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'Global womanism' in The Jammed, directed by Dee McLachlan

Alice Burgin
posted 12 November 2007

When feminism trumps racial sensitivity the results can be a cultural jam. In a review of the recently released and incredibly controversial Melbourne film, The Jammed, David Stratton claimed that the film was in the ‘great tradition of socially conscious thrillers’, as the film broaches the relatively uncharted issue the sex trafficking industry in Australia’s urban centres.

According to Australia’s most celebrated critical film duo, Margaret and David, the film was impressive as its authenticity and ability to demonstrate ‘the fact that this is happening in this country’ and that is not ‘manufactured’ solidifies the film’s claim to truth. Similarly, at The Age, Victoria’s self-proclaimsed ‘newspaper of the year’, enfant terrible of film criticism Jim Schembri, who was instrumental in the film’s promotion, states that ‘every frame of the film breathes with authenticity’ and that the film’s strength comes from the way it ‘uses the conventions of genre as a narrative template to tell a unique, and uniquely Australian, story’. There was a criticism of the funding bodies that did not contribute to the film’s production, as well as to the film festivals that did not screen a film that ‘deserves to be seen by everyone’. Clearly, the respectability of The Jammed, championed by our country’s cultural elite, which has generated interest in the film and helped to lock in an unexpectedly successful distribution deal, derives very much from the film’s brave subject matter, its social awareness and intention to represent something that is true, that is authentic, that is happening in the very heartland of urban Australia, and that Australia needs to know about it.

Yet a paradox exists through the conflation of the role of authenticity and that of genre in film. Genre works to construct conventions based around recognisable stereotypes. Authenticity insinuates a sense of realism in the way that what is being presented on the screen is, essentially, true. To problematise the film’s claim to authenticity is not to undermine the seriousness of the situation of sex trafficking itself, but rather to question the now outdated notion that cinema is reflection of reality, a window onto a world of truth, rather than a textually mediated representation. What becomes problematic by such critical acclaim is the way in which it does not necessarily reflect how marketing a film such as The Jammed through a discourse of authenticity works to reinforce specific generic stereotypes that are then consumed as truth by its audience, especially in relation to gender, race and class.

Set in Melbourne, the film follows Ashley, described by director Dee McLachlan as ‘a normal Melbourne girl’, apolitical in nature and apathetic to concerns for anything beyond finding an appropriate husband. Through chance, Ashley is enlisted by a non-English speaking woman straight from China, Sunni, to help find Sunni’s daughter Rubi, who Sunni believes may be working as a prostitute. The film spirals into the seedy underworld of the sex trade industry, and Ashley is soon consumed by her desire to rescue Rubi from her captors. In the process, two others are introduced into the narrative, a young Chinese woman, Crystal (Emma Lung) and a young Russian woman, Vanya, both also trapped in the prostitution ring. With the help of her ex-boyfriend, Ashley manages to free the girls. In the process however, Rubi commits suicide, Crystal ends up in a detention centre and only the Russian Vanya remains free, running into the night. The mythology behind The Jammed’s creation is based around the story that the director wrote the script after reading a newspaper article about a prostitution ring of sex slaves in Kew. This is mentioned in almost all of the film’s numerous reviews, and the story’s authenticity is confirmed in its opening intertitles that tell us that it is based on a true story.

Undoubtedly, the film raises some very real concerns. It reflects upon the apathetic and apolitical nature of many Australians involved in the daily grind. It critiques the willingness to ignore the injustices inflicted upon those around us. It condemns the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in detention. And it reveals the complicity of men and women from all the echelons of society in sustaining sex slavery as an industry. But, by inscribing a notion of authenticity into the narrative through appropriations of real events, the obvious desire to present the ‘truth’ formulates specific and often damaging cultural and sexual stereotypes that breed certain hegemonic values.

What is lost in both the film-as-text as well as the extra-textual debate surrounding it is a thorough investigation into the racialised representations of women. The Jammed’s heroine Ashley becomes exemplary of a global womanism, in which the white, heterosexual Australian woman is duty bound to save non-Western women from the sex-trade industry. The problem with such representations is that it conforms to two particular stereotypes, that of the civilised, Western subject and that of the primitive victimised non-Western Other.

The film reinforces such stereotypes through its depiction of Asian cultures as maintaining inherently different values, but without any engagement with the complexities of cultural difference in an increasingly transnational milieu. This is most emphatically exemplified at the audience’s shocked realisation that Rubi’s mother, who Ashley has been helping to find her lost daughter, actually sold Rubi for money in China. Rubi’s previous scenes of emotional trauma and uncontrollable crying in her bedroom have taken on new meaning. She is crying not for her longing for home, but for her awareness that she has no home to go to. The significance of this moment is that it works to assuage any guilt about the harmful Western influences on the rest of the world. In claiming to be an authentic representation of the situation, but without engaging with a more complex understanding of the cultural, political and economic conditions within the countries concerned, nor the role of the West in shaping their economies, the film presents Sunni in such a way that only reaffirms the worst Asian stereotypes in Australia.

Whilst the film implicates White Australians as the profiteers of the sex-trade industry, most of the film’s acts of rape and violence are performed by Asian men. If white male brutality is enacted at all, it is represented solely through the acts of an uneducated lower class. White Australian masculinity is salvaged through the role of Tom, the sympathetic, on-off boyfriend of Ashley, who contributes to the ‘saving’ of the girls and confirms the dominance of both middle-class Australian values and the hetero-normative relationship structure at the film’s conclusion.

In some ways the Russian character Vanya escapes such blatant othering. Her English is better, she is spared the naivety of the Asian girls and is more successful in actively seeking to change her situation. It is Vanya who calls Ashley to tell her where the missing Rubi can be located, who allows herself to be captured in place of the others, who spitefully embarrasses the brothel owner in front of a crowd of affected bourgeoisie, and who steals back the money she is owed. But through Vanya’s ‘choice’ at the film’s end to run off into the night and assumedly to continue working the streets, the film imparts upon her a judgement of promiscuity associated with her ethnicity. Her decision to reject the wholesome life and feminist values offered by Ashley is completely unfathomable and yet, so typical.

This signifies a danger faced by films attempting to address both racial and gender issues: the tendency is that one set of values will trump all others. Namely it is issues of gender and feminism that are considered the bastions of justice itself. For many global womanists, male and female, in countries such as Australia, it is difficult to comprehend that women of different ethnicities identify racial concerns as ‘as important’ if not ‘more important’ than feminist values championed by the West. That is not to say that there is no place for feminism globally, but that feminism as white solipsism, which ignores the importance of cultural and social difference, and thus is really performing another act of Western hegemony, a kind of neo-colonialism of specific gendered values.

In films like The Jammed, whilst non-Western naivety and poor conditions can only produce dangerous situations for those who cannot take care of themselves, Western values save the day. The heroine is not the brave Crystal or the sassy Vanya, but rather the young, (a)pathetic Ashley. Yet, as Ashley becomes consumed by the story, she also becomes a product to be consumed by the film’s audience, of old and exhausted stereotypes that have continued to justify the domination of Western ways of thinking over their non-Western counterparts.

The assumption that The Jammed works as a kind of feminist critique of the real way in which society ‘transnationally’ operates at the expense of women needs to be revised. It is important that as we consider the myriad complexities involved in racial and gendered representations, and the problems of reading cinema as truth. Not to do so will not help those suffering from the remnants of transnational exchange but rather will obscure many of the important cultural differences faced by women of the non-Western world under the imperialist flag of global womanism.


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