“It can be rather sloppy, and run abruptly. But it’s an eye-opening experience all the same, because of the scope of the horrors it exposes to the unknowledgeable viewer, and the empathy it has for the pain felt.”
by Ken Bakely
The issue at hand in Mary Mazzio’s I am Jane Doe is the epidemic of child sex trafficking. It’s an underground industry that generates untold amounts of revenue. In developed nations, such as the United States, we treat it as something that happens in very poor or very dangerous third-world countries. However, it’s happening under our noses – in our quiet suburbs and well-worn communities. These days, traffickers are able to expand their networks, luring in young victims – mainly girls – over the internet, abducting them, and then renting them off online. Transactions generally take place using coded language on classified-ad websites, most notably Backpage, which until recently, hosted a “personal ad” subsection where significant amounts of trafficking could be seen taking place.
The film follows a few families who had children that were kidnapped and sold. Upon recovering the girls, now psychologically and physically traumatized, the next logical step for the parents was taking legal action against the site which facilitated this crime. Unfortunately, Backpage, extremely profitable and tied to a prominent media organization, hired a small army of lawyers who were able to get each case summarily dismissed, arguing that a two-decade old communications law excused them from any liability. Unsatisfied with this seeming lack of justice, the victims and their attorneys fight back against Backpage’s near-immunity, and in the process, attempt to draw nationwide attention to an issue which has been long neglected.
If the criteria for a good documentary film be that it tells a story that a book could not, then I am Jane Doe falls short. It has the kind of narrative structure and structural jumping that a longform feature in a magazine would, and doesn’t do anything creative beyond standard talking-head interviews mixed with archival footage. But at the same time, there is a sense of importance and passion, a movie imbued with a need to be heard, laying out a message of a very real, ignored problem and the brazen complacency in society which fuels it. It doesn’t really make up for its technical mediocrity or lack of storytelling prowess, but it’s impossible to argue against Mazzio’s investment in the subject matter and her ability to create an impeccable starting point.
Her intentions are noble, and it’s clear that I am Jane Doe is made with compassionate, active energy. She pieces together interview segments with a running timeline and generous supporting video, with everything from home movies to hearings of the Senate Investigations subcommittee. They are all contextualized on a patchwork timeline, which divides the film into chronological chapters. On one hand, this is evidence of the importance that Mazzio sees in the project, and the need to present it as an ongoing story. On the other hand, it’s a crutch for a film that lacks a unifying throughline – 98 minutes of raw information being blasted into our faces at varying streams. The movie’s fundamental uninterest in making itself about one person only (to show the array of demographics trafficking affects) ends up working against in this respect. Cut from one story to another, from one court case to the next, with a slow merger pieced together in the background, in time for a finale but little else.
Documentaries, after all, are movies like anything else, and so they should have to meet the basic cinematic requirements for success. Tell a story, or sending a message, in a well-paced, organized way. I am Jane Doe doesn’t succeed with these parameters. It can be rather sloppy, and run abruptly. But it’s an eye-opening experience all the same, because of the scope of the horrors it exposes to the unknowledgeable viewer, and the empathy it has for the pain felt. If nothing else, Mazzio is keenly aware of the responsibility she bares in filming these stories. The depicted struggles – personal, legal, and societal – are unimaginable, and introduced with immense dignity. It’s regrettable that the film itself couldn’t be put together in such a noble way, but the purpose of the material is powerful all the same.