A semiotic analysis of the feature film “Holly” revealing latent Orientalism in XXIst century representations on the background of human trafficking in a globalised, post-colonial world (2011)


Abstract – page 3

Holly, film’s synopsis

1) Introduction and context – page 4

Globalisation and human trafficking

2) Literature review and theoretical framework – page 8



3) Methodology and methods – page 11

Semiology and semiotics

Time span and nature of sources

Why and how looking at a feature film

4) Findings, arguments, results – page 15

Starting points

Holly, the reality and its representation

Othering: us and the others

Symbolism: stereotypes and archetypes

Latent Orientalism: returning through the back door

5) Conclusions – page 31

6) References – page 33


Papers and reports


7) Appendixes – page 39

Thank you notes

Holly,  official film credits


This dissertation is part of a wider research on the impact that globalisation has had on human trafficking and analyses the way the issue has been portrayed in Holly, a feature film by Guy Moshe made in 2006. The intent is to reveal how Orientalist and post-colonial discourses resurface in present day representations, shaping and conditioning their language.

Holly draws its content from the stark reality of human trafficking in the 21st century. The film, based on factual evidence, attempts to construct a narrative that, through the use of a language accessible to the general public, can be a vehicle for information and a tool to raise awareness on the issue.

However, in conducting a semiotic analysis of the film, I intend to highlight a series of misunderstandings and pitfalls that seem to have plagued this like many of the feature films on the subject of human trafficking produced over the last decade, coinciding with an increased presence of the issue in the news. I trace the origin of these misunderstandings to a persisting influence, to a large extent unconscious, of post-colonialist and Orientalist discourse among westerners, irrespective of their intentions, involved in combating human trafficking. I intend to use Holly as an example of this attitude which also affects and distorts many other areas of international development.

Film is relevant as it reaches a wide international audience, contributing to shape public opinion, which in turn reflects on reactions to other issues such as illegal immigration.

International Organisations, NGOs and Government agencies have published a vast literature on HT, but these materials rarely reach the general public, both in the countries of origin and destination of victims of trafficking; film can reach where official information doesn’t, but in order to be effective it must avoid to perpetuate cultural stereotypes.

Holly, film’s synopsis

Cambodia, 2005. Patrick is an american dealer of stolen archeological artifacts living at the margins of society. He accidentally finds himself in K11, a village near the capital Phnom Penh consisting mainly of brothels offering children and young girls, mostly Vietnamese. Patrick tries to keep a distance from the world that surrounds him but ends up feeling the urge to rescue Holly, a 12 year old Vietnamese girl who was sold to one of the brothels. The film tells the story of the ambiguous relationship that develops between the two, Holly’s attempts to regain freedom, Patrick’s messy attempts to help her, the encounters with traffickers, corrupt police officers and politicians, and a sad end in a stark reality.

On the background is the realistic portrayal of contemporary South East Asia, with its extreme poverty, corruption, lack of infrastructure and education next to fast development, tourism and foreign influence.

1) Introduction and context

Globalisation and human trafficking

A foreword on human trafficking, and how it fits within the wider process of globalisation, is needed in order to understand the background against which the film is set.

One of the side effects of globalisation has been the increase in disparity within societies.

The trickle-down effect expected by the proponents of fast market liberalisation hasn’t materialised and while the overall GDP of countries has in most cases increased the benefits have been reaped by a small minority and large numbers of citizens in fast developing countries are effectively worse off now than they were before globalisation.

The combination of higher prices, urbanisation and cross border migration, larger numbers of poor and the fragmentation of communities are all factors that create a set of market conditions that are favourable to the exploitation of people, and consequently a cause in the increase of human trafficking.

While globalisation favoured and regulated the movement of goods and services between countries it hasn’t done the same for people. This inevitably causes an increase in illegal migration. (Stiglitz, 2006 – ILO 2006)

Inequality and poverty drive migration and unregulated migration offers plenty of opportunities to exploiters. Irregular migrants are among the most vulnerable people, lacking protection, legal status, family and community connections, money and in most cases knowledge and literacy. (Marshall 2001). The 1997 financial crisis that badly hit South East Asia was a direct consequence of globalisation’s mismanagement and IMF’s mistakes and unethical stance, the consequences of that crisis are still felt in the region and have caused an increase in instability, forced millions of people to move in search of better living conditions, created a fertile ground for the exploitation of vulnerable displaced individuals and consequently contributed to worsen the problem of human trafficking.

One of the problems faced by those who try to combat HT, whether it is policy maker, NGOs, law enforcement agencies or voluntary organisations, is the lack of a clear and universally accepted definition.

The United Nations define ‘trafficking in persons’ as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation’” (UN 2000).

This lack of universally accepted definitions is also one of the reasons why large multinational criminal organisations stepped so heavily in the business of human trafficking, and makes it more difficult to enforce laws even when these exist. The potential punishments are negligible compared to those related to other illegal international activities such as the drug and weapons trades, while the financial gain is comparable; moreover, drugs and weapons must be produced, bought and can be sold once only, while trafficking in human beings involves a very low initial investment, the supply is endless, the demand is high and the goods can be sold repeatedly.

I am using the terms “goods” for people which someone may find distasteful, but it is precisely because I believe effective action can be achieved if we accept that the mechanisms that define human trafficking are identical to those that define any other international trade in a globalised world and should be faced with the same pragmatic criteria. The mechanism of global supply and demand is a key cause of the problem and  globalisation’s opening up of markets, the ease of travel and communication, are determining factor.

Human Trafficking has been a constant component of our history, globalisation has simply given a new and more dramatic dimension to it, one that is far more complex than in the past.
One of the features that differentiates modern human trafficking from previous forms of slavery is that race, nationality and gender of the people being trafficked are not determining factors, while the economic reasons, which were always present, are magnified and completely defined by the globalisation of markets, thus equating the victims of trafficking to any other commodity traded internationally.

The rules governing this trade, and the methods applied by criminal organisations and individuals involved in it, are based on the same principles that govern the decisions of businesses choosing to trade in one kind of goods or services instead of another and where. The channels through which trafficking develops are also the same, and changes in international trade laws, ease of transport and communications that are peculiar of globalisation all contributed to the development of human trafficking on a global scale.

International law has changed considerably in the last 20 years to face the large-scale problems of international criminality, with particular reference to drugs and weapons, while the international law regarding human trafficking is still far from consolidated. This has had the unwanted effect of giving criminal organisations one more reason to shift their highly profitable activities from drugs and weapons to humans. (O’Connell Davidson, 2005 – Skinner, 2001 – Seabrook 2001 – Leitner, 2008)
Moreover, the increased demand for cheap labour and exotic sexual entertainment, which are also to a large extent a consequence of globalisation, have created a larger than ever market for a new kind of slaves.

Cheap disposable workforce, from industrial and agricultural production to the sex industry, from mining to war, the fast development of certain areas of the world, the shift of some production activities from the developed to the developing world, all played a dramatic role in creating the circumstances that caused an increase in human trafficking.

While there are distinctions between local small-scale trafficking, such as that described in Holly, the film used as example in this dissertation, and the work of international criminal organisations, globalisation has had an effect on both.

It is now clear that one of the negative aspects of globalisation is an increase in disparities both between countries and between individuals in those countries. The growing inequalities coupled with increasing consumerism drive migration. In South East Asia, where Holly is set, this is particularly noticeable as neighbouring countries with very porous borders have developed at a strikingly different pace in the last 20 years.  The creation of wealth and opportunities concentrated in few locations inevitably enhanced migratory movements, but, in the absence of appropriate immigration laws and intra-national agreements, a large portion of these have been illegal (Brown 2007 – Robertson 2006). Diffused poverty and low wages of public officers favour corruption (Reichel, 2005). The increase in demand for labour in the fast developing areas was also shaped by the ever growing globalisation’s need to reduce production costs; understandably this not only resulted in more people migrating to those areas but created more opportunities for exploitation. (UNICEF 2007 – RWG-CL 2002 – Keane 2006)
More people gathering in one place, mostly poor and from different countries, inevitably also increases the demand for collateral services and the problems related to them, and these always include smuggling, illegal and dangerous working conditions, debt bondage, and prostitution (ILO 2006, IOM 2007, British Embassy 2007). This also applies to areas where multinational corporations and enterprises from richer neighbouring countries have set up plants as well as areas close to military bases (Hughes 2002).

These mechanisms have been constant features of human history, the interconnectedness of the modern world simply makes them more visible and pervasive.

Just as globalisation created conditions that are favourable to exploitation and human trafficking it also offers unprecedented opportunities to devise ways to tackle these problems at their root. It has been proven that multinational corporations can be “encouraged” to take responsibility and the Business Social Responsibility that was forced on companies such as Nike is becoming more widely accepted by businesses, both wishing to avoid legal costs and to improve their public image, which then results in positive advertising (Stiglitz 2006). It is in the interest of corporations to push for better international agreements, clearer and more uniform regulation of intra-regional migration and reduction of local officials corruption. All of these would contribute to a reduction in human trafficking for work and sexual exploitation.

Holly’s story develops on the background of these enormous societal changes in the Mekong area, one of the worst affected by human trafficking.

The film is accurate in its portrayal of the situation, the places and manners in which it develops, however, the symbolic language utilised, the metaphorical references and the narration’s approach bear the mark of Orientalism and Post-colonialism. It is this symbolic language, its origins and resilient survival in modern day culture and activities that I will concentrate on, with the intention to call for the urgent need for greater alertness to what I consider to be a diminishing factor in any intervention by developed countries in developing ones.

2) Literature review and theoretical  framework


The initial part of my research referred to human trafficking and globalisation in general, in that phase I made use of books on both subjects, in an effort to detect the links between the two. I then went on to research and consult a number of reports, documents, papers by various International Organisations, Governments and NGOs dealing with all aspects of Human Trafficking in various parts of the world in the last decade.

Next I watched several TV and on-line documentaries and  feature films on HT, looking for correspondences between fiction and reality as well as observing the language used in the fictional representation of facts.

Finally I choose Holly as an ideal subject for a critique of a persisting Orientalist and Post-colonial discourse both in the representation of HT and in international development work more generally.

In order to analyse Holly’s representation of Human Trafficking I have reviewed a variety of reports and documents by various International Organisations, Governments and NGOs which referred specifically to the issue of HT in South East Asia, where the film is set.

To analyse the language and symbology employed in the film I referred to literature on Orientalism, Semiology, Psychology and Philosophy as well as made reference to literary and visual art works.

The literature referred to throughout this research belongs to three main distinct bodies:

  • A series of papers, reports and documents based on empirical data, written by activists and researches working in the field, together with a number of factual books on the subject, including a few specific reports on the actual reality and location the film depicts.
  • Books on globalisation and on human trafficking, referred to as a means to set the contextual background of the research.
  • Academic and established works on language, semiotics, Orientalism and ethnography to form the landscape of cultural reference.


The literature on both globalisation and human trafficking is vast, but too little attention has been paid so far to the relationship between the two subjects.
Because the impact of globalisation on human trafficking is a recent phenomenon this research refers to works mostly published between 1999 and 2009.
Few texts exist that mention globalisation as a determining factor in human trafficking, (Amir, 2006 – Austin, 2007 – Bales, 2004 – Bandana and Kamala, 2011 – Friman, 2007 – Moises, 2007 – Van Den Anker, 2003) and these were consulted to gain an understanding of the wider context; also, I referred to research currently under way, particularly by the International Labour Organisation which, among the international organisations, is the one that has produced the largest amount of research on the global dimension of human trafficking in its various aspects; the ILO papers deal with all geographic areas and examine the relationship between changing patterns of economic development, labour demand, population movements and more, offering informed and well documented research with a wealth of data collected over the years across all areas of the developing world, relating these to the changes occurring in the developed world.

ILO’s “Globalisation and the illicit market for human trafficking: an empirical analysis of supply and demand” (2006) is a comprehensive and objective overview of the factors that link the two issues and one of the papers used as a guideline in this research.
As with the books, many more reports and papers are being consulted but, for their local and circumscribed nature, these form part of the background research only.

Several web sites by NGOs and voluntary organisations as well as local government and international law enforcement agencies were monitored in the course of this research as they provide a constantly updated source of information, used to validate the theory being expressed in this paper.

A number of feature films are also mentioned, as they highlight the way the issue is presented to worldwide audiences, contributing to form a perception of the problem in the eyes of the general public, both informing and misleading it.

The sources for this research fall under different subject areas, and were chosen in an attempt to pinpoint the missing links and paint a picture that highlights the relationship between elements that too often are considered separately.
These subject areas include international law (Reichel, 2005), international trade agreements (Leitner, 2008), corruption at government and law enforcement level, (King, 2005) communications including internet and mobile phones, tourism and travel,  (O’Connell Davidson, 2005 – Skinner, 2001 – Seabrook 2001) changes in migration patterns, (ILO, 2006 – UN OPRS, 2001) immigration policies (IOM, 2003 – European Commission, 2004 – McGill 2003), organised crime, international corporations policies (RWG-CL, 2002 – ILO, 2006 – Van Den Anker, 2003 – Cameron 2007).
A number or reports and papers directly related to the issue and geographic area that constitute the core of Holly’s subject were used as a reference and as a way to cross-examine the film’s factual accuracy.

The historical background and context inevitably make specific reference to the seminal “Orientalism” by E. Said but also 19th century literature, especially P. Loti’s work and his portrayal of the exotic and the Orient.

Loti is one among many authors who contributed to the creation of a collective imaginary Orient in the unconscious of the west, but he is peculiar and doubly representative as he was a novelist and travel writer but also an officer in the French navy, as such he was deployed to most of the French colonies; this first hand experience as both cultural and military coloniser resulted in several successful books that were based on the author’s voyages. This placed him in a privileged position of active contributor to the actual implementation of colonialism and to the depiction of exotic places through a narrative language. Reading Loti’s novels and travel books today, in the light of Orientalist discourse and with the knowledge of colonialism’s history, is a useful retrospective experience, one that allows tracing the origin of many preconceived ideas that are still in wide circulation, often unquestioned.

J. Stiglitz’s books are referred to for an overview on the mechanisms of globalisation and the impact that these had on developing countries, socially, economically and politically. Stiglitz’s books are extremely useful as they are comprehensive, contextualised and clear. Despite being profoundly opinionated, Stiglitz’s work is also remarkably objective, attempting to contextualise and connect all elements needed for a comprehension of very complex mechanisms.

Barthes, Eco, Foucault, Hall, Jung and Kristeva inform the observations on language and symbolic representation, essential to give meaning to the narrative expedients used in the film. Finally Levi-Strauss’ thoughts of ethnography were also taken into account.

Several other texts, dealing with specific or local issues and case studies, were used to gain a better insight, but not necessarily quoted.

3) Methodology and methods

Semiology and semiotics

When Saussure first defined semiology at the beginning of the 20th century cinema was in its infancy, but semiology seems designed for film analysis and it became a powerful analytical tool, especially with the structuralist semiotic approach developed later, primarily by Barthes (1964, 1970) in the 60‘s. Semiotic methods make analysing the multilayered language of film a fruitful way to reveal the complex interrelation of the audio, visual and literary signs and symbols that combine to make a film.

Eco (1967, 1975) puts it simply, saying that semiotics is concerned with everything that can be identified as a sign, while Kristeva (1980), following in the steps of Lacan, digs deeper in the hidden meaning of signs and the unconscious representations that give them power and make them meaningful to the audiences. It is this less than obvious meaning that I am looking for in my  deconstruction of Holly, what its signs stand for and how their hidden meaning may be more powerful than the intended literal one, unwittingly becoming ideologically encoded, as Hall (1997) would have said, thus perpetuating the status quo of cultural hegemony.

A semiotic analysis of Holly is particularly useful as the film offers a catalogue of stereotypes that are recurrently used in all forms of narration, visual and literary, and a set of attitudes that are representative of much of developed countries’ intervention in the solution of problems in developing countries.

In these interventions I read the traces of Orientalist and Post-Colonial discourses that survive like a lasting trail and aren’t debated enough.

Holly is peculiar in as much as it combines two almost opposite approaches, one which I assume was purposeful and the other unconscious. Holly, in the words of its authors, was intended as an attempt to contribute to the solution of a real problem and it does so translating in a narrative form facts that are correct and competently illustrated, as confirmed by the comparison I made with the various research works on the issue in that geographic area. At the same time it uses metaphors and symbols that are unwittingly patronising and informed by a set of preconceived ideas. Analysing the structure and meaning of the film, identifying the signs and symbols that were used by its authors, will facilitate highlighting these elements.

By placing side by side the film’s quasi-documentary illustration of the facts and the narrative expedients employed to tell the story I aim to highlight the pitfalls of the film as representative of a more general bias in western intervention, motivated and shaped by the inheritance of centuries of representation of the Orient. I also want to underline that a revision of our attitude in analysing issues and deciding the best course of action is long overdue if we truly intend to contribute to positive change.

Time span and nature of sources

I have limited the choice of my references to research that has taken place within a defined timespan (1999-2009) and then further narrowed the selection to works that illustrate similar cases and situations in the part of the world where the film is set and roughly coincide with the time when the film in question was researched and produced, so to make the reference data coincide as much as possible with its fictional representation.
The empirical data is used as a reference in analysing the feature film and measuring its value as conveyor of realistic information and its potential use as tool for raising the public’s awareness.
To achieve this result the fictional narration was run in parallel to the empirical findings, looking for correspondence between fact and fiction.
For the background research I made an effort in finding a balanced number of comparable sources of information regarding all areas of the world as I believe that despite the obvious local variations the key elements defining HT are truly global.
Research from well established International Organisations, official governments’ agencies and NGOs has been corroborated with findings from smaller charities and local organisations, all of which contribute to strengthen the hypothesis of a direct link between globalisation and human trafficking.

Given the variety of sources and the need to compare fiction with factual information the research was developed in distinct stages:

  • background readings to paint the overall landscape
  • watching a series of TV documentaries and reading papers and reports on specific components of the wider issue
  • watching a series of feature films and choosing Holly as representative of aspects of the western perception of human trafficking in a global context
  • analysing the readings and finding further relevant and more detailed reports, statistical data and papers
  • watching the selected film again evaluating its factual credibility, effectiveness in portraying the subject and identifying the key elements that I intend to relate to the Orientalist/post-colonial bias
  • relating these key elements to the readings and documentaries

Why and how looking at a feature film

Holly was chosen as a striking example of a widespread cultural bias, in the knowledge that the authors were committed to positive action, which is demonstrated by their parallel activities such as the production of two documentaries on the subject, made with great difficulties and at considerable personal risk. They also launched the K11 initiative, a project intended to raise awareness on the issue of HT in South East Asia, named after the infamous red light district at Svay Pak, 11 Km north of  Phnom Penh, Cambodia where the film is set. This integrity of intentions underlines how even the most sincere efforts in this area can be biased by a substrata of preconceptions that are ingrained in our unconscious as a result of centuries of cultural Eurocentrism.

A recurrent character in the narrative of feature films on human trafficking is the saviour as white, usually troubled or with a murky past, whose conscience is awakened to the other’s suffering. This is the case in Holly, where Patrick, a young American living off illicit activities at the margins of Cambodian society, gets sucked in a situation beyond his control trying to “rescue” one of the girls in a brothel. The examples of this kind of established icon abound in recent years’ movies, and it’s worth mentioning a few: in Blood Diamond it is the remorseless smuggler who rescues the child soldiers and slave miners sacrificing his own life in a final act of redemption. In Three Seasons it is the Vietnam veteran who goes back looking for his forgotten daughter who works as a prostitute. In Human Trafficking is the white police officer, herself victim of abuse in the past, who fights against corruption and a failing system to rescue the sex slaves traded in the US, aided in her effort by other good willing white anti-heroes in other parts of the world. In Sex Trafficking is the young white NGO worker who defies criminals and a corrupt system of international security agencies to rescue the sex slaves traded into the UK. In Trade it is the disillusioned police officer who finds it in his heart to help a poor Mexican thief who illegally entered the US trying to rescue his abducted sister.

Several cultural symbols surface between the lines of these representations and appear to have shaped them. These can be retraced to a whole array of post-colonial and Orientalist concepts that have become embedded in the western world’s psyche. This acknowledgement doesn’t question the honest intentions of the makers, nor it is to say that it renders the informative role of the films void, however, I wish to draw attention to these factors that I believe often taint even the best intentioned efforts of those involved in combating issues of this nature, including the work of volunteers and many organisations.

There is an undeniable voyeuristic element which permeates this like most feature films, especially where sexual exploitation forms the narration’s background; it is an element that causes an uneasy feeling in the viewer and yet it’s proven to work from the point of view of audience appeal. Most authors are aware of this and consciously use it as a justified means to achieve the goal of spreading information and making it reach audiences that aren’t likely to watch documentaries or read official reports. Holly’s authors have been more careful and discreet than average in avoiding any graphic depiction of sex in the film and resisting the temptation to exploit its commercial value in terms of audience appeal, yet the enormous seductive power of the Oriental woman in the psyche of the western man is always just around the corner.

The established system of symbols (as Barthes would call it) informs decisions and actions, rendering us blind to realities that do not conform to our projected images. Analysing these elements of the discourse highlights some weaknesses that diminish the value of otherwise valuable efforts. This applies to Holly too, where the symbolic language used is very well established and conforming to an acquired vocabulary.

Foucault (1966) calls for the need of a “perpetual principle of dissatisfaction” in human science, and specifically referring to ethnology warns of the danger of analysing findings in a mirror-like fashion, expecting to find confirmation of one’s own culture in the diversity of the other, ignoring the cause and effect interrelation between cultures. In Holly effectively these mirrors are blind and the cultures facing each other don’t find a way of relating, at times clashing, at others sliding side by side.

Under the contingent pressure of urgent action, there is insufficient debate among the international development community about the overarching influence of Orientalist and post-colonial perceptions informing both the actions of activists and the formatting of public information, including films. This often subtly shapes attitudes as well as policies, resulting in less than optimal response to the real needs. This is particularly evident in the policies regarding illegal immigration, and too often results in the victims of trafficking being prosecuted as illegal immigrants rather than helped as victims of heinous crime. The perpetual principle of dissatisfaction would thus be useful in keeping the level of critical alertness high.

It is this insufficient debate that I want to draw attention to, in the belief that long lasting positive intervention requires a deeper and less biased understanding of the social and cultural causes behind human trafficking and its relationship with the process of globalisation. It is a kind of understanding that would allow for a more focussed and effective action, on this issue as well as many other in the realm of international development and cooperation.

Filmmakers, like all other narrators, factual or fictional, would gain from applying this principle of “perpetual dissatisfaction” to their work, aiming to achieve a higher degree of self-awareness and critical ability. Because of their privileged position as influencers of public opinion, and because they talk directly to the emotions and unconscious of the audience, filmmakers are doubly important and influential, hence they carry a great responsibility.

In many of the official policies as well as in the attitude of the general public we can detect a mix of hypocritical Christian charitable spirit and white superiority ideology that borders on racism, and these elements are present in Holly too.

An early example of this attitude is the 1870 ordinance by the Sate of California: An Act to prevent the kidnapping and importation of Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese females, for criminal or demoralizing purposes. (State of California, 1870)
From the days of this ordinance the language used in policy, public information and fiction hasn’t changed enough.

4) Findings, arguments, results

I am looking at Holly and how it translates into filmic fiction a series of facts, some of which are real some are a representation of factual data, and how the fiction succeeds in portraying reality in a way that is understandable by the general  public; in doing so I analyse the symbolic representations and metaphorical language used in the film and relate them to the Orientalist bias.

Starting points

Demand and supply: without demand for cheap goods and services there wouldn’t be a reason for trafficking. Film can make people in the west more aware of the fact that trafficking exists in great measure because of our way of life and demand for cheap goods and services; equally, film can alert people in source countries of the risks and realities of illegal migration.

The amount of good quality information on HT that has been produced and made available in the last decade is vast, however, hardly any of it reaches the general public and when it does it is too often presented in a language that is not adequate. It is essential to improve the level and kind of information reaching the public in the countries of destination as much as in the countries of origin of victims of trafficking and feature films can be useful in this respect.

At the same time relating globalisation and human trafficking is equally crucial in developed and developing countries for a better understanding of the issues and, consequently, a more effective action to initiate improvement.

People in developed countries have grown accustomed to the availability of cheap goods, from electronics to garments, to food and goods from around the globe, to easy and affordable world wide travel, exotic entertainment and a series of privileges that, under the current circumstances, can only exist at the price of various forms of exploitation of millions of people in developing countries. Migration, often illegal, between countries is also a direct consequence of these needs. All of these factors contribute to human trafficking, creating a large demand for cheap or free labour.

A better information of the public could result in pressure being put on governments to implement more effective policies regarding labour and immigration laws, as it was the case when consumers forced some multinational corporations to improve the working conditions of their employees in developing countries.
In these countries people are easy prey to exploiters of various kinds, from middlemen to traffickers who can convince families to let their children go abroad in search of a better future, working in the factories producing goods for the developed countries, or tricking families into debts that can only be repaid by selling or “lending” some of their children. Many fall prey to fake job offers or smugglers who help them migrate illegally. The variations are infinite, and a better understanding of the realities of work, migration and exploitation would reduce the risks of people becoming victims of trafficking because of their ignorance. Many NGOs and voluntary organisations as well as some government agencies, do a great job at trying to distribute information among people, and here is where feature films could be effectively used as information tools.

The emotional impact Holly has on the audiences does achieve its intended goal of making people think about the issue of human trafficking, however, the film doesn’t make direct reference to causes and socio-economic factors, as it concentrates on Holly and Patrick’s personal stories leaving the reasons behind the depicted reality unaddressed; also, it tells the story employing a language that contributes to perpetuate a series of counterproductive stereotypes.
Save the Children (UK) acknowledges that after years of projects run in South East Asia “there remains an overall lack of understanding regarding their (migrant children) realities, needs and the possibilities for action towards improving their lives.” and “Migrant children and youth come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, speak a variety of languages and dialects and live in tentative and often insecure environments. Their voices and perspectives are easily lost in traditional research models often developed in a framework, culture and language that are foreign to them.” (Save the Children 2001 – 2007). This aptly describe Holly’s context.

Holly, the reality and its representation

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is sandwiched between fast-developing and much wealthier Thailand and Vietnam, and not yet recovered from the horrors of the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge genocide of the 70s.

The country presents a catalogue of the worse consequences of colonisation first and globalisation later. After the end of the French colonial period Cambodia was embroiled in the Vietnam war, subjected to external pressures by the US, Russia and China, suffered one of the worst internal genocides of modern history, was caught in the process of globalisation while still in a state of civil war and without having neither the resources nor the infrastructure or intellectual manpower to take advantage of it (it is important to remember that Pol Pot systematically exterminated educated and skilled Cambodians).

On this devastated backdrop the film tells the story of Holly, a 12 year old Vietnamese girl sold to traffickers by her impoverished family. She ends up as a sex slave, particularly valuable as still a virgin, in one of the many brothels in K11, and when she manages to escape she is found by a police officer sells her on to another brothel.

K 11 is an infamous small ramshackle settlement 11 km north of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. K11 is mainly inhabited by Vietnamese, mostly surviving on brothels used both by Cambodian and westerners, often going there specifically because the location is known for the availability of children forced into prostitution.

Holly’s story is that of thousands of children in that part of the world, where intra-regional trafficking is rife. According to most official agencies around a third of human trafficking, for labour and prostitution, takes place within or from South East Asia (Child Wise, 2007 – UNICEF, 2007 – Marshall, 2001 – Robertson, 2006). The film’s references are correct, to the point of having been filmed in the actual locations, to great risk for the people involved. It also correctly suggests that the trafficking in that geographical area isn’t to the exclusive benefit of western customers, as it is often believed, but a local market exists and preconceptions and forms of racism between local ethnicities and nationalities are at play too (Brown, 2001).
It is in this realistic and factually correct context that the stereotypes employed in the narration become more obvious and striking, thus worthy of notice.

Patrick is American and makes a living in Cambodia with small time smuggling of stolen archeological artifacts, effectively being accomplice in the stealing of local history and culture. The rest of the time Patrick plays cards, being regularly stripped by the locals.

His illegal activity is very marginal in the story, it’s almost an irrelevance, while the cheating at cards by the local players is immediately perceived as the inevitable attitude of taking advantage of the foreigner, and potentially threatening.

There is a symbolic analogy between this remorseless stripping the country of its art, culture, history and identity and the exploitation of the children and women in the brothels, the same violation and thievery that has continued for centuries. Yet there is a distinct difference in the way the local “bad ones” from the smugglers of archaeological items to the traffickers and brothel owners, and the westerners, such as those who purchase the items or the girls’ services, are portrayed. It’s a subtle difference, but we can’t help feeling that there is no possibility of redemption for the locals, we perceive them as inherently evil, while the white ones have either a chance of redemption or a range of potential motivations, if not excuses.

Patrick’s character is shouldered and counter-balanced by three other white figures:

Freddie, the dodgy dealer of stolen art and antiques, doted of a good heart but cynically aware of reality and trying to negotiate a compromise with it, always ready to come to the rescue of Patrick the dreamer as his guardian angel.

Marie, the international organisation activist dealing with the rescue and rehabilitation of victims of trafficking, she is realist and eager to make a difference, however, Marie personifies the activists who diligently go to the rescue and unwittingly end up behaving in a patronising, almost zealously missionary way.

Klaus, who is a European attorney and has a 14 years old daughter, yet doesn’t find visiting the brothels and sleeping with young girls neither contradictory nor reproachable, in the knowledge that these “others” aren’t like “us”.

This quadrumvirate well represents a real range of western presences in the Orient, all in their own ways read the Orient and its people trough the dictionary of Orientalist thought. (Said, 1978).

On the “black side” the film gives us:

Holly, the 12 years old Vietnamese girl who, while being the focus of the film, has no voice, we are not given means to understand who she is, what she wants. Swept away by the tide of events she keeps trying to be seen and heard, she shows greater resilience than anyone else in the film, yet at every step she seems doomed to failure unless she receives help from the white saviours (who eventually fail her in different ways).

The other characters are all locals, all carry negative connotations and are practically voiceless. They are presented as a cohort of mindless, sleazy, shrewd and indifferent individuals. They are to be fought, tamed, avoided, taught, protected.. never engaged with as individuals. These include the traffickers, brothel owners and the girls.

The policeman who finds the fugitive Holly pretends to help her, but sells her instead to another brothel, thus confirming yet again the innate deviousness of the Orientals and their endemic inclination to corruption.

Othering: us and the others

Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (1955) and La Pensée sauvage (1962) questions his own interpretation of the “others” after realising how even scientific analysis can’t achieve total objectiveness, he was ringing an alarm bell calling for a more critical analysis, for an awareness of the fact that we are the result of a cultural construct, and that informs our reading of the reality that we observe.

It is this questioning that is lacking in Holly and in general in western interaction with the developing world’s problems, a large portion of which are after all the developed world’s responsibility.

Patrick somehow exemplifies a need to make amends for the wrongs of the past, but he does so in a way that is blind to the contemporary reality and its extended roots as well as being unaware of the bias driving his actions.

Throughout the film we can observe, seeping through the seams of the narration, elements that are disturbingly paternalistic and patronising. Despite her being the focus of the film, we rarely hear Holly’s voice and opinion, she is a victim and unable to express herself coherently, and when she tries she isn’t given a chance. No attempt is made to even involve Holly in the process of redirecting her destiny. The fragments of opinion that Holly is allowed to utter are at the same time hopeless and resigned, yet despite her age and condition her actions are more real and adequate than Patrick’s, as if hardship would confer a more pragmatic and adult tone to this child than to that of the grown Westerners.

This Oriental child forced into adulthood next to this childish western adults may be revealing of one of the many “inferiority complexes” that likely triggered the creation of an Orientalist body of thought, translating the realistic non romanticised attitude into a symptom of infantilism and primitivism.

There is a part of the film that presents us, in the space of a few minutes, with a catalogue of striking and revealing stereotypes.

Patrick has managed to find Holly who has escaped by her own means, they are hiding away while he tries to figure out what the best course of action is. The traffickers are on their heels and they can’t go to the police as these are in league with the criminals. They can’t seek help from embassies or other official agencies as Holly is, in legal terms, an illicit Vietnamese immigrant in Cambodia. Patrick fumbles with ill conceived and unrealistic plans while taking paternal care of the girl.
Holly’s best idea, and potentially the only workable, if unpalatable, solution is for Patrick to buy her.

Instead Patrick takes Holly to the rescue centre where Marie works.
Here Holly is excluded from the conversation the two have about her future, she is actually sent out of the room while the two talk about what to do for her.
Marie opens Patrick’s eyes to the harsh reality and convinces him that the only solution is for him to disappear, thus avoiding all responsibility and the retaliation of the traffickers, and leave Holly in the care of the rescue centre where she will be protected and re-habilitated.

Patrick goes and Marie takes care of Holly, she gives her a room and takes her to meet the other resident girls, who are learning traditional Cambodian dance wearing traditional costumes as part of their rehabilitation process and, presumably as much as paradoxically, as a way to learn useful skills for their reintegration in society. This ad-hoc reconstruction of a local, Oriental identity which is possibly more real for the westerners than it is for the local girls, looks like a strikingly visible signal of a projected image of the Orient.

At all stages there is no engagement with Holly as a sentient human being, care is bestowed upon her, choices are made on her behalf, her opinion is never sought; in the best tradition of western thought the local isn’t deemed capable of self-determination. This re-enacts the colonialist assumption whereby peoples from different geographic areas, with distinctly diverse cultures, were all redefined in a homogeneous exotic “other” resulting in a systematic erasure of individual identity.

There is also no engagement with the local reality, no attempt to understand the causes behind the issue. Freddie tries to explain Patrick that “saving” one girl isn’t going to make the least difference, she will simply be replaced by another one, and Holly herself tells Patrick that she doesn’t want to be rescued, at least not that way, as she fears the traffickers will simply go back to her village and take her younger sister as a compensation for their business loss. Again, we are made to believe that the only salvation can come as a gift from the unquestionably superior westerners.

We should also question what is the substantial difference between the positions exemplified by Klaus and Patrick.

Klaus represents the stereotypical white westerner travelling to the Orient in search for exotic sexual satisfaction; he sleeps with brothel’s girls the age of his daughter while Patrick is outraged by what he sees and feels the urge to rescue Holly. Both act from their privileged position of ‘superior’ beings who have the power to decide and control the life of the ‘inferior’ others. Neither question where their beliefs come from, both fail to consider the will of the people they interact with.

In some respect we can see more coherence in Klaus’ actions, as he does not hide behind morals nor finds excuses for himself, he is not looking for redemption, for himself nor for the girls whose company he buys, his position is amoral rather than immoral.

Patrick, with his indecision and bewilderment, personifies the sense of loss that characterises those who are caught in between, unaware of either the reality that surrounds them and the cultural construct that has shaped their actions. It also represents the failure of the western attempt to appropriate the East, to frame and cage a world that is as desirable as (or because) it is distant. While Klaus and Patrick are free to act and decide, the Orientals are mere instruments, victims, each playing a part they haven’t chosen, deserving to be rescued or punished, controlled or used, in any case denied independence of thought and choice.

In the course of my research I have also come across a large number of blogs and on-line travel references where people who have visited K11 exchange information.

The language used in these websites is all the more upsetting as generally the tone is totally matter of fact; the authors of the various entries review the best brothels and the availability of children the same way they talk abut the best bars, clubs and restaurants, what hotels to avoid and other conventional travel tips. This uniformly relaxed attitude reveals that the children are perceived by these western men just like any of the local commodities to be perused. This is symptomatic of the de-humanisation of the “other” that is almost taken for granted by many westerners, it is an attitude that does not differ from what enabled “good christians” to trade slaves for centuries without feeling guilt, as these weren’t considered quite human. One of the disturbing elements is that there is no malice, contempt, no apparent sense of guilt or the least sign of awareness of the situation being in any way wrong. These people praise the services of child prostitutes using the same language they use to commend the eagerness of waiters or efficiency of hotel personnel.
These blogs and sites would be worthy of a study on its own, as they vividly illustrate a very diffused attitude and deeply rooted conceptions; a semiotic analysis of their language would be most appropriate and revealing.

Symbolism: stereotypes and archetypes

Jung examines in detail the relevance of ancient myths and symbology in modern man, a relevance that western culture doesn’t allow and consequently resurfaces in all manners of distorted and psychotic behaviour. He talks about the “civilised consciousness” having grown progressively apart from human instincts, thus exerting an even more powerful drive on our psyche, making us at the same time despise and envy those “less civilised” people who can afford a greater proximity to our amoral and instinctive nature. (Jung 1964)

All along the development of Holly’s story there are not-too-subtle hints to the stereotype of the good white christian who can’t resist the temptation to help, such as when Patrick repeatedly offers food to the girl, altruistically, without expecting anything in return; when he lifts her up to help her reach for cherries on the tree, a symbolic elevating act; or when, in the midst of a dramatic situation, he finds the time to teach her to ride a scooter, a symbolic gift of knowledge and skills. All of these may appear as totally legitimate and minor elements, but they seem to reveal the indelible mark of western attitude. It is also interesting to note that these attentions aren’t requested, Holly doesn’t ask for help, Patrick feels he has to help, as if despite his outcast status he still is the one who is in a superior position.
The film’s narration constantly recurs to recognisable iconic representations and structural expedients, a familiar range traceable to literary tradition, including fairy tales, such as the scooter in place of the knight’s horse, the hut instead of the tower’s dungeon, the bar replacing the harem, the travelling through the night streets of the dangerous city instead of the quest through dark forests and valleys.
Scattered throughout the film are little but significant and revealing moments; at one point Holly insists in wanting to wash Patrick’s shirt.

We are given to understand that he is genuinely not trying to take advantage of the girl in any sense, at the same time, while he struggles to think of solutions she does wash his shirt, in an act that we can’t but read as a mix of submission, gratitude, servitude and dependency.

The collateral characters too belong to an established cast we are all familiar with, almost like in a modern Robin Hood story the villains are the powerful politician, the head of the police, the police officers, while the commoners look on without intervening, too coward to take sides.

Patrick is the white knight, fundamentally the same character glorified in countless movies and demystified in animated guise by Shrek, the famous good ogre. He goes on a quest, he is an anti-hero, he has to face his own ghosts and finds strength and courage in rescuing Holly, the innocent victim of harsh circumstances in a black and white world where the roles of good and evil are clearly defined and allocated.

Apart from the three “positive” white characters, everyone around Holly seems either devoid of any morals and conscience (according to western models of morals and conscience that is) or downright shrewd and cruel, and in their characterisation again we can read stereotypes of figures from the European literary tradition.

From the traffickers (the fiery dragons) to the madams running the brothels (the sly witches), from the policemen (the remorseless sheriff and his dumb janissaries) to the politician (the cruel prince), there doesn’t seem to be a hint of potential good, while the roles are unquestionably predictable.

Even the other girls, victims themselves of Holly’s same fate, have hardened and seem to play the game, almost accomplices in it. One is subtly given the impression that it is the nature of these “others” that makes them so indifferent to suffering, so incapable of seeing what to the western eye appears as blatantly unjust and unacceptable. The girls are acknowledged as victims, yet they appear as sexual seductresses (the mermaids), one of the most powerful stereotypes in the psyche of the western man and the subject of countless western paintings and photographs.

The one among them who shows some concern for Holly’s fate and some understanding is nevertheless ready to give herself to Patrick, seeing him as a potential saviour and worthy of trust, in a world where no one can be trusted.

This all fits with what Mohanty refers to as a long tradition of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Mohanty, 1991)

The film is set in the Orient and populated by Orientals, yet the place and the people nearly cease to exist, they become barely visible extras in the background of a stage where the action, the initiative, the protagonists are always defined by the westerners and their interpretation of the Orient. This absence, this lack of the Orientals’ own voice is most notable in what is after all the main character, Holly. She is the voiceless and powerless object in a world she hasn’t created nor chosen and over which she has no say. She is the screen upon which a whole psycho-social construct is projected.

We watch these real people and their real lives the same way we would watch fish at the aquarium.

When Marie visits one of the brothels she is ignored by the victims she wants to help, insulted by the madam, harassed by the corrupt policeman and she takes it out on Patrick, mistaking him for one of the brothel’s clients. Here it looks as if the ingratitude and incomprehension of the Orientals is total, the good will of the westerner, harbinger of salvation, is ignored and despised.

The film seems to take too many things for granted, the core of Orientalist concepts goes unchallenged and this attitude can be detected in a reality where often actions are devised on the assumption of this validity. We still behave as if our mission was to save these fictional Orientals from themselves. The level and depth of our questioning is far from adequate to contemporary reality. This unfortunately isn’t limited to the filmic representation but can be observed in a whole range on interactions between West and East, between developed and developing world. What makes it more insidious is the fact that this bias still goes largely unnoticed and unquestioned, for which there is no excuse.

Latent Orientalism: returning through the back door

I can’t help but thinking of Loti’s descriptions of the Orient in his early 20th century books, his fascination with a world that is charged with exotic and alluring meaning, mixed with a sense of danger and mystery, desire and revulsion, a world to be tamed, conquered but also saved from itself and civilised, and one that always defies our understanding thus maintaining its mysterious attraction.

The western onlooker seeks a way in and is constantly defeated. He finds all the fuel he needs for his imagination to travel to places where pleasure isn’t associated with guilt, where all the Christian-Judaic tradition of guilt and responsibility loses its (arguable) meaning.

Said rightly quotes the brilliantly eloquent explanation that Nietzsche gives of concepts that humans create that have no real meaning but become so deeply entrenched in human’s imagination to become the reality.

(Nietzsche, 1873  1976) “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”.

In this sense the imagined Orient has become so real that even the scrupulous documentarist ends up “seeing” reality through the multilayered filter of this conceptual construct. Holly presents us with a catalogue of stereotypes directly descended from the Orientalist construct and seamlessly mixes them with observed facts. We are so used to these metaphors that we don’t even notice, let alone question them.

Rooted in our culture there is a romantic component related to the Orient that seems almost impossible to dislodge, and in the film Patrick personifies this well. Said’s definition of the “paternalistic or candidly condescending attitude” of westerners towards Orientals suits Patrick, whose actions are unwittingly shaped by these ingrained attitudes as are those of many like him. He is the westerner who went East looking for adventure, excitement, freedom, and found himself lost, caught in between two worlds, one he knows and dislikes, the other that fascinates him but he can’t understand. We are made to understand that he has lived in South East Asia for years, and yet he is as baffled by it as on the first day, he seems to have sleep-walked across places and time without ever finding a way in, an inner understanding.

Like many anti-heroes of the narrative tradition, literary as well as cinematographic, Patrick is drifting along the river of life (the Mekong in the film) and finally finds a reason to redeem himself in the attempt of “rescuing” an innocent victim of the cruel Oriental. He sees the reality that surrounds him through the filter of centuries of Orientalist and colonialist bias he is not aware of carrying and the film presents us with a thorough catalogue of these stereotypes.
An underlying, albeit denied, envy for the Orient seems to be rooted in the western mind, one may also suspect a subtle sense of inferiority that seeks revenge in picturing the Orient as debased, cruel and heartless, something to make us feel good by comparison. A desire to acquire “by proxy” something that is denied to us.

The tales Marco Polo and the early travellers brought back from their journeys to the East depicted a mythical world of riches and exotic adventure, a freedom of spirit and costumes that were unknown or forbidden in the west. In the ensuing years the accounts, often highly romanticised if not outrageously incorrect, kept coming as more people were travelling, sponsored by the western kingdoms seeking precious resources from the near and far east. People’s imagination and greed were set alight and centuries later, when the needle of world’s political and economical power shifted to the West, the basis were set for people to go and see for themselves, to acquire a piece of the fabled Orient, to start the process that became centuries of colonialism.

Tens of thousands of books were written in the West about the East, especially in the 19th century, and these constitute a vast archive of references, a whole reality reinvented that we can’t shed too easily.  The large production by Orientalist painters depicts unabashed projections of the male desires; what would have been labelled as pornography in the West could be presented as reportage from the East – the prurient Victorian imagination and the guilt ridden christian soul could stare with no remorse and a pseudo-scientific eye to the Orientals enacting the Western erotic and morbid fantasies. In the behaviour of the ‘primitive’ the westerners could condescendingly recognise their original instincts the way they must have been before becoming civilised. The voyeurism that is unashamedly presented in early iconography reaches its apex when morbid depictions of torture and bodily punishment are portrayed. Photography came to replace paintings and the same iconography continued to develop, made even more credible by the presumed objectivity of photography. Film inherited the vocabulary of literature, painting and photography and went further in rendering the myth almost immortal.  (Alloula, 1986 – Jacobson, 2008 – Maurel, 1980 – Verrier, 1979)

The lack of inhibition (real or perceived) that was presumed as intimate essence of manners, philosophy and religions from the east exerted a fascination that survived in different guises over the centuries; from Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra to Sir Woodroffe’s divulgation of Tantra a whole cosmogony was created, inherited, reinterpreted and mostly misunderstood; this deeply influenced the west in many ways until recent times, from the 60s pseudo-spiritual quest of the hippies and Reich’s psychology to the more prosaic organised sex tourism of recent years.

It is thus that some 50 years after the (official) end of the last colonies the Orientalist and colonialist mindset still marks western interaction with the East.

We can’t delete centuries of collective unchallenged imaginary and reset our references as we would do with a corrupted database file, but we must strive to be aware of its weight in conditioning us, and always question our choices and attitudes in light of our bias. (Barthes, 1964, 1970 – Foucault, 1966).

What Said calls “latent Orientalism” constantly seems to lurk just beneath the surface, as if the growing body of factual knowledge was never enough to dislodge the constructed myth shaping the thoughts of the western unquestioning missionarism, force-feeding our conception of truth and justice onto others.

Now that history has gone full circle again and the balance of power is shifting east again we may slowly see a reversal of attitudes, but it is one that will take a long time.

Holly’s story doesn’t have the traditional happy ending though.

Evil wins, Patrick is arrested for having attacked, in anger and frustration, the politician who first took advantage of Holly.

Holly is left to fend for herself again, and in the last frame of the film she stares at the audience with a mix of reproach and pity.

5) Conclusions

Can film make people in the west more aware that trafficking exists, and is to a large extent because of our way of life? Can film alert people in source countries of the risks and realities of unregulated migration? Can the fictionalisation be an effective way to reach both audiences and contribute to positive change? Can we tell the story without being conditioned by centuries of unquestioned portrayal of the Orient and the “others” who live there?

The answer is surely yes, but the effort needed is great and requires equally great humility and lucidity.

Feature films can succeed in portraying reality in a way that is understandable by the general  public, condensing in less than two hours the concepts and data of dozens of books and research papers, but cultural bias can easily taint their message. Holly gives us a clear example of this potential risk. While attempting to realistically illustrate a reality, with the intent of raising awareness on a specific issue and soliciting intervention, the film also unwittingly perpetuates myths and perceptions that, in some way, are part of the root causes of the problem.

People’s awareness of the problem is crucial and despite the availability of competent information (reports, documentaries, books etc) the general public has a limited understanding of the issue of human trafficking and how individual criminal cases tie into a much more complex reality, one of which citizens in the developed world are responsible for as consumers.

In this sense all efforts to increase and improve awareness are to be welcomed; telling the story with a language the audience is familiar with makes practical sense, but leaving the established attitudes that we can trace directly to the Orientalist and post-colonialist bias unchallenged does not help deeper understanding and long term improvement.

When communicating with audiences, especially in poor countries with a large illiterate population, film is effective and direct and a good film has the chance to reach and convince more people than a good book or documentary; meanwhile film gives activists access to a different vocabulary that is more effective in communicating with large audiences, translating complex concepts in a manner that touches people directly bypassing the subtleties of verbal language, using emotions to prepare people to accept facts, turning masses of data into a story that can be followed without requiring previous knowledge.
Opening up a sort of “availability to be interested” in the audience films also act at a more subtle level in somewhat influencing people’s reactions in other areas, think of the instinctive reaction most people have towards illegal immigrants, how different would it be if in their mind there was a seed of a doubt that these may be victims rather than undesirables coming to steal jobs?

However, it is the duty of all, and particularly of those able to influence the public’s imagination as filmmakers are, to self-examine motivations and interpretations, to reduce the risk of perpetuating the Orientalist and post colonial bias. We must question what are the implications and consequences of employing fossilised metaphors and stereotypes in these filmic representations. The unfaltering self-righteous conviction of the westerner as the beholder of positive truth remains largely unquestioned, it often results in a bulldozing of the true essence of other cultures; an effort must be made to gain awareness of this risk and act upon it to avoid it.

Just like literature and visual arts in the 19th century contributed to shape the public’s imagination and its perception of the exotic world outside of Europe, film can today play a part in redressing the balance and setting the record straight, reinventing the collective imaginary on basis that are closer to reality. In order to do so authors and researchers must make a serious effort to cleanse themselves of the influence of Orientalism and post-colonialism.
While accepting that true objectivity does not exist the least we can do is to gain awareness of our cultural bias and try our best to see the world from a fresh and non Eurocentric standpoint; we owe it to history, to ourselves and above all to those who have been at the receiving end of western domination for centuries. It takes intelligence, an open mind and humility, but it is possible, as it is demonstrated by the work of some, and I would like to mention as an example of this attitude journalist and writer Tiziano Terzani, who lived in and wrote about Asia and its people for 20 years as a European press reporter. Terzani was conscious of his European cultural background but able to look at the Orient with the eyes of a child who discovers something new every day, with no preconceptions; his books and articles are refreshing and eye opening. (Terzani 1995, 1998). In a 2002 television interview, shortly before his death, Terzani says: ”All my life I tried to understand the other, who are these others, why our being westerners separates us from the other – there is a distance that I have always felt I had to fill, and the only way to achieve this seemed to me a sort of chameleonism; like a chameleon who turns the colour of the earth, the sand if it’s walking on sand, green as a leaf if it’s on a leaf, in order to understand the other I have always attempted to become a bit more like him.”

Real progress can be achieved and globalisation gives us the necessary means, but our attitude and the way we read the world needs a radical revision.

Some 30 years ago a veteran of early international cooperation told me something I will always remember, he said: “if you continue working in this field you’ll come across many enthusiastic and eager people who wish to understand remote parts of the world and help those who live there and are less fortunate than we are; most of them do it because they are unable to understand their own world nor they can face solving their own problems”.

Something to think about.

6) References


Alloula , M. (1986) The Colonial Harem (Theory & History of Literature) – Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press

Avalon, A. (Sir John Woodroffe) (1918)  Shakti and Shâkta – Charleston, SC, Forgotten Books

Avalon, A. (Sir John Woodroffe) (1913) Hymns to the Goddess – Charleston, SC, Forgotten Books

Avalon, A. (Sir John Woodroffe) (1922) Hymn to Kâlî: Karpûrâdi-Stotra – Charleston, SC, Forgotten Books

Amir, D. (2006) Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry – Lanham, MD, Program in Migration and Refugee Studies, Lexington Books

Augustin, L. M. (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry: 1 – London, Zed Books

Bales, K. (2004) Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy – Berkeley, CA, University of California Press

Barthes, R. (1964) Éléments de sémiologie – Paris , Communications 4, Seuil

Barthes, R. (1970) L’empire des signes – Paris, Skira

Brown, L. (2001) Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia – London, Virago Press

Burton, Sir Richard (translator) ([1883] 2002) ) The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana – New York, Modern Library Inc/Random House

Cameron, S. – Newman, E. (ed) (2007) Trafficking in Humans: Social, Cultural and Political Dimensions - Tokyo, United Nations University

Eco, U. (1967) Appunti per una semiologia delle comunicazioni visive -  Milano, Bompiani

Eco, U. (1975) Trattato di semiotica generale – Milano, Bompiani

Foucault, J. (1966) Les mots et les choses – Paris, Gallimard

Friman, R. H. – Reich, S. (eds) (2007) Human Trafficking, Human Security, and the Balkans (Security Continuum: Global Politics in the Modern Age) – Pittsburgh, PA, University of Pittsburgh Press

Hall, S. (ed) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices – Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications & Milton Keynes, Open University

Jacobson, K. (2008) Odalisques & Arabesques: Orientalist Photography 1839-1925 – London, Bernard Quaritch

Jung, C. (1964) Man and His Symbols – London, Aldus Books

Kamala, K. Jyoti, S. Banadana, P. (eds) (2011) Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered, Second Edition: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights – Herndon, VA, Paradigm

King, G. (2005) Woman, Child for Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century – New York, Chamberlain Bros

Kristeva, J. (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art – New York, Columbia University Press

Lester, S. – Mercurio, B. – Davies, A. – Leitner, K. (2008) World Trade Law: Text, Materials and Commentary – Oxford, Hart Publishing

Levi-Strauss, C. (1955) Tristes Tropiques – Paris, Libraire Plon

Levi-Strauss, C. (1962) La Pensée sauvage – Paris, Libraire Plon

Loti P. (1879) Aziyadé – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1884) Les Trois Dames de la Kasbah – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1887) Madame Chrysantheme – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1889) Japoneries d’Automne – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1890) Au Maroc – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1892) Fantôme d’Orient - Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1902) Les Derniers Jours de Pékin – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1903) L’Inde sans les Anglais – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1904) Vers Ispahan – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1912) Un Pèlerin d’Angkor – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1920) La Mort de Notre Chère France en Orient – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Loti P. (1921) Suprêmes Visions d’Orient – Paris, Calmann-Levy

Maurel, C. – Laffont, R. (1980) L’Exotisme Colonial (cartes postales, collection Jacques Fivel) – Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont

McGill, C. (2003) Human Traffic: Sex Slaves and Immigration – London, Vision Paperbacks

Moises, N. (2007) Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy – London, Arrow Books

Mohanty, C. T.  – Russo, A. – Torres, L. (1991) Third World women and the politics of feminism – Bloomington IN , Indiana University Press

Nietzsche, F. ([1873] 1976) – On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Ed. Walter Kaufmann – New York, Viking Penguin Inc

O’Connell Davidson, J. (2005) Children in the Global Sex Trade – Cambridge, Polity Press

Polo, M. – Harris, P. (ed) (2008) The Travels of Marco Polo (based on Marsden and Wright translation) – London, Everyman’s Library

Reichel, P. (2005) Handbook of Transnational Crime and Justice -  London, Sage Publications

Said, E. W. (1978) Orientalism – London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Skinner, E.B. (2001) A Crime So Monstrous: A Shocking Expose of Modern-day Sex Slavery, Human Trafficking and Urban Child Markets - Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing

Seabrook, J.  (2001) Travels in the Skin Trade: Tourism and the Sex Industry – London, Pluto Press

Stiglitz, J. (2002) Globalization and its discontents – London, Penguin.

Stiglitz, J. (2006) Making Globalization work – London, Penguin.

Terzani, T. (1995 ) Un indovino mi disse – Milano, TEA  Tascabili degli Editori Associati

Terzani, T. (1998 ) In Asia – Milano, TEA  Tascabili degli Editori Associati

Thornton, L. (1995) Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting v. 3 - Paris,  ACR Edition

Verrier, M. (1979) The Orientalists – London Academy Editions

Van Den Anker, C. (2003) The Political Economy of New Slavery – Basingstoke, International Political Economy Series – Palgrave Macmillan

Papers and reports

Child Wise (2007) Speaking out- issue 83 – Child sex tourism

ECPAT Monthly Newsletter (1st April 2007) Actions and experiences in the fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children in America

European Commission (2004) Report of the experts group on trafficking in human beings

Foxcroft, G. (Programme Director) (2007) Supporting Victims of Witchcraft Abuse and Street Children in Nigeria – Stepping Stones, Nigeria

Guillin, N. J. (2006)  Example of a good practice – specific to the rehabilitation of substance abusing street children (Cambodia) Goutte d’eau Rehabilitation project – Asia Foundation – US Aid

Hughes, D. M. – Chon, K.Y. – Ellerman, D. P.  (2002) Modern-Day Comfort Women: The U.S. Military, Transnational Crime, and the Trafficking of Women – University of Rhode Island, Women’s studies

International Labour Office (ILO)

  • International Labour Office – UNICEF (2000) Investigating child labour – guidelines for rapid assessment
  • Danaliova-Trainor, G. – Belser, P. – International Labour Office (2006) Globalization and the illicit market for human trafficking: an empirical analysis of supply and demand
  • International Labour Office (2006) The cost of coercion-summary (regional papers available)
  • International Labour Office – International Training Centre (2006) Training materials for a global alliance against forced labour

  • International Labour Office (2006) The end of child labour
  • International Labour Office (2006) Review of annual reports

  • Robertson, P. S. Jr. (Ed) (2006) The Mekong challenge – working day and night. The plight of child workers in Mae Sot, Thailand – International Labour Office (ILO) – International Training Centre – The Federation of Trade Unions – Burma (FTUB) Migrants Section

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

  • Kelly, L. (2002)  Journeys of Jeopardy: A Commentary on Current Research on Trafficking of Women and Children for Sexual Exploitation Within Europe – Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, University of North London for International Organization for Migration
  • Laczko, F. – Gramegna, M. A. (2003) Developing Better Indicators of Human Trafficking - International Organization for Migration – The Brown Journal of World Affairs
  • Brown, E. International Organization for Migration (2007) Child domestic workers and patterns of trafficking in Cambodia

Keane, K. – British Embassy, Phnom Penh (2006) Street-based child sexual exploitation in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville: a profile of victims

Marshall, P. (2001) Paper to the Globalization Workshop in Kuala Lumpur – UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking in Women and Children in the Mekong Sub-region – United Nations Office for Project Services

Full report downloadable from


McDonnell, M. (2007) Case Study of the Campaign to End “Modern-Day Slavery” – US Coalition for Child Survival

Regional Working Group on Child Labour in Asia (RWG-CL) (2002) Handbook for action-Oriented research on the worst forms of child labour including trafficking in children

Save the children

  • Save the Children, UK (2001) Breaking Through the Clouds: A Participatory Action Research (PAR) Project with Migrant Children and Youth Along the Borders of China, Myanmar and Thailand
    www.savethechildren.org.uk download full report PDF at:


  • Save the children UK (2007) The small hands of slavery

Shared Hope International (2006) Report from the US mid-term review on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in America – The protection project of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

State of California ordinance approved 18th March 1870 http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/statute1870.htm


  • UNICEF – Innocenti Insight  (2002)  Child trafficking in West Africa – Policy responses
  • UNICEF – Innocenti Insight (2003) Trafficking in human beings, especially women and children in Africa

  • UNICEF (2006) Guidelines on the protection of child victims of trafficking
  • UNICEF – Innocenti Research Centre (2007) Researching child trafficking in South Asia

United Nations – Palermo protocols (2000)

  • Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children; Supplement to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime
  • Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air

For a detailed overview of various aspects of human trafficking in South East Asia and its connections to globalisation visit the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) site where several documents are available:


Feature films

Moshe, Guy (2006) Holly Priority Films

Duguay, Christian (2005) Human Trafficking

Frears, Stephen (2007) Dirty Pretty Things

Kreuzpaintner, Marco (2007) Trade

Zwick, Edward (2006) Blood Diamond

Yates, David (2006) Sex Traffic


Ruchira Gupta 1996 The Selling of Innocents – Apneaap Women Worldwide

Channel 4 Unreported world:

  • Episode 08/2008 Child Slavery
  • Episode 11/2008 South Africa: Body Parts for Sale
  • Episode 14/2009 Fighting Back
  • Episode 17/2009 Stolen Children
  • Episode 18/2009 Bought and Sold
  • Episode 19/2009 Malaysia: Refugees for Sale

On-line film databases

Child Trafficking


National Human Trafficking Resource Center – Polaris Project


7) Appendixes

Thank you to:

Friends and ex-colleagues at the International Labour Organization www.ilo.org/

Jenna Steckel, Public Outreach and Communications at Polaris Project www.polarisproject.org

Nola Theiss, Executive Director at Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships, Inc. www.humantraffickingawarenss.org

Rachel Davies at www.care.org.uk/humantrafficking

The library team at Anti-Slavery International www.antislavery.org/

Zoë at Team Apne Aap Women Worldwide www.apneaap.org


Film credits from the producers official website:


Title Holly

year 2006

duration 114 minutes

country USA, France, Israel, Cambodia

Language English, Central Khmer, Vietnamese





UDO KIER – Klaus

CHRIS PENN – Freddie


GUY MOSHE (Director/Producer/Writer)
GUY JACOBSON (StoryBy/Writer/Producer)
ADI EZRONI (Producer)
AMIT KORT (Executive Producer)

The producers initiated the K-11 Project, dedicated to raising awareness of the epidemic of child trafficking and the sex slavery trade through several film projects. They have also founded the Redlight Children Campaign – a worldwide grassroots human rights initiative promoting awareness and practical action for reducing the number of children who are sexually exploited each year.


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