No thanks to myopic film distributors in this country, I saw ‘The Jammed’ recently at the Nova.
This very strong Australian film was comprehensively ignored by distributors and rejected by the Melbourne International Film Festival, despite being Melbourne born and bred. I hope the film’s obvious success causes the festival directors to take, as we say, “a good hard look at themselves.”
While it starts out as a social-realist style expose of an illegal trade in human beings, it edges closer to the thriller form towards its conclusion. The overlay is quite subtle, but when it locks into that set of genre conventions, it gives the story a definite shape and propels the characters towards a satisfying conclusion. It works because the marriage is so apparently natural. By the time we notice, we’re already hooked.
The performances are authentic without being showy. Emma Lung and Saskia Burmeister are especially good, showing what actors can do when they’re given material like this to work with. Veronica Sywak won’t get the same attention, but she is equally fine.
I first heard some buzz about this film when my friend Jill Johanson told me a little about it. I might be biased, but I thought Jill's costume design underlined character perfectly without calling attention to itself. A good deal is wordlessly said about the humanity of the characters when we see them sleeping in a locked room wearing Cottontails and tank top, while during working hours they get about in ridiculous leopard-print knickers and high heels.
An observation the film makes which I especially appreciated is that the brutal Dyce, the brothel owner who first makes it clear to Crystal what she is in for, is at the same time in fear of the brutality that will be meted out to him in turn if he fails. This elicits - not sympathy exactly - but understanding, which is quite an achievement.
My only quibble with the picture is that the writer hasn’t quite owned up to the story’s true nature as a thriller and allowed that to guide her to the degree that it would be helpful. I notice Writer-Director Dee MacLachlan has complained that editing sucks the life out of her scripts, and that here she shot “essentially the story I wrote. It’s almost unchanged from the first draft.” If this is a first draft, then it’s better than many other peoples’ finished scripts, but it still seemed there were many unresolved issues that sensitive editing might have ironed out despite that.
In the third act of a good thriller, the pieces of an apparently disorderly set of circumstances come together, revealing themselves to be part of an exhilarating whole. Hopefully we leave the cinema gratified that we have been fooled so thoroughly. This is the compact between audience and film-maker. If there are loose ends or if characters behave against their natural motivation for the sake of a neat story, if the pieces don’t fit together in a believable whole, we feel cheated.
In the last minutes of this film, bits of plot fall start falling off. The assertive Russian prostitute Vanya crashes a swanky exhibition opening of the woman she knows owns the illegal brothel in which she has been imprisoned. She confronts her pimp, the gallery owner’s husband, in front of the crowd, who don’t know where to look. She smashes a glass, makes a scene, begins to take her clothes off, demands her passport back. Why?
I know why the screenwriters need it – they need to show the tightening circle connecting the brothel keeper with his society wife. It’s a good and necessary idea to show how close these things are, in the movie as they are in life. But why does Vanya go there? It is simply unbelievable that she would believe her pimp has the passport on him when she couldn’t find it in his office, as indeed he doesn’t. So when he confirms this and the two women leave the gallery, we the audience are left in the dark as what purpose the previous few minutes really served.
An even more serious issue is why it is such an incipient threat to the women that they will be deported. This is mentioned repeatedly as a potential fate, and we are led to think that the characters fear it. This is perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but what I don’t understand is why the reality conforms so completely with the girls’ fears.
They have come to the country on what turned out to be false pretences, leaving their families, friends, language and culture behind. Why would they want to stay in Australia after what they’ve been through? What sort of life do they think they can lead in this country without passports or visas, hiding their identities, taking unskilled cash work? It is likely that at least some of them would end up in exploitative jobs, maybe even sex work again.
The women’s captors make it clear that if they try to escape, they will be caught by Immigration and end up in detention. I understand why and how this would be used as a threat, but what I don’t understand why the reality, once it happens to Crystal, is presented as a dark, squalid prison, just as the pimp said it would be. Unless this was meant to be a moment of pure subjectivity, but I saw no evidence that that was intended.
Certainly immigration detention is horrible. Our fearless government makes it horrible as a matter of policy, but surely it is a clean, antiseptic horror of unrelieved boredom, depression, helplessness, overcrowding and bright fluorescent lights that never turn off, not something out of Solzhenitsyn.
Having said that, when Crystal is held down and forcibly sedated at Immigration, given all that has preceded this event, the needle in the arm feels like a violation, like a rape. The moment is a suitably brutal bookend with the earlier actual rape which introduced Crystal to the world she was about to inhabit.
I don’t mean to be petty. My criticisms are not meant to outweigh the film’s obvious strengths. It is well-made, timely, and it should be seen.