Man, I'm exhausted. I feel like I haven't stopped doing stuff for the last two weeks straight. Final two films were today.
First up: I Am Slave, a feature film by Gabriel Range (director of Death of a President and The Last King of Scotland). This was a tricky film, and I found myself constantly going back and forth about whether or not I liked it.
The story centres on Malia, seen in the film in two time periods -- as a twelve year-old girl growing up near the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, and in the present, as an eighteen-year-old young woman in London.
Pretty much at the beginning of the film, we see Malia arriving through the airport in London. She's entering the country to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy Sudanese family. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that she doesn't really have a choice in the matter. The family make clear to her that she's not allowed to leave or speak to anyone. She lives in a cold storage room in the house. The windows are barred; a security system sounds an alarm if she tries to sneak out at night.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Malia was separated from her parents during a raid on her village. She was taken prisoner by the armed raiders and sold into domestic slavery, first to a household in the northern part of Sudan, and six years later, sent to London to serve the cousin of her first "owner".
During those six years, her father constantly searches for his lost daughter, moving from town to town, taking odd jobs, trying to hunt her down.
The topic is not about sexual slavery, and there are no creepy overtones of sadism. The slave masters are not sympathetic, but they're (mostly) not beating her or subjecting her to petty tortures (although there are punishments when Malia disobeys them). They keep her controlled in an almost cult-like practice of keeping her afraid and removed from any kind of support structure. Strangely, that made the masters seem so much more real. You could really see how someone like that could exist and live their lives thinking that they're entitled to domestic servants that they don't have to pay.
The other major character of the film is Said, the family's chauffeur. Said appears to be an Arab man who has been living in London for a while. At first, I thought he was going to be playing the role of creepy guy who has the upper hand but he doesn't. He seems to be the only one who strikes up a friendship with Malia. At first, he doesn't know that she's forced to serve the family, but finally pieces it together. And then there's this jaw-dropping scene. Malia is talking to Said in his car. She has spent a week locked in her room in punishment, and Said asks her where she's been. This is the moment that Said understands that Malia is there against her will.
Said: "You need to go to the police. They can't do this."
Malia: "No, I can't go to the police. I need to leave this place."
Said: "Right. Get away."
Malia: "I'll contact the police when I'm free."
Said: "Now you're talking."
Malia: "I need a place that I can go to. Someplace safe."
Said: "Do you know anyone in London?"
Malia: "I know you."
Said: "Uh-huh. But do you have some place you can stay?"
Malia: "I can stay with you."
At which part, he totally starts backpedaling. He has a wife and family, see. And his place is small. And he really needs this job, and can't do anything to jeopardize that. He fully understands what's going on in that moment. But he doesn't want to risk his job.
I think it's the quotidian that really makes it so horrible. The everyday qualities of the story line. If the characters has been any more larger than life, I think I would have mentally categorized them as fictional, and the film wouldn't have had as much of an effect on me.
I found myself constantly hyper-aware of race in the film. Malia and her family are Nuba; the slave-owning families are Arab. They're all Muslim (although the film does briefly broach the topic of prejudice that I'm given to understand exists in Sudan: the prejudice toward black Muslims by the Arab population).
Nonetheless, I did keep thinking: "oh, look. Helpless black people. Evil Arabs. Hm." I'm pleased to report that no white person rode in to the rescue. In fact, I think that the only white speaking role might have been the customs official. I think I'd want to see it again to fully figure out what I think of the race dynamics of the film.
The film ended with some stats. It suggested that estimates suggest that there are 5,000 people living in domestic slavery in London. And that the Sudan might have something like 20,000. Those are pretty sobering numbers. I confess that I'm more interested in knowing how many people are like Said.