This is a disturbing, deeply upsetting Czech documentary about the threat of online child abuse. It is not something I would normally choose to watch and it left me feeling sick to the stomach. But it is an important film on an urgent issue and perhaps should be required viewing for parents.
The set-up is like a reality TV or tabloid gotcha. Film-makers Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák cast three young-looking actors to play 12-year-old girls. For 10 days in bedrooms built in a studio, the “girls” live chat and message men on sites such as Facebook and Skype, where they are groomed, coerced and blackmailed. The women work to a code of conduct: they’re not allowed to make approaches, only to respond to messages; and must always say their age, 12, at the beginning of conversations. Psychologists and lawyers are on standby.
The abuse begins almost immediately. “Hi you’re pretty and sweet,” messages one guy. A man on live chat: “What grade are you in?” When the actor replies seventh grade, which would make her 12 or 13, the man’s hand goes straight down his pants. There’s some nervous giggling to begin with in the studio (the directors often pull back the camera to show the film-making process). But it gets dark quickly.
The men range in age from late 20s to pensioners, faces blurred except for eyes and lips (the effect is unnerving). Their predatory behaviour runs the gamut. A youngish man with clenched, seething body language and a nasty smirk is a blackmailer: he coerces one of them into sending him nude photos then threatens to publish them. Another man is a groomer with a gentle voice, always smiling: “Hey, sweetie.”
This film is a difficult, depressing watch, though at the end in a confrontation with one of the men, the three actors are able to take back power. Not an option, of course, available to the actual children who are preyed on and damaged.