Film Review: Sold

I was part of a group from the Human Trafficking Center asked to lead a panel on the movie Sold. Many movie reviews came from film industry professionals who reviewed the movie as cinema, so my review focused more on the actual content of the film and not just its use of pathos.

This was originally published on the Human Trafficking Center Blog.

Bottom line

The goal of the film is to raise awareness and money to fight trafficking. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably sufficiently aware that minors are commercially sexually exploited.  Instead of buying a ticket, donate directly to anti-trafficking organizations rather than support media that is often irresponsible with its representations of trafficking.

While the film is indeed raising awareness on the issue of minor sex trafficking, there are a number of issues with the film’s content (not to mention production) that should give potential viewers pause.


The film centers around Lakshmi, a 13 year old girl played by Niyar Saikia.  She was trafficked from Nepal to a brothel in India .  After a failed attempt by a local shelter/ school to raid the brothel to find minors, Lakshmi manages to escape.  Sophia, a photographer played by Gillian Anderson, initially sees and photographs Lakshmi.

It’s a textbook example of how NOT to photograph victims ethically

The only considerations with when and how Sophia took photos were around the safety of the aid workers.  She violated a number of ethical principles espoused by groups such asInternational Organization On Migration, the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking, and the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.  Never seeking consent, which is complicated in the case of minors, Sophia claimed ownership of survivors’ narratives through her photography, an approach that is hardly victim-centered ortrauma-informed.

To quote at length from the IOM principles, there are a number of problems with the use of cameras in the film:

  • Do not treat the survivor as an object.
  • Refrain from treating them as ‘victims’.
  • Try and avoid taking pictures of faces of the survivors.
  • Try not to ask the victims questions that violate their dignity.
  • Try not to take them (on a mental recap of their actual journey) to the brothel.

It raises awareness on the issue with the most awareness

In media representations, the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children is by far the most covered.  While there can and should be more awareness around trafficking, coverage of female sex trafficking often comes at the expense of labor as well as men and boys. This also assumes there is a clear divide between labor and sexual exploitation andmakes assumptions on behalf of survivors what kinds of exploitation were most harmful to them.

Didn’t note the danger of wearing religious garb to go undercover

Infamously, the CIA used a vaccination program in an attempt to ascertain the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.  Not only was the measure unsuccessful, but it caused a backlash in local populations in Pakistan, some of whom banned aid workers from coming to administer polio vaccinations in their regions, predominantly for women and children.  The CIA has since apparently decided to stop using that tactic.

In the film, Sophia, dressed as a Catholic nun, went into the red light district to take pictures against the advice of local aid workers.  While the work of the Catholic Church and specifically Mother Theresa in particular is not uncontroversial, jeopardizing the safety and ability of people willing to deliver services to those in need is not clever.  It’s irresponsible.

The movie and website misuse statistics

After the film fades to black, it (misre)presents the statistic that 5.5 million children are trafficked.  Juxtaposing that number and 97 minutes of film about commercial sexual exploitation gives the distinct impression that all of those minors are sex trafficked when the statistic actually represents both minor labor and sex trafficking victims.  As high and disconcerting as that number is, the same report estimates the number of adult victims to be five times higher.

Based on the research and writing of author Patricia McCormick, the movie brands itself as fiction grounded in fact.  The film’s website, however, claims that End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) “estimates the global average age of a trafficked child is thirteen.”  No link is provided for this statistic, and multiple searches of ECPAT’s website revealed no such statistic.  However, it sounds reminiscent of the frequently cited myth that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13.

Redeeming elements

The film highlights some of the complexity involved in the lives of people involved in the commercial sex industry in India and the tough choices they make for their own survival.  It also shows the need for comprehensive care for people getting out of commercial sexual exploitation, which wasn’t always a focus of past “raid and rescue” operations.  Even though Sophia often did not heed the advice of the local organization she was working with, the film does show it is necessary for foreigners to work with and strengthen local institutions.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

Image via Matson Films


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