The Wrong Light


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Wrong Light
"A truly eye-opening documentary which challenges a lot of our most dearly held beliefs about charity."

Recognised internationally as one of the centres of the sex trafficking industry, Thailand has long attracted the efforts of NGOs focused on trying to undermine it and rescue its victims - mostly women and girls. These organisations are staffed largely by volunteers who give up their lives in more prosperous countries because, after seeing what is happening, they feel a compulsion to help. Naturally they are seen as heroes by many. This gives them a certain cachet which some experts in the field are wary of, warning that it can lead them and others astray as well as taking the focus off those who really ought to be the centre of attention - the people at risk. But their lives still make attractive fodder for filmmakers. Dave Adams and Josie Swantek are two activists who rode up into the remote hills of the north full of good intentions but came to realise they were dealing with something much more complex than they had anticipated.

Early in this film, the usual faces appear. Shy, pretty girls in their early teens, each one attached to a tale of woe. Fon and Gan were rescued from a brothel, we are told. Eye was abused by relatives before being sold, at the age of 13, to the man who owned the local petrol station. We see the poverty of the hill tribes, hear about the government's lack of interest in supporting them, about the low status of girls. Charismatic outsider Mickey Choothesa has founded international charity COSA to provide them with a refuge. Talking briefly but dramatically about his background as a combat photographer, he explains that he knows he can't save the world but if he can change one girl's life, it will all be worth it. The girls tell the filmmakers that this is home, that they feel like a family now, and that Uncle Mickey has been wonderful to them.

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It's the kind of story audiences love, and journalists, like anyone else, can find themselves drawn into comforting narratives. But towards the end of their stay in the country, the filmmakers happen to interview the mother of one of the girls when Mickey isn't there. It's not so much the denials she makes to them but the hasty conversation she has with a friend in Thai that makes them feel something is amiss. Later translation reveals that the women are confused about where the horror stories attached to the girl originate. What should they do? If they tell the journalists that they think Mickey has lied to them, will it jeopardise their daughters' education?

At this stage, some filmmakers would have decided to dismiss their discomfort, leave out this scene and run with what they had. Others would have tried to downplay the extent of their own naivety, or gone all out to monster Mickey. Adams and Swantek do something much more interesting, keeping the audience with them as they flounder around trying to make sense of what has happened and navigate an ethical minefield. Who can they trust? Are the families simply engaged in trying to cover up their own misdeeds? What do the girls have to say about it all, and could they be placed at risk if the filmmakers investigate Mickey too closely? What kind of risks might they already face?

One might wonder if it ultimately matters what the truth is, if foreigners prefer to donate to sexual abuse victims rather than girls whose lives have been marred by less fashionable poverty - isn't the important thing that the girls are being helped? But there is a lot of money going into COSA, and it's not quite clear where it's ending up. Investigations into Mickey's past produce results as intriguing as they are bizarre. How common is his behaviour. "There are a thousand Mickeys out there," a charity coordinator says.

Talking to the girls risks causing them a lot of pain, whatever the truth is. But one thing that comes out of this film clearly is what extraordinary individuals some of them are. Eye, born two months premature into a family that struggled to feed her, is lucky just to be alive, but is running for student president at her high school. Far from the delicate flower in need of rescue that she's been presented as, she's a strong young woman who refuses to let anybody take advantage of her and get away with it. Gradually, the filmmakers become disabused of the notion that they might themselves be saviours. These are girls who are ready to determine their own fate.

A truly eye-opening documentary which challenges a lot of our most dearly held beliefs about charity, The Wrong Light illustrates how unexamined prejudice and genuine cultural difference can combine to help conceal the activities of those who see global inequality as a hotbed of opportunity. At the heart of it is a character study of a man who remains elusive, drifting into the realm of the symbolic, as much symptom as disease - but it is what the film prompts viewers to examine within themselves that is its real strength.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2017
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The Wrong Light packshot
A documentary about a charity rescuing at-risk Thai girls finds itself going in an unexpected direction when the man behind it reveals a darker side.

Director: Dave Adams, Josie Swantek

Starring: Mickey Choothesa

Year: 2016

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: US, Thailand


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