I Am Jane Doe wastes no time throwing us into the deep, dark world of child sex trafficking. From the start, director Mary Mazzio immerses us in uncomfortable and often frightening scenarios rather than opting for a slow and gentle introduction. It’s a wise decision as no amount of sugar-coating is going to make this topic any easier to deal with.
Child sex trafficking is a much bigger issue in the US than you or I could probably have ever imagined. There are very limited statistics, due to so many young people falling out of the system and unwillingness or inability of victims to come forward. There are estimates of around 300,000 children under the age of 18 being trafficked in the US every year. I Am Jane Doe introduces three separate cases where middle-school aged girls have been victims of sex trafficking – all three girls have been recovered, though are still understandably deeply traumatized from their experiences. The specific focus of I Am Jane Doe, however, is to explore the link between classified advertising website Backpage and the thousands of adverts on their website which sell children for sex.
Narrated by Jessica Chastain, I Am Jane Doe gives us a brief history on those three girls, and how Backpage aided their pimps to easily sell them over the internet. Chastain’s involvement (also as an executive producer) gives the film more gravitas and exposure than it ordinarily would have, which can only be a good thing considering the subject matter. Chastain, along with the contributors, explains the legal loophole which means that Backpage have no responsibility for the adverts published on their site, including adverts which had sold the three girls at the heart of I Am Jane Doe. Section 230 (enacted in 1996, whilst the internet was still very much in its infancy) states that ‘No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider’. Simply, that websites which host content will not be held responsible for the information posted.
I Am Jane Doe outlines the ongoing lawsuits and court cases against various Jane Does and Backpage. Going deeper into the rabbit hole, Mazzio finds truly terrifying links and opens our eyes to a world just a few clicks away online.
A Shaky Start
The first half of I Am Jane Doe feels clunky. Mazzio intercuts very compelling testimony and less compelling still images of survivors, to create something that at times seems more like a slideshow presentation than a documentary. Interspersing these deliberately posed stills, often in black and white, breaks up the momentum of the film, taking us right out of the narrative. I found myself confused about when these photos were taken and whom they were of – which led to me focusing more on my confusion that on the actual film.
The score swamps the interviews in the first half, the rise and fall of the music is urging us to feel something for characters that we don’t yet know anything about. It feels far too busy and frantic. The interviews with the various Jane Doe’s and their families are important and vital to the rest of the documentary, but they are hampered by the incessant score. It’s very distracting.
I also found Chastain’s narration was, at times, unnecessary. I understand the appeal (and need for) a big name to be attached to the project in some way, but it almost felt as if the narration was simply parroting what we saw on screen. In the latter half, the narration seemed to be filtered out, which definitely made for a more coherent viewing experience.
The Internet vs Morality
The second part of the documentary seems almost like a different film; the pacing, music and editing all working together to create compelling package.
Detailing the court battles between Backpage, various lawyers, the mothers and the survivors talk about the metaphorical mountains they have to climb over. It’s a triumphant story, not without setbacks, that is easy to get on-board with. Though perhaps oversimplified for some, I found the analysis that Jane Doe is trying to make regarding Backpage and internet law pretty accurate. Backpage is, without a doubt, aiding and facilitating child sex trafficking and if they cannot be held accountable, then the law should be changed. It’s hard to argue with when young children are at risk, and though there is some debate about accountability (Backpage is merely hosting these adverts rather than creating them), it seems to be a very clear cut case.
This is where I Am Jane Doe excels. Any audience watching would be out of their minds to disagree with the premise that Backpage should not host child sex adverts on their website. We have Backpage as the enemy, and the mothers of the young girls as the Erin Brockovich‘s of the 21st century. They relentlessly fight their corner against a multinational corporation, which has more lawyers and smart-talking execs than they could ever dream of. Do they succeed? Well, you’ll have to watch it to find out.
Though it’s a documentary which essentially outlines a number of very long and drawn out court cases, Jane Doe never feels too explanatory or patronizing. Not every single legal term is explained and Mazzio succeeds in ensuring that the audience knows what they need to understand, but are not baffled by legal terminology.
The saving grace for I Am Jane Doe is that the narrative is so strong, and so easy for the audience to support, that even with some questionable editing and music choices – it’s still a captivating watch.
An Ongoing Story
I think it’s also important to remember that I Am Jane Doe is not a completed story. This is still happening, and families are still fighting Backpage in court. As recently as last month (May 2017), a woman in Chicago filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Backpage, after her daughter died at the hands of her Backpage buyer. She was 16. Although I Am Jane Doe doesn’t quite work in certain places, it is a significant film that deserves global recognition – if only to bring attention to the sickening realities of child trafficking.
Have you seen I Am Jane Doe? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
I Am Jane Doe is available to watch on Netflix, and has a limited screening run – for all dates, see the website here.
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