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In its more halcyon early days, the internet was welcomed into households for its utopian possibilities. A constantly updating trove of searchable information made bound encyclopaedia sets all but obsolete; email and social media promised to connect citizens of the world, no longer segmented into tribes by physical distance, in greater cultural understanding. In the rush of enthusiasm, the old truth was suspended, that tools are only as enlightened as their users. Darker recesses of networked life, it has since emerged, are manifold. The purportedly benign but aggressively vocal form of public peer surveillance that is social media has flattened the complexity of human interactions, and the private, once inaccessible to strangers, can feel less cordoned off. Anyone can «slide into your DMs» with the brashness of near-anonymity, hiding behind a screen. Society’s dubious, even malevolent elements can seek each other out more efficiently, unchecked and unseen, and build sub-communities; they can also find direct routes to the vulnerable, amid a deluge of virtual, unregulated traffic.
Czech documentarian Vit Klusák touched on the way in which the internet can be harnessed by less edifying personalities in his previous documentary, The White World According to Daliborek. It portrayed the daily life of a hapless, middle-aged neo-Nazi, living in smalltown Moravia with his chain-smoking mother. Resentful after she finds a boyfriend through an online dating site, he falls deeper into nationalism as a bedroom hobbyist, making and posting bigoted songs and videos to YouTube. Klusák’s latest feature Caught in the Net, co-directed with Barbora Chalupová, which screens at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, confronts the most egregious abuses of online connectivity. Labeled a «psychosocial experiment,» it is stomach-churning in its unflinching revelations, as it reveals the mind-boggling scale and nature of online child sexual abuse in the Czech Republic. Three nineteen-year-old female actresses were hired to pretend to be twelve-year-olds and set up with fake online profiles and children’s bedrooms built in a studio, in order to fool predators.
The opening statistics alone are staggering. Well over half of Czech children spend time online alone with no parental limits, and 41% have received pornographic images from another person. Of the 23 women who attend the casting call, 19 say they experienced some form of online abuse in childhood. Service providers, fearing a loss in ad revenue, do little to block illegal communication. As soon as the team activates the women’s fake profiles (on sites including Facebook, Skype, Lide.cz, Snapchat, and Omegle), they are bombarded with friend requests from adult strangers. Coached on what to say and following a strict code of conduct whereby predators must always initiate their crimes, the women, who repeatedly state they are twelve, interact with men (whose faces are blurred) who push them to watch and engage in sexually explicit acts. Some men blackmail them, threatening to publish images of them online or to out their behaviour to parents and teachers. Over the ten days of the experiment, 2,458 men contacted the three actresses, and they attended 21 secretly monitored personal meetings with them in the weeks that followed, as the predators sought to take the relationships offline. All information was shared with the Czech police, with criminal proceedings initiated.
Psychologists, sexologists, lawyers, and criminal investigators are visibly on hand at all stages in what is a project obviously fraught with ethical complexities and potential controversy. As spectators, we often view the wider set as a whole, observing the production team, as well as the actresses, at their laptops so that we can never lose sight of the constructed, performed nature of these interactions. Still, the messages and shared (albeit blurred for us) images are highly disturbing, the brazenness and sheer volume of the approaches enough to shake anyone’s trust in basic humanity to the core («potentially triggering» is a word applied to films liberally these days, but if any film warrants it, it is surely this one). The make-up artist recognises one of the men and is chilled to witness this behaviour from someone she knows, especially as he works in children’s camps. The counterpoint of one kindly young man who offers encouragement of a non-sexual nature is the exception that proves the rule; a decent anomaly in a sea of perverse threat.
«potentially triggering» is a word applied to films liberally these days, but if any film warrants it, it is surely this one
One wonders about the impact on the actresses. The imposed regression back to childhood, as they dress up as twelve-year-olds and bring personal effects to their studio rooms (from sheet music to a dollhouse) to take them back to the age, is queasy to watch, even before they are subjected to explicit predatory attention. Enraged, one throws a drink in the face of her blackmailer in a cafe meet-up, unable to contain her disgust at the exploitation she has experienced. She later says she’s now suffering from nightmares. But whether or not the project could, in some ways, feed into and off of covert online horror, its demonstrable positive impacts — raising public awareness about a pervasive and little understood societal danger, and exposing and reporting numerous perpetrators, positions its makers with robust arguments that it’s on the side of the public good.
Caught in the Net screened at Ji.hlava. 2019 and will play at CPH:DOX 2020