Human trafficking is nothing but modern day slavery. It is a multi-billion dollar crime industry where, according to The International Labor Organization estimates, 24.9 million people are deprived of their freedoms globally. What makes this even worse is that 1 in 4 of the victims are children.
Stolen is a harrowing TV drama, made in 2011 for BBC One, that focuses on the problem of child trafficking. Written by Stephen Butchard, directed by Justin Chadwick, and filmed in Manchester, the movie stars a number of very talented first-time child actors along with our own Damian Lewis. The movie received a BAFTA TV nomination for Best Single Drama in 2012.
Here is the official trailer:
Stephen Butchard tells The Telegraph how a 60-second real-life news bulletin on the radio inspired him to send an email to BBC drama department and start writing the screenplay:
“I was listening to the news on 5 Live and they had a report about an African child who had been trafficked into the country to work as a domestic slave. I thought, ‘Surely that can’t be happening in this country?’ But they said it wasn’t a one-off; it happens again and again.”
And this is exactly what Stolen brings us in its opening scene: Rosemary (Gloria Oyewumi), an 11-year old girl from Nigeria, lands at the Manchester airport. She walks out of the plane, alone, directly into an airport bathroom to do what she was instructed before she boarded the plane: She flushes away her passport. Rosemary is not traceable now.
Enters Anthony Carter (Damian Lewis). Detective Inspector (DI) Carter has recently moved to Manchester with his wife and young daughter. As a new member of the Human Trafficking Unit, Carter comes across as an idealist who tries his best to save the children trafficked into the country. The good news is there are kids the police find and protect, but then there are also kids the police find but cannot protect and, unfortunately, there are ones who completely go under the police’s radar.
A few minutes into the movie, you know DI Carter is not the typical “Damian Lewis character” in depth or complexity. He is more of a low key, if intense, character at the center holding the story together. Damian tells The Guardian that his character needs to be “undemonstrative and unshowy” because “the focus needs to on the children.” And that is what Stolen does brilliantly: The movie makes you notice the unnoticed.
Rosemary, 11, a terrified young girl from Nigeria, believes she has come to the UK to go to school. She is sold as a house servant.
Kim Pak, 15, who comes from Vietnam hidden in a container on a big ship, is imprisoned in a cannabis farm in a suburban house.
Georgie, 14, who arrives on a train from Ukraine as the happiest kid in the world with high hopes for his new life, is put to work in a sandwich factory with no pay.
The police find Rosemary a short while after her arrival in the UK. Anthony meets her. The girl is clearly terrified that “the policeman” found her. The moment Anthony realizes Rosemary had a “juju” ritual performed on her, he knows he needs to take her to a government house that would provide much needed safety for the child.
It turns out Damian visited a real-life anti-trafficking unit team as part of his preparation in bringing DI Carter to life. He shares a few details with Metro.co.uk:
“I went to a police trafficking unit and spoke to the man who set it up. Trafficking goes on all around us. There are people being trafficked in and out of the country at an alarming rate and it is difficult to bring prosecutions because they often come in with valid passports. After they arrive they are smuggled off into the shadows and face exploitation.”
And my own research shows the airlines have been urged, due to common use of air travel for human trafficking, to train staff to help spot victims of trafficking, in particular young girls being taken overseas for sexual exploitation or forced labor.
Damian also explains the Juju ritual in an interview with Telegraph:
“It’s especially hard with these African girls because they will have had ‘juju’ rituals performed on them [before the trip] to make them believe they’ll die if they don’t follow orders. These are girls who have had blood taken from them, mixed with hair cuttings and nail clippings. They’re then doused in it, and a ceremony is performed by a priest.
And they live in fear. One fact I learned was that it can take two years to break down even an adult, to re-educate her against the juju. So it’s a very complicated psychological problem and it relies on the police being able to elicit trust so they can get to the truth.”
You can read about a real-life case of trafficked girls controlled by Juju rituals here. It seems fear drives the whole process.
Rosemary is absolutely terrified. She ultimately escapes from her care house and calls a number she memorized. Her call is attended immediately by the gangmaster whose plan is to sell her to a middle class family as a house servant for now and get her back when she is old enough to work as a sex worker. Rosemary is about to become one of the many kids that go missing after being put in a care home.
The political dimension of the story, Damian tells The Guardian, was a major factor for him to take this job. He also adds that Justin Chadwick, the director, promised the movie would be visually stunning. Damian gives more details to Manchester Evening News:
“It’s not an overly grueling watch. Manchester looks beautiful and so filmic. Stunning, actually. You see what a varied and wonderful city it is…
…There’s a real spine to the story, in this ticking clock element – a man who needs to get to the bottom of the matter before these kids are lost forever in the shadows of the underworld and trafficked to places where we’ll never see them again.”
The movie, in my opinion, does a great job in showing us Anthony’s daughter Ellie symbolizing our lives and our children in parallel to the three kids whose lives have been stolen from them in different ways. Ellie has recently moved to Manchester with her parents. New life. New house. New school. Her father takes her to school and tries to make her comfortable with her life saying how nice the school building is blue, her favorite color.
While Ellie is getting used to her new life with her parents doting on her, Rosemary is learning to work as a house servant, Kim Pak is imprisoned in a cannabis farm in suburban house, and Georgie is getting beaten by his boss. While Ellie sleeps in her bed in her warm family home, we see Rosemary, Georgie and Kim Pak sleeping on the floor. Georgie looking at his mother’s picture before going to sleep is heartbreaking. They are kids exactly like Ellie. They are just not as lucky. They were born into some unfortunate circumstances that ultimately made them victims of modern day slavery.
Damian shares with Manchester Evening News:
“It reinforces how lucky we are that by accident of birth we’re born British. We’re born and raised up in a country where we condemn these things, we don’t think they are right. Other cultures don’t always have the luxury of making those choices, because of extreme hardship.
I’m a parent of two very small children. The thought of trafficking my own child to another country, knowing what it is that they might be going to, for some sort of financial recompense, however destitude and poor I am, however firm the local gangmaster has on me and my family, is unthinkable.
But this happens. Sometimes because they are naïve. ‘This man has told me this could be a great opportunity for my young girl or boy. They’ll go and get an education in England or wherever.’ And then, of course, the realities are very different.”
I agree with Damian to a large extent, but I have some reservations about this particular comment. He is absolutely right we are incredibly lucky to have been born in countries where human trafficking is a crime and that the law is enforced. That said, if everyone living in our countries really condemned what is happening underneath our noses, this criminal industry would not become a $32B a year market today.
A character in Stolen, a young woman who was brought into the UK and sold when she was a young girl, gives the best explanation when Anthony tells her about Ku-Ku, the gangmaster who smuggles young African girls into the UK and then sells them.
“It is the demand. He’s the supply. Economics.”
Can anyone contest that?
It seems Stolen has made Damian, a father of two very young children at the time, think about the problem and the scale of it quite deeply. He tells TV Times:
“If you’ve got small children, especially boys, you spend a lot of time looking up at aeroplanes, wondering where they’re going. But when I read the script and saw the sheer scale of the problem, it altered the way I looked at things.
Having children certainly gives you a heightened state of awareness. There’s a little bit of you that’s always aware of danger. Walking your kids to school is like being in a video game – there’s one road after another and you’re shouting to them, “Stop at the end of the streeeet!” But it would be a shame if one became too anxious, paranoid and neurotic and saw danger lurking around every corner.
Perhaps that’s a good place to end, though. Because, ironically, just around the next corner, there might be a young girl who has been trafficked, or has been kept locked up 24 hours in a house, surrounded by cannabis plants. I think if this film succeeds on any level, it will be in making people realize that this thing is happening all around us.”
Stolen is unfortunately not available on DVD or on any streaming service. I was able to watch it thanks to a fan who gave it to me on a memory stick. Maybe we should petition BBC to release it on DVD or on iPlayer. It is an important movie with strong potential to raise awareness about child trafficking. And on a lighter note, it is a movie in which Damian Lewis wears a legendary jacket worn by the likes of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Steve McQueen among others: Baracuta G9. No wonder we have been rooting for Damian to play Steve McQueen in a biopic for a while!
In closing, here is a 10 minute Q&A with the film’s writer Stephen Buchard, director Justin Chadwick and Damian had after a screening of the movie at a BFI screening in London in May 2011. Damian touches upon a few points I have highlighted in this article but you know it is always a pleasure to hear it from the man himself. Enjoy.