m from Poland. Poland’s a conservative country. I told Marco, in the rape scene, (it’s all right) if you see something. That’s natural.”

Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo plays Laura, the madam of a New Jersey whorehouse that looks like any upper-crust suburban home.? When we meet Laura in “Trade,” she’s calling Adriana pet names and stroking her hair. “She’s two different people,” Castillo said. “You don’t know if it’s something sexual, you don’t know what this woman is going to be doing to(Adriana). There are so many layers.”

Castillo, the daughter of one of Mexico’s most prolific actors, is best known for playing sweet, innocent heroines in Mexican telenovellas. After lamenting the former state of Mexican cinema “it got so cheesy,” she insisted she only wanted to do “good stuff.”? “Trade” is her step in the right direction.

“Playing an evil woman was a challenge and a risk,” Castillo said. “That’s what I want in my life.”

Rivera conceived of Castillo’s character while he was traveling in Mexico for research.? Landesman led him to a whorehouse run by an older prostitute who controlled the younger girls. “She scared the shit out of me,” Rivera said, pointing out that women of rank in the trafficking trade often began as sex slaves themselves.

“Some girls stayed and rose through the ranks,” he said. “One thing that works in (sex trafficking) is they get young girls to trust older girls(who convince them) ‘this is going to be good.’? That was an insidious way to control happenings.”

After years of forced drugging and being passed between disturbed but extremely wealthy deviants – girls are sold in Internet auctions at prices that would make a year of college tuition seem cheap – bonding

between slaves becomes just another link in an inescapable chain. “The girls who escape,” Rivera explained, “often rely on faith and family.”

Some are scorned by their relatives because they are no longer virgins. Others are arrested for – what else? – traipsing the illegal immigrant way across the border.

“She’s a victim,” Castillo reiterated, emphasizing that her character was probably still at the mercy of the head of a Russian trafficking ring. “She was abused by Vadim and she’s still abused by Vadim.”

The suggestion that perpetrators once were victims is a relatively new twist in the recent spate of films focused on sex trafficking.? These films, most of which were made overseas, include 2002’s “Lilja 4-ever,” directed by Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson, which follows the downward spiral of a Russian teenage girl who falls into the hands of sex slavers after her mother abandons her and, ironically, goes to America to find a better life.? In 2004 the BBC released “Sex Traffic,”

about two sisters lured into the sex slavery system.

America waited until 2005 to broadcast the miniseries “Human Trafficking,” starring Mira Sorvino as a NYPD agent investigating the deaths of young prostitutes and eventually discovering a trafficking network that extended from Kiev, where the winner of a modeling competition was selected for a so-called starry future, to Manila, where a twelve year old vacationing with her parents is snatched before their eyes.

The most recent – and perhaps most commercially viable – film to deal with sex trafficking is David Cronenberg’s harrowing “Eastern Promises,” is which the pregnancy and death of a fourteen-year-old Russian girl results from sex trafficking. That film, focusing primarily on the exploits of a Russian mobster Armin Mueller-Stahl), functions more as a thriller than a straight-out sex trade expose.? But the plot turns on excerpts from the fourteen-year-old dead girl’s diary, which also serves as the emotional center of the film.

Before working on “Trade,” neither Bachleda nor Castillo had seen other sex trafficking films.? But both had worked on? prostitution dramas–Bachleda in a German TV movie about a Macedonian sold by her father to the Turkish Mafia; Castillo as a Bolivian prostitute in the

feature “American Visa.”

Prostitution is legal in Bolivia and, in preparation for her role,

Castillo spent four months living with women like the one that she would be playing.? Being on the right side of the law didn’t make the situation any easier. “It was devastating,” she said. “They were all abused. I remember every night crying to my parents. You have to know that it’s out there – it’s not my reality and I can’t be depressed, but you can’t go ahead with your life pretending that you haven’t seen it.”

So why has it taken Hollywood so long to make a film about the sex trade? And why did Landesman’s article hit a wall of criticism when it ran in January of 2004? Trafficking, it seems, is seen as distinctly un-American. “There’s something about the nature of this business – people prefer to look away,” said Kevin Kline, who plays a cop in “Trade.” “Sex has something to do with it, (they) don’t want to talk

about it, it’s unsavory.” When Bachleda and Catskill described the unforgettable plights of the enslaved girls, even they expressed shock at America’s complicity.

“I knew it was happening in Europe, in the Middle East, but not in America. Not in the New Jersey/New York area,” Bachleda said.? “I thought, ‘this is bizarre.’ I was always considering the US the capitol

of law.”

The capitol of law will soon be screening “Trade” at the United Nations. The upcoming film “Waitresses Wanted” will shed more light on the sex trade. And as actresses like Bachleda and Castillo swap merry Christmases for painful and painfully important roles, they are given the opportunity to enhance their careers while educating the movie-going public– or at least the art house crowd–about a pressing issue that has been neglected for too long.

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now,, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.