The Jammed

English Title: The Jammed

Country of Origin: Australia

Director: Dee McLachlan

Producer(s): Sally Ayre-Smith, Andrea Buck, Dee McLachlan

Screenplay: Dee McLachlan

Cinematographer: Peter Falk

Art Director: Emma Wicks

Editor: Anne Carter

Runtime: 89 minutes

Genre: Crime/Thriller

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Saskia Burmeister, Andrew S. Gilbert, Emma Lung, Amanda Ma, Sun Park, Veronica Sywak

Year: 2007

Volume: Australasian

An illegal immigrant, Crystal, is interviewed by federal agents investigating the trafficking of women to Australia to work as prostitutes.  A series of flashbacks reveal that she arrived from Indonesia expecting to find work as a dancer to pay off family debts, only to be forced into working in the sex trade. Crystal’s story is intercut with that of Ashley, who, while picking up a friend from the airport, meets an old woman, Sunee, who has travelled from China in search of her missing daughter. Unwillingly at first, Ashley is drawn in to Sunee’s search. After being raped and beaten by a man who collects her at Sydney airport, Crystal is taken to Melbourne with two other women, Rubi  and Vanya, to work in a brothel run by Vic Glassman. One night, Rubi passes out in the brothel. Vic orders his henchmen to dump her ‘anywhere’, but Vanya manages to take Rubi to hospital. Vanya finds one of Sunee’s posters, and realizes that Rubi is the woman she is looking for. She telephones Ashley with the location of the brothel. Ashley discovers that the building is owned by Glassman’s wife; Ashley contacts Glassman, and arranges to buy Rubi back.  Ashley and her former boyfriend Tom secretly follow one of Glassman’s henchmen, Lai, as he transports the women from the brothel to their accommodation. Ashley distracts Lai, enabling Crystal and Rubi to escape, but Vanya is caught by Lai. The escapees are taken to a hotel, where Sunee is reunited with Rubi. Rubi is apoplectic, shouting that her mother sold her to a trafficker in Bangkok. The next morning, Crystal awakes in the room to discover Rubi has jumped to her death from the window. Crystal is taken to immigration detention, where the interview that begins the film takes place. Ashley forces her way in to the brothel to rescue Vanya. Together they go to the opening of Mrs Glassman’s art gallery. Ashley confronts Mrs Glassman, saying ‘Tell your husband Vanya wants her passport back’. Outside the gallery, Vanya gives Ashley Vic’s notebook that she has stolen from the brothel, and runs away. In the detention centre, Crystal waits to be deported.

One of the strengths of Dee McLachlan’s shocking and moving film is the extensive research undertaken in pre-production, which grounds the film in a reality of which many Australians are unaware. The film opens with a caption stating that it was inspired by court transcripts and closes with an intertitle stating that, in 2001 and 2002, two sex-trafficked victims died in Villawood Detention Centre. The film makes it clear that human trafficking and the coercion of women into prostitution are as much problems in Australia as anywhere: Project Respect, an organization that acts on behalf of trafficked sex workers, has estimated that about 1000 women are illegally brought to Australia to work as prostitutes each year. The film’s title is taken from the term used by support workers to describe how the women are ‘jammed’ between their captors and the authorities: their illegal status and often heavy indebtedness, coupled with their innate fear of authority figures and the captors’ threats to their families back home, deter them from escaping or going to the police. The latter course of action may only lead to incarceration and deportation, as it does for Crystal in The Jammed. They are also deterred from speaking out by the implied (and often real) collusion between the traffickers and the authorities. While she is held in an apartment shortly after she arrives in Australia, Crystal threatens to call the police, only to be told by her captor ‘my best friend is the police’.
The Jammed joins a growing roster of feature films and documentaries from around the world that take this sordid trade as their subject. Like Amos Gitai’s Promised Land (2004) about the trafficking of Estonian women to Israel, and Marco Kreuzpainter’s Trade (2007) about the kidnapping and sale into sex slavery in America of a young Mexican girl, but unlike higher-budgeted thrillers on the same subject like Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) or the American television miniseries Human Trafficking, there is no happy ending in The Jammed. While some of the perpetrators may face justice, the trafficked women in The Jammed die (Rubi), are incarcerated and deported (Crystal), or face an uncertain future on the street (Vanya), while the trade simply moves on. This lack of closure and avoidance of the temptation to end the film positively was a deliberate strategy by the film-makers to reflect the fact that prosecutions are rare in Australia – and successful prosecutions even more so – and laws to counter sex trafficking remain manifestly inadequate.  The inaction and ambivalence of the authorities also explains the choice of an ordinary person – office worker Ashley – to lead the investigation, rather than making the film a police procedural with a detective as a main character.
Although The Jammed marks a departure from her previous work, which includes The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo (1997) and Born Wild (aka Running Wild 1992), both of which were directed under her birth name, Duncan McLachlan, Dee McLachlan’s film is a stylishly and skilfully-executed ultra-low-budget thriller. Peter Falk’s cinematography – the film was shot on HDV – deserves special note, with many scenes taking place outside at night or in cramped spaces, each of which present challenges in lighting and framing the action. The score, by acclaimed South African composer Grant McLachlan, is hauntingly beautiful. The cast consists of largely unknown actors, who collectively are pitch-perfect. Serendipity and strong word-of-mouth helped overcome the film’s struggles with distribution, which are well-documented in interviews with director McLachlan. From a short run on a single screen in Melbourne, positive audience reaction propelled the film to a national release and widespread acclaim as one of the finest Australian films of 2007.

Author of this review: Ben Goldsmith