“ONCE upon a time…”
A week ago tonight I attended a preview screening of Stolen at the British Film Institute in London.
Followed by a stage Q&A with writer Stephen Butchard, director Justin Chadwick and actor Damian Lewis.
My round table interview with Damian back in February is still under embargo until nearer the time of the BBC1 film’s broadcast this summer.
But my report from last Monday’s event appeared in the Manchester Evening News a few days later – and is reproduced below, followed by some BFI extras.
Stolen is a drama that will stay with you for some time.
Including some extraordinary performances from the child actors.
A major new drama shot in Manchester reveals the shocking truth about the growing child slavery trade.
Stolen is a hard-hitting 90-minute feature film highlighting the disturbing plight of young children sold to become slaves in Britain.
Due to be screened on BBC1 this summer and given a cinema release, the “heartbreaking” child trafficking story is directed by award-winning Salford-raised Justin Chadwick.
It focuses on Rosemary, a terrorised 11-year-old girl from West Africa who arrives at Manchester Airport with instructions to destroy her passport and identifying papers.
She has orders to contact a city trafficker who sells her on as a house servant and will buy her back when she is older to sell on as a sex worker.
Stolen also tells the stories of a young boy from Ukraine, sold as forced labour to work making sandwiches in the food industry, and a Vietnamese boy imprisoned in a suburban home to look after a cannabis farm.
Band Of Brothers and The Forsyte Saga star Damian Lewis plays Det Insp Anthony Carter, head of a Human Trafficking unit battling the rising tide of child imports.
“It was an extraordinarily strong script and moving story. It’s inconceivable that it’s happening under our noses. And it is,” said Damian, who was shocked by the “overwhelming scale” of the problem.
“The culture of fear is prevalent and that’s what prevents any great progress for the police. They do extraordinary work.”
The city – and Salford Quays – plays a starring role, with one of Rosemary’s homes and places of work being a fictional Manchester food store.
But Justin said Manchester was chosen to represent any modern European city where child slaves are working. “We’re not saying it is Manchester.”
He decided to film most of the drama in locations between Piccadilly and Victoria stations, in the area regenerated after the IRA bomb.
“We were shooting it within all the beautiful new buildings and the police said, ‘We open doors, there’s children in there working. The unknown children. There’s a lot of children that we don’t know about.’
“It was incredibly important for me to go into the communities in Manchester – communities that are dealing with immigrant population children – and to show both sides of the story.”
Justin paid tribute to the child actors in the film, discovered via a search for new talent in Manchester and other UK cities, with the story told from the child’s point of view. “They are the heart of the film for me.”
Writer Stephen Butchard spent seven years on the project, meeting women who had been trafficked as children and have since broken free.
He said the very nature of the child slavery problem made it hard to estimate how many youngsters were involved. “You could say it’s in the hundreds, the children being trafficked. But it’s so difficult to quantify. It could be much, much more.”
Those involved in trying to combat the trade have warned that teams of slaves are already being imported into Britain ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.
Stephen: “I was having breakfast with the radio on in the kitchen and I was listening to FiveLive. This was in about 2003, 2004. And a short report came on. It was a brief synopsis of Rosemary’s story. A child had been trafficked to work as a domestic slave, in effect. And as I listened to it, I just thought, ‘That can’t possibly be happening?’”
He explained how he researched the subject with the help of UNICEF and other organisations, including the BBC Factual unit, and also spent some time with the Sheffield anti-trafficking unit.
Stephen wanted to write a screenplay about an aspect of child trafficking that has not been told and hopes people will engage with the issues after seeing the children in the drama.
Stolen concentrated on domestic servitude and forced labour rather than sex trafficking as they are less well known / highlighted problems.
“It’s a trade. It’s something that is on the increase. And as borders have fell down, it’s increasing more and more.”
He added: “Maybe we just need to think that little bit harder about what we are and who we are.”
Damian: “It can happen in the most seemingly benign suburban places and it makes you think, ‘What’s going on around you?’
“A story like this makes you look at aeroplanes in a completely different way. It destroys an innocence in you and in the idea of the romance of what’s out there. As Justin tells very powerfully here, it’s also what’s coming in this way.”
Damian explained how his research included meeting two anti-trafficking unit officers in St John’s Wood, north London.
“The stories they had were extraordinary. They categorised the four different forms of trafficking for me, which is: domestic servitude, forced labour and sexual exploitation, all three of which we explore in this.
“And then there’s organ harvesting, which is not dealt with in this. But they all come under trafficking and they’re all real and they’re present and they go on every day. There are many stories I could tell you. It was an eye-opener, to say the least.
“The thing that struck me is that it’s very difficult to prosecute. The time in which you’re given to bring admissable evidence on something like this is actually very short. You need documentation and often these people come in on valid passports and permits. They then just flush them down the loo or they dispose of them in some way, And once that happens, they are an unidentifiable, displaced person and it’s very easy for them to fall in the cracks in the system.”
He told a story about one girl who had been forced into prostitution but later expressed a desire to talk to the police.
“At that point it took them two years because of the fear that she lived under and because of the indoctrination of the African Ju-Ju that she was under. It took them two years to get any evidence or information from her that was usable in any meaningful way.”
Damian added: “If Anthony Carter is anything, he’s us, he’s the audience. It should illustrate what happens if you encounter this for the first time. His shock and emotional involvement.”
And the UK police units that try to combat the trade? “They do extraordinary work and it’s bloody hard.”
Justin explained how Manchester in the film represented any northern European city and was shown, initially, as a place of great hope for the children as they arrived.
“I’m from Manchester, so I’ve grown up there. And when I originally went, my location manager kept taking me to Hulme and Moss Side, the areas that, obviously, it would happen. And I was very keen to shoot it between Piccadilly Station and Victoria Station, where the damage that had happened with the bomb and the Arndale had happened, this regeneration of a city had happened.
“So I was very keen, especially coming from the project I’d just done working in a very isolated community in the Rift Valley, of just what it would feel like for a child to come into a very modern city. And to make it generic. You don’t look at anywhere the same because you know behind that door there’s kids working – an illegal workforce.
“Manchester felt to me modern, represented a Europe that was interesting. And I also wanted to shoot a lot of the film from the child’s perspective – we go on that journey with them.” Their point of view in a strange alien world, he added.
“There’s a lot of children that we just don’t know about. And they can’t do anything about, if that kid comes back with a passport or says that they’re with an auntie, or…that kid then just disappears…I think that’s the shocking thing. I think we were right in steering away from the sex trade of it…who’s cleaning your office? Who’s servicing your sandwiches? Who is doing those jobs? You have to look around.
“I was looking when you walk down the street in a different way about who was behind there, cleaning that room, who was there? It’s a huge problem. That’s what I would like people to take away.”
Justin praised BBC Drama executives for fighting to get the film shown on BBC1.
“A hard-hitting story that goes out to a bigger audience. I’m hoping that, because they’ve had the bravery to put it on to BBC1, that people do see it and do start questioning around them.
“I’ve got to just show it how it is – from the child’s point of view.”