5 September 2007

Observations on ‘The Jammed’

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.


Patricia Church said...

You apparently are unaware of reports such as this one on Detention Centres.

"The 18-month inquiry into detention centres found sick detainees sometimes had to wait days for medical treatment and weeks to see a doctor.

The co-convener of the inquiry, Professor Linda Briskman from Curtin University in Western Australia, said the inquiry had been told of at least 10 people who had died in detention since 1999, "but people are generally speaking of more than 10 deaths".

Among the deaths detailed in the inquiry's first report was that of a Thai woman, Phuongton Simplee, who died in Villawood detention centre in 2001 of malnutrition. Despite losing a dramatic seven kilograms over just three days, management did not realise she needed hospital treatment.

Fatima Erfani, a mother of three detained on Christmas Island, died in January 2003 after being treated incorrectly. She was suffering from high blood pressure but was instead treated for a migraine and died from cerebral bleeding.

Tongan Viliami Tanginoa, who overstayed his visa, dived to his death from the top of a basketball hoop at Maribyrnong detention centre in December 2000.

Professor Briskman said yesterday details of the other deaths would be covered in the inquiry's second report next year.

The Age is aware of at least two other deaths in detention.

The report documented an attempt by a 12-year-old boy to hang himself.

A former nurse working for detention centre operator ACM told the inquiry a doctor attended Baxter detention centre five days a week but detainees could only have appointments on the day allocated for their compound. Sometimes the wait for an appointment on the "right day" could be up to three weeks, she said.

The People's Inquiry was set up by Professor Briskman and Professor Chris Goddard, director of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse at Monash University, on behalf of the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work.

It followed concern about the narrow focus of a Federal Government-appointed inquiry into the wrongful detention of the mentally ill Cornelia Rau.

The People's Inquiry, which has held public hearings around Australia and taken 200 written submissions, also found "needless cruelty" in how the detention centres were run.

Professor Briskman said former detainees, detention centre workers, visiting health workers and others reported a catalogue of petty cruelty, including people being addressed by their file number, repeatedly being woken at night for head counts, a four-month delay in posting mail to families overseas, and a lack of toilets (just two toilets for 700 people at Woomera).

The report also covered claims of beatings and humiliating actions by guards, including singing to Iraqis after a protection visa rejection: "I'm leaving on a jet plane, goin' back to see Saddam Hussein."

In his submission, Professor Goddard wrote that "detention centres generated universal mental ill-health never seen outside a psychiatric hospital"."
Even if this were not the case girls are told terrifying stories so that they fear being sent to Detention.
If they are sent back to Muslim families they are shunned at best or even killed for bringing shame on their families.
If you want further enlightenment I am able to recommend very interesting books.
'The Jammed' is much more accurate than you give it credit for.

Crritic! said...

Actually Patricia, I am aware of the reports and I've read several of them. I work on a daily basis as an advocate for people dealing with DIAC, so I am quite aware of the culture that pervades that Department.

I have to say that I accept all of your points as valid, but I don't think they invalidate my criticisms. Almost all of the circumstances you cite are allowed for in my characterisation of detention centres. I am not saying they are pleasant, or even suitable, places to put human beings. I was merely referring to the couple of seconds at the end of the film when Crystal is placed in the cell and it is dark and squalid. In my experience this is not the problem with detention centres. They are hellish places, but the hellish nature of them (usually) doesn't extend to the material environment, more often to the psychological environment. This is consistent with the case studies you cite.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe the characters in the film were Muslim. The third woman has been 'sold' by her mother to alleviate poverty. Her particular issue with return is easier to understand, as her sense of abandonement leads to her death. Still, even apart from family, it seems that Crystal would have a better chance in Thailand. The same issues also don't extend to Vanya, whose circumstances would be quite different.

I'm sure we really disagree with each other Patricia. I don't think your criticisms can be justified by what I actually wrote.

Crritic! said...

Sorry, that second-last sentence should have read "not sure".