WASHINGTON - A young sex slave leaps from a window. The street-wise cops who find her lifeless body see a Russian tattoo and figure she is part of a human trafficking ring. One gorgeous blond officer wants to investigate further and begs to join the Feds in busting the operation.
While this may sound like a typical crime drama, "Human Trafficking" is a fictional TV movie with a difference. It is one of a spate of new activist films about issues ranging from loose nuclear weapons to sexual harassment, made and marketed to raise public awareness.
"The problem of trafficking is so upsetting and moving and touching, and people need to know about it," said the film's star, Mira Sorvino, who plays a Russian-born agent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
"The way that trafficking is stopped is just ordinary people become aware of it and they see something awry and then call in a tip," Sorvino told Reuters. "And until people can fathom that their next-door neighbor might have a slave in their house, they're not going to see the signs and think to call the police."
The two-part miniseries, which airs Monday and Tuesday on cable network Lifetime Television, makes for rough viewing -- the head of investigations at ICE called it "heart-wrenching" -- but shows no nudity or sexual activity and less gore than the average cops-and-robbers program on U.S. network television.
It does show the mechanics, profitability and reach of organized human trafficking, with story lines that include a single mother from the Czech Republic, a would-be teen model from Ukraine and an American child abducted by sex traffickers in the Philippines.
CINEMATIC, BUT NOT SALACIOUS
Besides Sorvino, an Academy Award winner and spokeswoman for Amnesty International's Stop Violence Against Women campaign, the film stars Donald Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. Some scenes were shot in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, giving the project a more cinematic look.
It lacks any salacious slant, a staple of some earlier television movies.
"They used to take important social topics and sort of sex them up to make people want to watch them, and I think that this film handles it with the gravitas that it deserves," Sorvino said.
The film premiered last week in Washington, not at a glittery theater but in the cavernous Ronald Reagan Building. The guests sipping apple martinis and cosmopolitans were from the State Department, ICE and Capitol Hill. The most glamorous element was Sorvino, who took a break from filming in Canada to speak to the group.
Marcy Forman, director of investigations at ICE, also attended the premiere and acknowledged that while it could help law enforcement by raising public awareness, this is not a feel-good movie.
"I was sickened watching it, as one who investigates those types of crimes," Forman said in a telephone interview. "It is definitely taking a risk because it didn't leave much to the imagination."
"Human Trafficking" is one of several recent issue-oriented films being marketed in innovative ways, often with considerable star-power.
LOOSE NUKES AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Another is "Last Best Chance," which stars actor and former senator Fred Thompson as a U.S. president confronted with the problem of nuclear bombs made by al Qaeda operatives. The Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, which works to reduce the global threat from nuclear biological and chemical weapons, helped produce the movie.
Promoted with private screenings and repeated airings on HBO, "Last Best Chance" is also available to anyone with Internet access: www.lastbestchance.org offers a free DVD of the film. More than 70,000 have been requested so far.
The film "North Country," a Warner Brothers Pictures release, tackles the subject of sexual harassment and features Charlize Theron as a path-breaking ironworker. The movie's Web site links to www.participate.net/standup, a campaign to stop sexual harassment and domestic violence.
"Movies have the power to inspire. You have the power to act. Participate!" reads the Web site copy.
Do these activist movies stand on their own as entertainment? Robert Halmi Sr., the executive producer of "Human Trafficking," had a succinct comment on this at the Washington premiere.
"If reality TV and horror shows can entertain, this will too," Halmi said.
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