When producers Roland Emmerich and Rosilyn Heller set out to make the film "Trade," a harrowing account of an international sex-trafficking ring, they knew there would be obstacles to overcome.
First, questions were raised about the source material for the movie: a 2004 New York Times Magazine exposé on sex trafficking whose author, Peter Landesman, found himself defending his five-month investigation from critics in the blogosphere. Next, Emmerich, best known as the director of effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters like "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," had to abandon plans to direct "Trade" because of scheduling conflicts and passed it along to a young German filmmaker named Marco Kreuzpaintner. Then there was the subject matter itself. A story of the abduction of minors, forced drug use and sexual abuse was not as easy a sell to potential investors as, say, giant alien robots bent on destroying the Earth. That is, until a certain actor signed on for the lead role of a Texas cop who goes to Mexico in search of his daughter, sold into the sex trade years earlier.
"I had a hard time getting the financing together," Emmerich recalled. "We pulled it off only because Kevin Kline came to play the role of Ray. It was tough."
On Friday, Roadside Attractions will release "Trade" in 20 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. The R-rated film, which had its premiere last week at the United Nations, shines a harsh spotlight on sex trafficking in North America.
In the movie, which was written by Jose Rivera ("The Motorcycle Diaries"), a 13-year-old girl named Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), is happily pedaling a bicycle along a Mexico City back street when she is cut off by a car and bundled into the back seat by Russian traffickers operating there. Her disappearance touches off a frantic search by her 17-year-old brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), that ultimately leads him to Ray and New Jersey, where she is destined to be auctioned off to the highest bidder on a secret Internet website.
While the U.S. State Department says about 800,000 people are trafficked worldwide every year -- primarily for sexual exploitation -- a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Washington, D.C., which plays a key role in child pornography investigations, said he was not aware of any Internet auctions to purchase such victims. The Internet, though, is used in horrific ways among pedophiles, he said, including the transmission of pictures of sexually abused children and the streaming of real-time abuse through webcams.
"A lot of people don't know this is happening and that's what this movie actually wants to do," said Emmerich, adding that he hopes audiences will come away saying, "Oh, my God, you mean this is really happening here?"
But some journalists and bloggers have raised questions about the magazine piece on which the movie is based.
While the auction of children and women forms a key plot point in the film, Daniel Radosh, who blogs about politics and pop culture at www.radosh.net, said the idea that children were being bought and sold on the Internet in America played into the public's fears that the Internet is "inherently scary."
If children in the U.S. are really being sold on the Internet, the Brooklyn-based Radosh said, why haven't we seen law enforcement go after them in a big way? "That is front page news," he said in a recent phone interview. "To put it in, almost parenthetically, in [the magazine] story about sex trafficking just seems strange to me."
Landesman concedes that the Internet auction is the one area of the film where the "journalism strays for dramatic purposes. That's not really the way it goes down," he said. "The girls who are auctioned are usually overseas. I found websites that were almost impossible to describe -- pictures of bondage and torture of young women. A lot of them are in India and Africa and are then shipped" to the winning bidders, he said.
Another scene in the film, based on the magazine piece, involves Adriana being taken into a warren of reed caves to have sex with a man who has purchased her services. Landesman said this was based on his visit to a location along the San Luis Rey riverbed near Vista in northern San Diego County. He wrote that at this site there were more than 30 room-like spaces carved into the reeds, where the girls were forced to turn 15 tricks in five hours in the mud. The film, he said, plays down the inhumanity of the situation.
Jack Shafer, editor at large at Slate.com, is also outspoken in his criticism of Landesman's findings. "I have never doubted for a moment that there are sex slaves in America," he said in a phone interview. "I think what [Landesman] did was hyperbolize and sensationalize and misrepresent what is known about sex slavery." In one of his columns for Slate, Shafer questioned the veracity of the article's claim that sex slavers hold "tens of thousands" of victims in the U.S.