TORONTO—New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.
Two films at the Toronto International Film Festival take two different bites of the Big Apple, but both show it to be a violent, seedy place. “The Brave One” stars Jodie Foster, as a woman consumed by vengeance after her boyfriend is murdered. “Very Young Girls,” which had its world premiere here, is a searing documentary featuring the very personal stories of former child prostitutes, which may hit theaters but will definitely air eventually on Showtime. We spoke with their respective directors, Neil Jordan and David Schisgall.
NEIL JORDAN ON `THE BRAVE ONE’
You usually make smaller, more personal films. Did you like working on a big studio picture?
This is a generic story and it’s not the kind of story I would write myself, but I kind of welcomed it, because with a form like this it’s like taking a machine and every part of it has to be well-oiled and every part of it has to serve a function and every part has to move the story forward, with the basic point to keep you in your seat. ... I did, however, say very early on that if you want balletic explosions and you want bodies flying through the air and bullets heading in slow motion toward people’s chests than you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m going to make a character study because what interested me was the transformation of the character.
Obviously, Jodie Foster brings a lot to the film as an actress. What else does she bring?
She brings the possibility of a huge audience identifying with the specific dilemma her character is in, which is a great, and she does it effortlessly. She’s probably done it all her life.
Her character undergoes a tremendous transformation in the film, becoming almost like a vampire rising from the dead to kill.
She casts off her liberal, sophisticated skin. In many ways she casts off her female skin and becomes some other character inside it. That’s what drew me to the movie. I can’t get interested in a character unless they’re surprised by themselves in some way.
As a non-American, are you trying to make a larger point about American culture?
I’ve always been fascinated by Americans’ attitudes toward violence, fascinated by the kind of nihilistic drive in the American film noir. And I’ve always been curious about the idea of justice and retribution. How violent justice can be seen as a virtue in some strange way. I come from Ireland, it’s a Catholic country and we’re all wallowing in guilt, living in alcoholic (stuff). We hurt ourselves, we don’t want to hurt other people too much. But there’s an almost Biblical, Protestant, overtone to a lot of American ideals of justice . It has a lot to do with revenge, that kind of death penalty justice where you can invite the family of the victims in to watch the perpetrator of the crime die. By that very fact, you’re saying that this is institutionalized revenge. There’s no sense of justice involved. It’s giving people the satisfaction of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
So is Jodie’s character really “The Brave One”?
I think she wants to be punished. ... It’s obviously a very bad way to go about justice. She’s doing something forbidden. And she knows it.
DAVID SCHISGALL ON `VERY YOUNG GIRLS’
How did you come to document the affects of the teen sex trade in New York?
I had been working (on documentaries) about young people in war zones and I did a pilot for MTV. In the course of researching the episodes for the pilot we looked into the top young-people-in-war-zones issues and one of them was international sex trafficking. We quickly realized that there was sex trafficking not just going on in Cambodia or Thailand, but 40 blocks north of our office in our own city, but no one was talking about it.
If you’re seduced and coerced into prostitution on the streets of Manhattan and you’re from the Ukraine and you get caught, then under the 2002 Human Trafficking Act you will get legal and social services and help getting back to your own country. But if you’re brought from Connecticut to Manhattan, you’re going to jail.
By the same token if a 40-year-old man has sex with a 14-year-old girl and gets caught, he goes to jail and the girl gets treatment. But if the same guy has sex with the same girl and gives her 50 bucks, and they get caught, he goes home and she goes to jail.
How did the screening here go?
It was incredible. It was a full house and there were a lot of tears from the audience, a lot of applause, and then we brought up one of our subjects and every person in the audience stood up and there was a standing ovation for two or three minutes. It was an intense, emotional moment.
With the young women in the film, prior to this screening, there was a lot of nervousness about how this would play—in their communities, which is to say, our communities. In their families, and the way the state treats them, they’re treated very poorly and blamed and judged for what’s happened to them, although what’s happened to them is child abuse. So even though they want to get the message out, they were very nervous about it. So to have one of the girls, and through her, all of the girls, get that type of affirmation was just an amazing thing and I think for her personally, one of the most important things that has happened to her in her life in terms of getting over this trauma.
How widespread is this type of abuse?
The stories of these girls and their victimization are very similar to the stories of children who’ve been victimized by coaches and by priests. At the age of 12 or 13, if there is trouble in your life, or something missing, and an adult comes along who gives you attention and validation and then brings you into things that make you feel like an adult sexually, many, many people (fall prey to this) whether they’re from the Bronx or they’re from Utah. It can happen to everyone and it does happen to everyone. And then the child becomes incredibly bonded to that person.
At that age, children are impressionable and you can get them and you can brainwash them.
What would you like to happen now?
My next goal is to use this movie to teach people about this issue and change the way people view prostitution in this country. I want to get it, not just to a wide audience, but to do the outreach and get it into the hands of people in law enforcement, people in the courts, to legislators. The reason we made this film is because we wanted to change the way people look at this issue because there are a lot of people out there who glorify prostitution, justify prostitution, and the reality is that most of it is an extension of child abuse ... These girls are 13 or 14 years old and the ones who are 20 or 21, they’re just the ones who’ve been doing it for seven years.