Rough Trade: A Disturbing Drama about Women in Slavery

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), October 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rough Trade: A Disturbing Drama about Women in Slavery


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Sex Traffic (Channel 4)

When the police speedboats chase the smugglers of young girls across the Adriatic from former Yugoslavia to Italy, the smugglers have an advantage. If they throw one of their cargo overboard, the police are obliged to abandon the chase and try to save her from drowning. Nevertheless, drowning is the fate of Anya, a 16-year-old in transit to sex slavery in the west. Her death was among the opening images of Channel 4's four-hour, two-part drama Sex Traffic (14 and 21 October, 9pm). A little earlier, we had seen her being groomed by her captors, trained to say she was 17 not 16. Her induction was interrupted by a young international police officer, who had fallen in love with her and was expelled from Yugoslavia by his employers for his pains. Fortunately, he took with him a video of her grooming session, a recording he will use to vindicate claims that when the peacekeepers are not keeping the peace, they are taking a piece of the action.

I don't pretend to have got all that as I watched the first 20 minutes--some of it became clear only when I watched the story unfold in the next instalment. Sex Traffic is demanding viewing--not only because its story is deeply distressing, but because of the patchwork way in which it is told. In this instance, however, the narrative confusion, although initially irritating, is justified, because it reflects the disorientating--not to say unbelievable--scale and nature of the global sex trade.

At the centre of the drama are two extraordinary performances wrung by the director, David Yates, out of the Romanian actors Maria Popistasu and Anamaria Marinca. They play teenage sisters from a Moldovan sugar factory who believe they are travelling to the west to work legitimately. Vara is younger, more naive and more vulnerable, but it is Elena, who has an illegitimate son at home and needs money to raise him, who becomes our heroine. Although speaking in a second language, these two are such naturals as actors that it's hard not to think of them as sisters in real life.

Abi Morgan's unsentimental script leaves a lot suggested (which is more than can be said for Yates's direction, which does not hesitate to show us, quite unnecessarily, the girls topless in their bathroom). The sugar from their home town's factory is unobtrusively used as a metaphor for sweet innocence. When Morgan's dialogue does become explicit--for example, between Elena and her pimp--its brutality is all the more shocking. "What you girls don't understand," he tells her, "is you get looser. You get diseases. You end up being more trouble. How much did I pay for you? $1,200--and I'll be lucky to get $800 for you now. And your sister Vara? She's a bit younger, younger and tighter. …

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