I Am Jane Doe ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Mary Mazzio.
Written by: Jonathan Alter and Bob Fitzgerald and Jay Manson and Mary Mazzio and Alec Sokolow.
The documentary I Am Jane Doe tells an urgent and important story about the website Backpage.com – a kind of online classified site where you can sell pretty much anything – including, it seems, children for the purposes of sex. There is an “adult” section, where anyone can post ads for their services, which amounts to prostitution, but Backpages says they are not responsible for that – and they have been backed up by the courts. They simply provide the platform, and if others choose to break the law, it’s them who are responsible for that, not Backpages. If this was a case of adults finding other adults for the purposes of sex – even if money was exchanging hands – it wouldn’t be the scandal it is now – no matter what you think of prostitution, it is the oldest professional in the world, and it’s silly to think it wouldn’t go online. But Backpages has a bigger problem – it’s not just adults who are there, but children, being held by pimps, drugged into submission, and sold over and over and over again to adults for sex. This film tries to tell the story of Backpages in general, and also a few of the personal stories of the girls being sold – 13 and 15 year olds, whose real names are not identified in the, but who do – along with their families – tell their story, and the years of legal battles with Backpages that follows.
In all honesty, I think the film documentary tries to accomplish too much. Director Mary Mazzio knows that personal stories of the girls will hit the audience the hardest emotionally – and doesn’t shy away from allowing them and their families tell their story. There are also a number of sequences, where maudlin music plays over scenes of other children playing, dancing, etc. designed specifically to milk more and more tears from the audience – and inspire them to action. It is an undeniable laudable goal – but certainly does push the film into the area of the “hyperlink” documentary, called so because the end credits always include a screen that reads GET INVOLVED: and than a website address for more information.
It’s a little frustrating, because the case of Backpages itself, and the legal battle, is a fascinating one – one that pits the idea of child prostitution against Freedom of Speech, Net Neutrality, and a law passed in 1996, that specifically says ISP’s are not responsible for what third parties put on their site. In most cases, I agree that those things should be allowed – but there are limits to everything, and many of those lines are drawn around protecting children. A compelling case is made that Backpages allows people to promote child prostitution because they give advertisers a list of words and phrases to avoid, allow them to use codes words, and while they do employ screeners – they also instruct them not to be overly vigilant, to not reject anything that is borderline, and by allowing the ads to go live while the review process is up. At what point does all this become collusion in child prostitution?
I can see a great documentary being made about this subject – but I do think it would need to be more focused than I Am Jane Doe is. This doesn’t mean that, like the courts, it should basically ignore the stories of the victims – they should be given a voice – or that I don’t agree with the point of view of the documentary – because I do. But this is a complicated legal issue, and a better, more confident film may have been able to do more than simply lecture the audience for 90 minutes – which is basically what this film does.