Nefarious: Merchant of Souls Critique and Alternatives

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Nefarious: Merchant of Souls Critique and Alternatives

I was recently invited to a viewing of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls at a nearby church and enthusiastically accepted the offer to watch another film about the sex trafficking industry.

Though I know more than the average joe about trafficking simply due to the fact that you can’t talk about fair trade very long without running into exploitation, I wanted to see if I could gain new insight.

The film starts with the booming, bass-heavy music one typically associates with a crime thriller…

Admittedly, the title turned me off. It sounds like a pirate horror movie. And the production value didn’t really help change my perception. The film starts with the booming, bass-heavy music one typically associates with a crime thriller, and a reenactment of a new girl being groomed for trafficking, her abuser pushing her into a dark room full of scared, crying young women.

Meanwhile, the voice-over of a “rescued” trafficking victim retells the horrors of her life imprisoned. I don’t want to make light of this: I have no doubt in my mind that her experience – and the experience of a million girls, women, boys, and men – is absolutely true. But I hoped that this over-dramatized start wasn’t setting the viewers up for the oversimplified narrative of a crime thriller. After all, this is real life.

Producer and director, Benjamin Nolot, was on a mission to discover the realities of trafficking for himself, so he went to Europe, Cambodia, Thailand, and the US to track down traffickers, the trafficked, and the people trying to change things for the better.

He discovered that trafficking at its broadest definition was simply “exploiting the vulnerable,” and that vulnerable situations ran the gamut from economic despair to childhood abuse to cultural dynamics that supported – and even endorsed – trafficking.

Though I have a few bones to pick, mostly having to do with the film’s total lack of nuance on policy and individual cultural conceptions (Here are a couple: 1. Sweden’s prostitution laws, which are held up in the film as an example of what works, have been critiqued numerous times for having the effect of driving trafficking even further underground, making it more difficult to aid victims and, 2. human trafficking is MORE than sex trafficking!), most of the data presented rang true based on what I already knew about trafficking. And it’s hard to argue with the facts.

And yet…

And yet, I couldn’t help but want to yell at Mr. Nolot as he contorted his facial muscles grotesquely, listening to the heart-wrenching statistics and personal stories: “You can do better than this!”

You see, Mr. Nolot and his ilk don’t see that they themselves exploit the exploited by juxtaposing their stories against gaudy graphics, over-dramatic reenactments, and the faces of the do-gooder men trying to “save these girls.”

“These girls'” stories are quite enough all on their own. Cut the music, cut the harsh lighting, cut the weeping. Look at them. Let them speak. They benefit from our help, sure, but they don’t need us to cry over them. They need us to be strong with them.

It is as awful as it sounds. Let that be enough.

So, if you’re thinking about watching Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, maybe watch these movies instead:

  1. Whore’s Glory – a documentary team follows prostitutes in their daily lives in several countries. Beautiful and striking in its subtlety, the story is told through the eyes and in the words of the women. (Available on Netflix.)
  2. The True Cost – a larger look at labor exploitation in the global economy. Not specifically about sex trafficking, but will provide a wider lens with which to view the issue. (Available on Netflix.)
  3. Very Young Girls – covers sex trafficking of young girls and women in New York City. (Available here.)
  4. Hot Girls Wanted – a look into the porn industry through the eyes of young women who enter voluntarily. (Available on Netflix.)
  5. The World Before Her – follows young Indian women involved in the Miss India pageant and the Hindu Nationalist party. A troubling glance at how patriarchy limits women’s choices. (Available on Netflix.)
  6. Girl Model – a documentary about Russian girls who enter modeling contests in the hopes of having a better life. (Available on Netflix.)

The movies above are about the exploitation of women, not just about trafficking. It strikes me that we can’t keep talking about the evils of trafficking if we don’t want to talk about patriarchy.

Economic inequality and corruption are worth noting, but women keep getting the short end of the stick because of entrenched ideas about our worth. We need to look at the whole problem, not just at sex. Women are conditioned to constantly be thinking about our bodies, to protect and hide them or to flatter and use them as a means to get ahead.

Men and women alike are complicit in encouraging us to objectify ourselves. Things are made worse when rapid social change, damage to infrastructure, and economic injustice run rampant. Some of us have more privilege than others, but none of us are free.

And if you want to do something about trafficking, there are a few things I can think of. 

  1. Commit now to stop buying products from sweatshops, non-fair trade chocolate and coffee, and new vehicles. The International Labour Organization estimates that 18.7 million people are labor trafficked globally. Of that, “14.2 million (68%) [are] in forced labour exploitation in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing” (Anti-Slavery International).
  2. Purchase from social enterprises that support anti-trafficking programs, such as Thistle Farms.
  3. Find local organizations committed to combating trafficking in your area and see what you can do to help. Consider donating time or money. Many communities host meetings on this topic with local law enforcement, so try to attend local events.

A final thought:

We will never change the world if we keep painting ourselves as heroes and saviors. We will never change the world by calling ourselves “change-makers.” I want to change the world, so I do my small part. Context is everything and everyone is multifaceted.

We do an injustice to all when we make blanket statements about who’s good and who’s evil. I try to see shared, equal – always equal – humanity in the face of everyone I interact with, whether they’re the exploited or the powerful. And that might not change the world, but I think we want to be seen, to be acknowledged. I believe that the more we share in that, the more humane we become. That means something.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Nat at Made in Home

    I will have to watch some of them.

  2. I'm going to check out some of those movies on Netflix. Human trafficking has been on my background radar for a while but I've been at a loss for what to do about it, other than trying to make the best purchasing decisions that I can. It recently moved to the foreground of my thoughts after watching a presentation by International Justice Mission, and I contacted a local agency that works in trying to prevent trafficking by empowering vulnerable populations (I live in South Dakota and Native American women and children are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked). I'm meeting with them this week to see how I can be of best use to them. It's easy sometimes to think about trafficking being a problem Over There, but I suspect it happens in our own back yards more than many of us realize.

  3. Thank you for this, Leah! I have heard of this film, like you, through church connections – never went to see it, but had this gut feeling that it was something I'd leave feeling a bit "used". We definitely don't need to add anything to these women's stories, as you say. I get uncomfortable when I hear people speak or see "docudramas" like this and sense that they are soliciting an emotional reaction. I wonder what that says about us as a society, though – that in order to be moved to action we first require a solicited emotional reaction? It feels…icky.

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