In the highly disturbing Czech competition selection Caught in the Net, also screening on the festival online viewing platform, three actresses (aged 18-23, but who can easily pass as 12-year olds) take part in an experiment over the course of ten days, designed to investigate the level of child abuse carried out online. The film is directed by Vít Klusák and Barbora Chalupová.
The ‘girls’ were given fake accounts but their interaction with the men* was all too real. Over the ten days 2458 sexual predators made contact with them, the vast majority of whom were seeking some kind of sexual gratification, whether by masturbating on screen, sharing sexually explicit material (sometimes involving animals or young children) or wanting to meet up. Some threatened to blackmail the girls.
The faces of the perpetrators are masked, although one suspects that they remain recognisable by people who know them well, and they are aged 23-63. Some are students, at least one is a grandfather who purports to love his wife. Many post from sites which show photographic evidence of their seemingly happy family lives. And at least one, the self-monikered Lord of the North, works with children.
In the final quarter of the film, the tables are turned as some are lured into the open, either to face the girls individually or, in the case of the Lord of the North, the whole cast and crew of the film outside his northern domicile.
There are two versions of the film, a long cut for audiences over 15 which pulls no punches in its depiction of the men’s depravity, either in terms of what they say or what they reveal on screen, and a short child-friendly version.
According to the producers, the film has been watched in Czech cinemas by in excess of 350,000 people making it, they claim, the most highly attended Czech doc in the country’s history.
Caught in the Net is artfully produced and designed, with three mock bedrooms on a sound stage. At the beginning a cool tracking shot scans all three girls as they dance in their allotted spaces. This adherence to a high visual aesthetic doesn’t in anyway detract from the seriousness of what the film sets out to address.
“We decided to go this way because in the Czech Republic there were quite a lot of video campaigns concerning this and they didn’t have the reach we were hoping for…so that’s why we decided to do a film documentary that will be higher quality and which will speak to a broader audience and can tell the story of the three actresses that we cast,” says co-director Klusák.
Was he worried at all that the actresses, or indeed the crew, may have suffered emotional trauma from the harrowing 10-day experience?
“For more than nine months we were doing this really good research on this topic. We had these fake profiles and we could see what was actually happening, so we were very well prepared,” Klusák responds.
“Before the actual shoot we were doing Skypes with the girls before they signed the agreement to be part of the film. So they had the chance to see how it is and how it may affect them befire they finally decided to do it.
“We knew that it would be hard on the mental health of the girls and the crew. We had experts on site, one sexologist and two psychologists, so whenever anybody wanted to talk about it, why it is happening, what it is causing, why these men act like this, we had these experts there onsite to help us,” he adds.
There is a sequence around two thirds of the way through the film that is rendered extraordinary by its sheer ordinariness. Among all the dregs of humanity, a young man appears online who advises the girls not to engage with these people, and not to succumb to any cajoling pressure they are looking to exert. Such is the raw state of emotions in the studio, the intervention elicits tearful responses from the actress and crew alike.
“We were really tired and disgusted by what was happening [after nine days of shooting] and suddenly we see this guy who was actually trying to protect this girl by telling her what she should and shouldn’t do on the internet,” says Pavla Klimešová, the film’s executive producer and translator for Klusák.
“We kind of felt like he was an angel but then you actually realise the paradox, that this is actually just a normal guy. This is how it should be normally. Why are we so surprised that we see somebody normal? This should be the standard, not something extraordinary that you should meet a nice person.”
What does co-director Klusák hope that the film will achieve? “I’d like it to set off a discussion throughout society that would result in positive ideas on how to protect children in the online sphere, not just from abusers but also from themselves,” he says.
“We mustn’t forget that kids themselves often meet dangerous situations halfway. I would also hope that the film doesn’t stir up a thirst for vengeance or prohibitions, as often happens with issues where you dig into something shady. If harm is involved, repression is appropriate. But most energy should go into prevention.
“That said, the main thing is to offer children better things to do than plonking down with a tablet. We have to start with ourselves. I’m constantly squinting at my phone and am virtually writing mails at the steering wheel. And I know that’s bad. For me and for my kids – I don’t want them to remember me that way,” he ends.
* A female perpetrator is revealed towards the end during a meeting with one of the girls in a café.