Director: Dee McLachlan
Stars: Veronica Sywak, Emma Lung, Saskia Burmeister, Sun Park, Amanda Ma, Damien Richardson, Alison Whyte, Andrew S. Gilbert
Neither critics nor audiences were kind towards Kriv Stenders’ provocatively, hubristically-titled Australia Day last year, though I appreciated it as a work of didactic Oliver Stone-esque bombast on a frugal, non-Oliver Stone budget. One of the three core plot threads in that film concerned a bankrupt cattle farmer (Bryan Brown) crossing paths with a traumatised victim of sex trafficking (Jenny Wu). The Jammed, a 2007 film from writer-director Dee McLachlan, similarly follows three different story threads, all of which converge around the theme of sex trafficking. In one thread, Australian Ashley (Veronica Sywak) reluctantly helps an older Chinese woman (Amanda Ma) search for her missing daughter Rubi (Sun Park); in the second, Crystal (Emma Lung) recounts the story of her enslavement to an immigration agent (Damien Richardson); and the third represents the intersection of these stories, following foreigners Crystal, Rubi, and Vanya (Saskia Burmeister) as they are coerced, forced, and ultimately entrapped into prostitution by threats of deportation, debt, and danger to their lives.
A country’s cinematic and television output is predicated on its funding sources and available resources: there’s a reason hundreds of Westerns were made in the early twentieth century when Hollywood was surrounded by desert terrain, and there’s a reason there are a dozen Nordic noirs currently streaming on SBS. Unsurprisingly, for a country of predominantly lower-budget filmmaking with a multicultural population clustered around coastal urban centres, social realist dramas with provocative subject matter are a reliable staple, if not always an exciting commercial prospect, for local filmmakers. When it comes to conversations about films of this ilk – The Boys, Little Fish, Snowtown, Idiot Box – The Jammed deserves a place at that table: it’s confronting, uncomfortable viewing, never gratuitous or titillating but certainly unflinching. The making of the film was by all accounts a labour of love and it proved to be a little film that could, reaping nearly a million dollars at the local box office on its half million budget and earning a booty of AFI Award nominations, though The Black Balloon and Unfinished Sky – another film that touches on trafficking – dominated that year’s recipient list.
The film’s one shortcoming, one that it shares with Australia Day, is its default casting of a White Anglo-Saxon Person (Bryan Brown there, Veronica Sywak here) as the agent of change. The white saviour hero is a long-in-the-tooth archetype, commonplace in Hollywood historical films (e.g. Amistad, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) and inspirational teacher dramas (e.g. Dangerous Minds, Take the Lead). It’s an easy PC stick to shake at films, but sometimes that shaking is warranted. In the case of The Jammed, it’s a minor handicap; I get that for a portion of the mainstream filmgoing public a character like Ashley serves as a recognisable entry point into uncomfortable subject matter, a relatable avatar to wade into troubled waters with, and in the film’s defence it doesn’t lay on reluctant WASP saviour shtick too thick. Even so, given Australia’s multicultural makeup, it seems a missed opportunity to use a non-WASP performer in this central role.
None of this is a slight against Sywak, who does strong and credible work in the role. Props too to Lung, Burmeister and Park, all of whom deliver raw, open wound performances. Their rawness is amplified by the film’s cinematography: The Jammed was shot by Peter Falk on digital video rather than film, and what it loses in texture it gains in visual urgency. That sense of urgency, no doubt driven by the brevity and constraints of production – according to the filmmakers, production lasted just 19 days and favoured single rather than multiple takes – contributes to the film’s docu-drama flavour: the feeling that the filmmakers infiltrated a dark underbelly of urban life, captured it like lightning in a bottle, and fled the scene.