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Distant suffering, proper distance: Cosmopolitan ethics in the film portrayal of trafficked women

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This article contributes to a developing body of critical work on the ethical and political issues raised by anti-trafficking films and campaigns through a focus on two films, Lilya 4-ever (Luke Moodysson, Sweden/Denmark 2002) and Sex Traffic (David Yates, UK/Canada 2004), which are about young women trafficked to work in the sex industry in Europe. It evaluates the degree to which these films meet the criteria for ‘proper distance’ that are required for a ‘cosmopolitan’ aesthetics of spectatorship as proposed by Lilie Chouliarki (2006) in which our philanthropic compassion for ‘distant suffering’ is accompanied by a reflexive engagement with political questions about causes and solutions. It also argues for a ‘proper distance’ for film analysis that includes how texts are circulated and interpreted within particular discursive contexts, in this case NGO and government anti-trafficking campaigns in the United Kingdom and Sweden. Finally, a move outside trafficking as a discursive frame draws attention to critical perspectives on the ideological assumptions embedded in these campaigns and to alternative conceptions of our ethical relation to migrant labour that are obscured as a consequence. In line with Rosi Braidotti’s (2006) critique of humanist conceptions of cosmopolitanism, it argues for a ‘nomadic ethics’ that avoids voyeuristic ways of seeing these women as objects of our compassion, and takes into account their point of view, agency and right to mobility rather than imposing our own, more powerful, perspective, however sincerely held.
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Keywords: Lilya 4-ever; Sex Traffic; campaigns; communicative ethics; cultural politics of compassion; migration; trafficking

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of the West of England

Publication date: 2012-09-01

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  • The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics is committed to analyzing the politics of communication(s) and cultural processes. It addresses cultural politics in their local, international and global dimensions, recognizing equally the importance of issues defined by their specific cultural geography and those that traverse cultures and nations.
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