- Actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson explains how rage fuelled her role as the voice of conscience in The Journey, Richard Jobson's violent and powerful short film about the experiences of one sex worker
To buy Richard Ashcroft's theme music to The Journey click here. All proceeds from the sale of the single go to the Helen Bamber foundation
WARNING: The video in this article contains strong sexual and violent images that viewers may find disturbing
- guardian.co.uk, Friday 18 December 2009
- How did you become involved in The Journey?
I've known Helen Bamber for about 25 years. When I was still a comedian, and doing stand-up, I would do a lot of benefits for the various foundations she was involved in. And when she started this new foundation, campaigning for the victims of human-rights abuse, she asked me to get involved - so I became chair.
The reason I've become particularly involved in this campaign heightening awareness of sex trafficking is that one of the victims spoke to me about her experiences. And I thought that her story would be something that might lend itself to many artistic forms. One of these was an installation which has just come back from New York and which I recently took to Madrid (it opened in Trafalgar Square a few years ago).
- And the other was Richard's film. The Journey is quite abstract, because we felt that a lot of the films made about trafficking don't necessarily convey the full horror of what these woman go through. So, rather than making it with a traditional narrative, Richard made something that's about what happens on the inside. With me, floating about, being appalled, on the outside. We wanted to create something that was a visceral experience.
- Did you intend the film to be like an installation?
Exactly so. Almost like you're walking inside someone's body.
- Did you think it needed to be quite so brutal?
Yes, I did. In fact, I particularly suggested that it be that brutal because people just don't know [about this]. They honestly think most of these women have chosen to come over to work illegally. The brutality that is represented in this film doesn't even come close. The truth is worse. It's not pleasant, but we have to look.
You couldn't make a feature-length film using the language of cinema that Richard is using – but it is possible if it's in short pieces, that then live with you. We'll see. All of these attempts to tell this story, to get this information over, are experimental. The installation proved to be a fantastically effective weapon and tool. And I'm going to be very interested to see how people respond to this – whether they can manage it.
- Have you been surprised by the reaction so far?
People like Richard Ashcroft just said: "Right, here you go, you can have my song [for the soundtrack]." People just want to do something, immediately, because [the situation] is so awful.
- Why do you think people find it easy to ignore the problem?
Because I don't think women are top of anyone's agenda. I find now is the time for more militancy than ever before. I feel now, in my 50th year, having been very angry and militant as a young woman, that things are not getting better. They're getting worse; and the sex trafficking industry is an example. I feel that in most places women don't have jurisdiction over their own bodies. And that if we don't start seriously addressing the value and the worth of women in the world, this sort of thing is just going to get worse. And I feel that very strongly, and having lived for long enough, actually, to back it up.
- How do you back it up?
Because I've travelled enough and I've spoken enough to hundreds of women around the world. I know what's going on. I've seen it first-hand. And I haven't even been to many places! But it's endemic in so many countries and, it turns out, pretty common in ours.
- Why do you think today's generation of young women aren't very exorcised about the issue?
I think they're wandering around going: "Oh, well everything's great now." These women, with the advantages that only the first world can give them, think that somehow there's nothing left to do.
But I look around and see that women are being used sexually as much as they ever were, to sell absolutely anything and everything. The message gets through to girls - I watch them sexualising their behaviour very early on because of everything they watch and see. And I'm pissed off, I'm really, really pissed off. I'm so angry about it. Because there I was in my 20s thinking that we'd made some progress.
- Who are you angry at?
Well, there's so may areas to address that I don't know quite where to begin. Let's take advertising; the area of women's magazines, the representation of women. I would ask people to question the way in which they are selling their products. I would ask the government to question the way in which it's a normal thing to walk into any newsagents and see very overt sexual pictures of women everywhere. This is what our kids grow up surrounded by. Is it any wonder that we buy and sell women on the street in broad daylight? No, it bloody isn't.
- Why are people more apathetic these days?
I don't know. My own rage can sometimes get in the way of clear thinking – I understand that – but it's also a source of my energy; otherwise I'd just dry up and die. But there's an awful lot of very clear-thinking, wonderful young women around, full of the most tremendous ideas and the capacity of expressing what's going on. And we do have some of the greatest feminist writers around to explain to us what is going on.
But, as for grassroots movement and action, there's not enough of that. All that should be going on in schools, particularly this question of girls owning their bodies and not seeing them as things that have to be used. I keep banging on about this. In the African countries I visited it's simply non-existent. But I think in a very strange subtle ways also it's very difficult to achieve here. I'm constantly reading stories of girls of 16 or younger, feeling that they have to give themselves sexually in order to be accepted.
- Your role in The Journey is a slightly thankless one. How do you cope with the hostility you must encounter campaigning?
Well, any kind of reaction I could have to people being hostile towards me pales into insignificance when I consider what's being done to these women. It's just irrelevant. I'm fine! And they're not. And unless one shouts and provokes a reaction nothing will happen.
- Does it frustrate you that other people aren't prepared to put themselves on the line?
Luckily, I know a lot of people who do. And because I'm well-known, it's a slightly different thing. There's a lot people I know who work far harder than I do, day in day out, helping people through all this kind of stuff, so I don't feel I require any special treatment.
- What do you want people to do, having watched The Journey?
There are many, many ways in which you can get active. One is to keep your eyes open because all of this stuff is happening on the streets. If you work in a chemist and there's lots of foreign girls coming in buying condoms who don't speak English, they're probably been trafficked. So learn to recognise them, find out what the story is. Know what trafficking is, for a start, and know that it isn't people who've chosen to come over and work as sex workers. And even if they have come over to work to as sex workers, they've had no idea what kind of situation they're going to be in. That they're going to be working as slaves is not, in any way, shape or form, the contract that they undertook.
Also, it's very important that we start a debate about our sex lives. We need another Kinsey report, actually. Because more and more young men are finding it completely acceptable to pay for sex. Now we could look at other countries. Sweden has now made paying for sex illegal, across the board - very interesting. But of course all the traffickers are now taking the women to Germany, where selling sex is legal, and to Amsterdam, where there is a huge problem.
Chances are you'll know somebody who pays for sex. We have a huge customer base here. And it's not confined to any particular class or ethnic background. It's across the board, and it's mostly white collar.
- Do think we're very in denial?
Totally. Men are paying for sex. We can't demonise that; we've got to find out about it. Why are we suddenly doing this so much more than we used to? Why is there no stigma or shame attached to that whatsoever anymore? Because if that's the result of the sexual revolution, then it's fucked us up big time. Not that I want to bring back Victorian morality, because of course then it was all underground. But what I do want to do is start a debate. No one's talking about this.
- Why do you think more men are paying for sex?
Well, when I talk to young people I know they say it's often a peer pressure thing. Testimonials from customers are very hard to come by, but there's a woman called Liz Kelly at the Metropolitan University of London who collects them, and helped us construct the narrative for The Journey. You find that the reasons for paying for sex are as different as human beings are different. It's not all anger-fuelled, it's not all violent – although a lot of it is. Some of it is to do with not being able to arrive at any sort of sexual satisfaction in any other way, and a lot of it is men who have money who want more than what they can get from their partners.
We've got to get into a conservation. Because if prostitution is always going be here, we've got to make sure that it's safe. We cannot have it that women are used in this way, as slaves. This is not to be borne in the 21st century. It's absolutely antediluvian. Everyone needs to be more active and to ask these questions. Why are all these women coming to this country, who's paying for them? It's probably someone you know.
- How much do you think actors should get involved in activism?
I think the whole situation is going to change. It will change as people go: "Oh, gawd, not this again." I think what people will require - and rightly so - is that whoever they're listening to, be they a politician or an actor or a journalist, needs to know what they're talking about and express themselves effectively. I think what is less effective is when people attach themselves to something without properly knowing about it. I think that kind of celebrity activism is on the wane. Because I think people are saying well, yes, but what else apart from your face are you lending to this? Are you giving us some information? People are being more demanding, which is great.