Review: Caught in the Net

The clever, almost flippant title of this Czech documentary betrays its slightly self-congratulatory tone. Though the topic is a very serious one—pederasts stalking children online—the focus on superior production values and the game-like execution counteracts the seriousness to a certain extent. For all the disgust certain scenes will surely provoke in viewers, the movie seems almost beside the point, and I can’t help but feel that a more effective documentary about the sexual victimization of children could have been made without the reality show trappings.

Granted, the enterprise concocted and recorded by filmmakers Vit Klusak and Barbora Chalupova is presented as an “experiment” that mostly investigates the permeability of social media and how those without proper defenses due to lack of maturity can be taken advantage of. Right at the start of the film we are shown statistics stating that 41 percent of Czech children have received unsolicited pornographic images online from other people. The parameters of the experiment are explained clinically and also in a slightly conspiratorial fashion. The directors put out a casting call for young female actors over the age of 18 to arrive wearing children’s clothing. Twenty-three show up and each is told her task if selected: she will impersonate a 12-year-old girl who joins a number of social networks with the purpose of attracting men who stalk pre-teen girls for sexual gratification. Those auditioning for the part explain, often in lurid detail, some of their own experiences with sexual abuse. Three are selected, and then an elaborate set is constructed on a soundstage consisting of three bedrooms that simulate the individual actors’ respective spaces when they themselves were 12 years old, complete with actual artifacts from their childhoods. Computers are set up and connected to video recording equipment that will be monitored by a large staff, including psychologists, lawyers, social workers, and sexologists, who are on hand to make sure things don’t get too intense for the actors, which, of course, they do.

The experiment lasts for ten days, during which the three women are contacted by a total of 2,548 men, who mostly interact with the women through Skype. Their faces are creepily masked, and they often freely admit that they are masturbating as they talk to the women, who are clearly distressed by the fact though they’ve been warned this will happen. In almost all the cases recorded, the men not only show the women their penises, but request that they remove articles of clothing themselves or demand they send nude photos of themselves. In fact, in order to extend the experiment, the producers hire outside models to act as body doubles for the women so that they can send the nude photos requested. In at least one case, an interlocutor uses the photo for blackmail purposes. (As a kind of antidote to the queasy mood, they include one young man who goes online just to talk and then commiserates so honestly with one of the women about the horridness of most men that the interaction brings tears to the eyes of everyone listening.) The whole endeavor is capped by in-person meetings in a cafe with 21 of the men and then a contentious encounter with one outside his home where the filmmakers reveal their project and accuse him of illegal acts. 

The film does explicate how shockingly widespread child stalking is on the internet, and many of the encounters reveal the mindset behind such actions, which often come down to simple misogyny (in his defense, the man confronted at the end of the movie blames the girls for coming on to him); and a final title card mentions that the data collected during the experiment was eventually handed over to the police, who are now “investigating” the men depicted. But the overall impression is of a very sophisticated stunt that produced interesting results that probably could have been produced in a way that was less sensational. 

In Czech. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670). 

Caught in the Net home page in Japanese

photo (c) Milan Jaros, 2020 Hypermarket Film, Czech Television, Peter Kerekes, Radio and Television of Slovakia, Helium Film

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