Imagine, just for a moment, a young person taken by force or by guile from their home to work in a household without pay and are constantly subjected to abuse. Such situations are occurring throughout the world, seeing many endure the plight of modern day slaves. This is a phenomenon that the UK’s Channel 4 Dispatches, I am Slave explores: As a child Malia, was separated from her family in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan during a raid on her village. She was subsequently sold on to a family in Khartoum to work as a slave and then sold once again to a relative of her ‘owners’, when she came to live in London. Far from a burlesqued dramatisation of a rare case, Malia’s story is based on the experiences of Mende Nazer, an author taken from Sudan and thrust into a life of servitude. I am Slave evokes programmes such as Alex Haley’s Roots and slave narratives like, Harriet Jacobs’, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, yet if the purpose of the film is not merely to entertain but to inform and catalyse change it is necessary to question the capacity of I am Slave to impact upon its audience.
At the end of the film two shocking statistics appear: firstly, there are as many as 5000 young women currently living as slaves in London and secondly, more than 20,000 people have been enslaved in Sudan. The former statistic may not seem shocking when one considers that London has an estimated population of 7,556,900. Yet couched in the context of the abuse endured by Malia, the idea that the vulnerable are continuing to be exploited in ways that have been illegal in the UK since1833 is vile. [protected]
The cruel abuse depicted in I am Slave is among its most impressive features. Exploring the fraught dynamic between the mistress and the female house slave, we see both the subtle and overt means by which Malia is subjugated. Since the subtle is in many ways far more damaging it is worthy of a brief description. Following Malia’s first attempt to escape from her mistress’ home in London an uncomfortable dialogue between the two women ensues. Instead of a violent outburst, Malia’s passport is taken by a softly spoken oppressor who says: ‘under no circumstances do you answer the door or leave the house without my permission’. In fact it takes approximately 30 minutes before we hear an overt example of manipulation: ‘If you ever try to speak to anyone outside this house my husband will have your family killed […] it’s your choice Malia’.
The dehumanisation of the protagonist is interwoven with vibrant scenes of her youth and highly emotive depictions of her father’s relentless search for his daughter. I am Slave sensitively employs bathos, contrasting Malia’s royal decent with her demeaning enslavement to emphasise the brutality of the modern day slave trade.
Although it is implicit, traders are also shown to be responsible for Malia’s plight, demonstrating that modern slavery is not simply a concern for those countries into which slaves are sold – its abolition is contingent on suppressing and bringing to justice those responsible for rounding up and trafficking. This must involve close and constructive relationships being forged between Governments around the world, in addition to the work of charities such as the London-based Kalayaan.
Founded in ‘87, Kalayaan is committed to assisting legal immigrants who are forced into slavery by employers some of them diplomats who attract them with the prospect of domestic work. According to the charity’s ‘08-‘09 annual report, 68 percent of their clients were made to work at any given time of day or night, according to the whims of the employer, while 58% endured psychological abuse.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly what the impact of one programme will be in combating modern slavery. However continuing to publicise its devastating effects in an intelligent, informative and clear manner will highlight the need for all nations to stand firm against the perpetuation of this insidious trade. I am Slave is useful, above all, in that it asks each of us to defend those who cannot defend themselves. [/protected]