Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Based on a true story, this followed a young Romanian woman snatched off the streets in London and forced into prostitution in Ireland

doing money
Anca Dumitra (right) as Ana in Doing Money. Photograph: Phil Sharp/BBC/Renegade Pictures/Phil Sharp

There was only one unbelievable element in Lynsey Miller’s bleak and unforgiving film about modern slavery – that was that it was based on a true story.

Doing Money follows Ana, a twentysomething Romanian woman living in London and working as a cleaner while she studies to be a nurse, over the course of the year after she is snatched off the street by a gang of eastern-European sex traffickers. It is breathtaking how quickly and easily it is done. They threaten to harm Ana’s family – they know her mother’s name and address – if she screams or tries to escape. She is taken to Ireland and stripped of her passport, glasses and phone before being forced to “do money” in a series of brothels (doors locked, windows nailed shut) across the country. “Nobody knows where I am,” she says in a voiceover. “Not even me.”

At least until her first client arrives. “Welcome to Galway,” he says as he unbuckles his belt. He’s not sinister. He’s an ordinary man who has paid his money. Ana fights him off. “She’s mad!” he shouts in outrage. “Fine way to treat an honest customer.”

The man who snatched her off the street rapes her instead. His female partner-in-crime tells Ana that there will be no food unless she works. And so she works. The pimps charge extra for anal sex, sex without a condom and for special services, such as those for the men who want to beat up Ana in addition to raping her.

Interwoven with this unflinching portrayal of the brutality she suffers at the hands of her pimps and of ordinary men – there is a spike in business on Thursday evenings because it is when wives go late-night shopping – is the story of the police investigating and trying to prosecute those responsible. In one raid, the chance of rescue seems possible, but all the police find is evidence of a tenancy agreement and client lists in her name. Ana now has a criminal record and returns to her pimps even more vulnerable, effectively shackled to them.

A second raid is more carefully planned by a team experienced in the field of tracking and trying to prosecute modern slavers and endlessly frustrated by their lack of power. You can’t remove an adult woman from her situation without her consent and the abused women they meet are too terrified to give it. “I’m happy,” mutters the youngest of Ana’s fellow captives (delivered to the gang the day after her 18th birthday by a boyfriend who told her he was bringing her in for webcam work) as the police question their status in front of their pimp. “I’m free.”

The sketching of the police investigation and the difficulties they face is possibly done too lightly in a film that is clearly intended as agitprop. The investigators need to be more than ciphers and the law’s inadequacies and otiose requirements need to be hammered home at least as hard as the horrors the women suffer, because we are unlikely to feel the same emotional response to the former as we do to the latter.

That emotional response also allows the viewer to skim over an underpowered script and some narrative solutions that seem rather too neat to be true, even if – such is the weird way storytelling on screen works – they are. Take, for example, the local gangster who turns out to have a heart of gold and the relative ease with which Ana decides to testify against those who held her.

Vitally, however, neither of these flaws is great enough to detract from the power of and the suffering in Ana’s story. Her experience is representative of the 5 million women and girls who, we are told in a caption at the end, endured such sexual exploitation last year. The real Ana’s testimony in parliament in Belfast helped secure the passing of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act – the first new law against slavery in the UK for nearly 200 years.

I don’t like to think what this says about how far we have come in the intervening years. But one thing I like to think about even less is that, among all the women watching this programme and thinking: “There but for the grace of God,” and all the men watching aghast at this awful underbelly of the world, there will be a tiny fraction who look at the pimps or the rapists they facilitate and think: “There’s an idea …” And so the world turns.

If you suspect anyone to be a victim of human trafficking, you can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121700 (UK)

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