Film Review: I Am Jane Doe

This striking, powerful and up-to-the-minute documentary about sex trafficking on the website Backpage enlists a deep bench of heavy-hitting politicos, journalists, victims and advocates to make its moral message.
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With advocacy documentaries, there is a temptation to grade on a curve. When the issue is crucial, one can forgive a lot of the characteristics common to the genre: shoddy craftsmanship, repetitiveness, a tendency to harangue and oversimplify. Nobody would argue that Mary Mazzio’s I Am Jane Doe is not squarely situated in the advocacy documentary genre. It doesn’t pretend not to have a little interest in debating the issue at hand. Normally, that would be a negative. But when the issue is a website that appears to be making millions off prostitution, including the trafficking of underage girls, it can be difficult to find people willing to defend such practices on camera.

I Am Jane Doe begins with the victims and builds their stories first before coming to the growing squad of advocates looking to get them some justice. Mazzio starts with two young women, shown on camera but identified only by initials, who were taken from their families and thrown into the netherworld of online prostitution. M.A., from St. Louis, was 13, while J.S., from Seattle, was 15 when they were trafficked—which, as one interviewee notes, is just “a polite term for being repeatedly raped.” The girls and their parents tell their harrowing stories in between heartbreaking home-movie footage and narration about sex trafficking provided by Jessica Chastain.

M.A. was 13 when she disappeared. Her mother found pictures of her online 270 days later. She had been stabbed, burned and forced into becoming a drug addict. J.S. was 15 when the same thing happened to her. Both were eventually returned to their families (J.S. actually being rescued from her captors by police in a sting operation after being drugged and repeatedly raped), but the trauma, shame and guilt follow them like a dark cloud. Like any victims in such circumstances, they and their families want justice for the people responsible. But unlike many victims, there’s an extra layer to what happened to them. The girls’ pimps might go to jail, but the bigger issue Mazzio wants to tackle is the website that was blithely allowing those pimps to advertise their captive girls, and making a good profit.

Starting in 2010, both J.S. and M.A.’s families launched lawsuits against the website Backpage, the second-biggest classified website on the Internet after Craigslist. But in 2010, Craigslist took down its “escort” ads, leading to a traffic spike for Backpage, which one of the advocates describes as “Walmart for human trafficking.” At this point, Mazzio shifts somewhat away from the victims and their families to some less expected sources like storied Village Voice investigative reporters Tom Robbins and the late Wayne Barrett. Robbins observes that when their paper was bought by the media company New Times—which then proceeded to gut the paper’s staff and shift away from reporting—it seemed to be nothing more than “journalistic cover” to hide the dirty business of their very profitable website Backpage.

The film then digs into the fascinating confluence of media, obscenity and freedom of expression that typifies this underreported story. Backpage beat back the first victim lawsuits, and many other legal assaults that followed, by shielding themselves behind the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that act very crucially exempts a website like Backpage from the same kind of responsibility for content that a publisher might normally have. So even though Backpage hosted pages selling sex with trafficked children—and, it appears, likely even coached their customers in how to write their ads in ways that would evade law enforcement—they were shielded from liability by a bill passed in the Dark Ages of the Internet and judges who seem to believe the euphemism “escort” as implying some kind of Pretty Woman fantasy prostitute instead of the industrialized rape industry that lies behind it.

The outrageousness of this reality is so apparent that it even arouses a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation in government. Senators John McCain, Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill all provide fiery and outraged interviews for the film and are shown in the Senate holding Backpage executives (whose callous indifference seems pulled from some formulaic B-movie) to the flame for refusing to cooperate with their investigation.

I Am Jane Doe is single-minded in its moral sense. But it is not simplistic in dramatically detailing the legal and political machinations involved here. The quality of interviews and eagerness to dive into the knotty yet fascinating minutiae of the legal battles are unusual but perhaps not surprising, as veteran political journalist Jonathan Alter is credited as an executive producer. It would have been helpful if the filmmakers had dug a little deeper into the larger issue around the CDA, which many Web free-speech absolutists defend tooth and nail, believing that allowing something like Backpage’s escort page-hosting is simply the price that must be paid for a free Internet. Their arguments, and the many powerful interests supporting them, are dismissed too swiftly here, leaving it difficult for viewers to understand how something like Section 230 could still be the law of the land.

The debate rages on even at the end of this iron-willed message film, which includes further developments that occurred mere weeks before its opening.

Click here for cast and crew information.