Film Review: The Wrong Light

A filmmaker trying to tell the story of a dashing activist saving Thai girls from sex trafficking discovers a disturbing truth behind the donor-friendly façade in this prismatic, thought-sparking documentary.
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Like any good documentary on a subject as despicable as sex trafficking, Dave Adams and Josie Swantek’s The Wrong Light brackets the enormity of the problem. As the camera trawls through Thailand’s red-light districts, the narration describes how brokers will literally buy young girls from impoverished parents and put them to work in brothels for years until their debt is paid off. If the girls try to run away, that’s no escape; agents will visit their parents and exact revenge. It’s a twisted story, given extra resonance by the garishly Inferno-like cheer of Thai tourist-zone nightlife and a creepy passing glimpse of an older white man walking arm in arm with a far younger Thai woman.

Striding into this moral no-man’s-land is the movie’s subject, Mickey Choothesa. A ruggedly handsome type with a ponytail, the kindly but no-nonsense disposition of a favorite dad, and stories to tell from his past as a war photographer, he has granted “unprecedented” access to the filmmakers to see his rescue and rehabilitation operation up close. It’s an opportunity few filmmakers would pass up.

According to Choothesa, starting in 2005 he has run the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia (COSA) as a proactive NGO for girls that have been trafficked in this manner. His strategy appears to be leading missions into the hill tribes’ villages in the mountains of northern Thailand where so many girls are trafficked from, where he’ll either rescue brothel workers outright or convince parents to give him “at risk” girls. Then they can be brought back to COSA and provided an education and something like a normal life.

The COSA school in Chiang Mai, a cozy dormitory full of bright teenage laughter and easy camaraderie, seems borderline idyllic for girls rescued from brothels. But we know from the teaser of an opening, in which an interview goes pear-shaped and we hear a frightened-sounding “It’s all a big lie,” that something is amiss. Of course, that story he told about rescuing girls from brothels while taking hostile fire like some kind of one-man NGO SEAL Team Six did seem a little too good to be true.

The strings start to unravel once the filmmakers interview some COSA girls without Choothesa present. Without giving much away, suffice it to say that the life stories COSA has been peddling to donors—laid out here with plangent music and animated interstitials—about the different girls don’t precisely jibe with their own experiences. The COSA girls, sprightly and happy and eager to be going places in life, don’t expect to be portrayed as such hapless victims. Once the competing narratives are discovered, the movie turns from the portrait of a noble warrior idealist to an investigation of possible fraud.

Adams and Swantek thread those interview scenes with unnerving discomfort. It raises questions of not just whether lies have been told to secure more donations, but why such lies would be considered necessary. What does it say about expectations in the NGO community that a school for disadvantaged hill-tribe girls from northern Thailand, a worthy enough cause, would require such a lurid cover story?

The Wrong Light is an uneasy fit for its subject matter, not surprising given the radical adjustments the filmmakers had to make as their story’s layers peeled away like onionskins in front of their lenses. The lush landscapes and swooping aerial photography feel far more appropriate for the story they meant to tell instead of the one they ended up discovering. Although the filmmakers show a refreshing amount of concern for their subjects, their investigative zeal leaves something to be desired. They tell a hell of a story but leave mostly untouched its broader implications in a world where it is regularly assumed, rightly or wrongly, that greater tragedy and greater melodrama correlate with greater donations.

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