Australian cinema’s surprise success story of 2007 is The Jammed, a hard-hitting expose on illegal prostitution in Melbourne. Starring Veronica Sywak, who campaigned relentlessly to get it released, The Jammed was given the cold shoulder by the local film industry until it eventually found a national audience. Sywak talks to Luke Buckmaster about her incredible experiences on and off the set.
By Luke Buckmaster
In the late 90’s Melbourne entrepreneur Gary Glazner ran two pubs well known for strip shows and scantily clad women. His reputation however belonged to a more insidious mantle: Glazner was also known as one of the biggest traffickers of women in the city. Glazner brought at least twenty Thai women into Australia; they lived in premises provided by him and were forced to work as prostitutes at various spots in CBD. He kept their passports, controlled their movements and earned around $1 million from their labour. But when police finally caught up with Glazner he wasn’t charged with anything as serious as trafficking or false imprisonment, instead, Melbourne’s number one sex slave operator went to trail charged with five counts of being an unlicensed service provider and two counts of living partly off the earnings of prostitution. In December 2001 Glazner was issued an eighteen month fully suspended sentence and a fine of $33,000.
Fast forward five years and Veronica Sywak is door knocking in the CBD. She is coasting between brothels, quizzing prostitutes about their thoughts and experiences in the sex industry - how do they get through their days? What do they think about when they’re with their clients? What do they know about human trafficking and the sex slave trade? Sywak is researching for her new role in a controversial, culture-exposing film called The Jammed. At one stage the screenplay was so intense she literally threw it down in disgust; it is a hard-hitting expose on the grimy culture of illegal prostitution.
“The simple reason why human traffic has proliferated in this country,” says Sywak, “is basic commerce - supply and demand. A million dollars a week is made from the work of these women. Someone is cashing out. Someone is putting their AMEX down. Someone is pulling hundred dollar bills from their wallet.”
A few years after Gary Glazner’s trial, filmmaker Dee McLachlan studied the court transcripts and began writing The Jammed. Sywak plays Ashley, a career woman who reluctantly assists Chinese visitor Sunee (Amanda Ma) in the search for her missing daughter. Rubi (Sun Park) is trapped in exactly the kinds of circumstance Glazner took advantage of. Like her colleagues Vanya (Saskia Burmeister) and Crystal (Emma Lung) Rubi is caught in an inextricable rut of prostitution and illegal citizenship. If she goes to the police, she gets deported. If she stays in Australia, she waves the right to her body. Sywak believes the sex slave industry is not just proliferating in Australia, but also operating right in front of our eyes.
“It’s so easy to spot these places,” she says. “If you look in sex directories at the back of local papers, you can tell illegal brothels where there are trafficked girls. They say ‘new girls every week, all Asian,’ blah blah blah. It’s just so obvious.”
“The Jammed is a G rated version of what is happening. There was a brothel in Port Melbourne with underage boys and girls from South East Asia. Really scary stuff, and it’s happening in our most affluent suburbs.”
McLachlan’s pointed, uncompromising screenplay certainly draws public attention to a social dilemma largely unreported by the media, and for a long time the film too was ignored. McLachlan raised most of The Jammed’s modest $600,000 budget privately, so the film had little marketing clout and no corporate weight behind it. Stepping well outside her role as an actor, Sywak appointed herself a member of the publicity team and worked tirelessly to promote the film - almost to the point of obsession. She wrote countless letters and emails, made phone calls and hassled publicists, nurtured viral campaigns on web sites such as Myspace, even got in contact with A Current Affair. Sywak says she campaigned so hard she not only stepped on some toes but also “burnt some bridges,” although her efforts yielded few results. The crew had high hopes for a premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but MIFF passed and one by one every distributor in the country knocked it back. Eventually The Jammed secured the smallest kind of theatrical release: a 10 day exclusive season at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. It seemed the Australian film industry just wasn’t interested.
“I could not understand people’s responses and why they were resisting so much,” Syway says.
“The first time I saw the film I knew it was extraordinary and I just couldn’t understand the response we were getting. I found it quite befuddling.”
Then all of a sudden closed doors began to creak open. McLachlan met TV/newspaper critic David Stratton at the Brisbane Film Festival a week before the Nova season began and told him “you have to come see our film!” Stratton obliged, and was so taken in by it he spent the next day rearranging The Movie Show so he and co-host Margaret Pomeranz could give it a good plug. The program, featuring rave reviews, interviews with McLachlan and Sywak and open criticism towards the Australian film industry, went to air on the eve of the film’s limited release. The following morning The Jammed received its second major shot in the arm: The Age critic Jim Schembri lavished it with accolades, labelling it “hands-down the best Australian film of the year.” Included in his review was another unsubtle jab at the local film industry for having given it the cold shoulder. Shortly after, according to Sywak, a bidding war for distribution began. The film would be screened in every capital city in the country. The distributor would be Titan View, a company spearheaded by former actor John L. Simpson. It was the light at the end of the tunnel.
It is likely that in the distant future Veronica Sywak will remember her time on and off the set of The Jammed as one of the most turbulent experiences of her career. She’ll remember her strange and exhilarating audition, for which she arrived “reeking of sex and booze” and tried out for the part of Vanya. She’ll remember sleepless nights spent searching the internet, poring over every review she could find of The Jammed, every blog post, every user comment. She will remember, leading up to the film’s release, deciding her living situation was “intolerable” and the days spent sleeping in her car. And she will remember being taken to hospital after suffering anxiety attacks during the film’s hectic 19 day shoot.
But perhaps the moment that will be rendered most striking in her memory was before all that, when the film was just a screenplay and Sywak was door knocking in the CBD, speaking to real people stuck in inextricable ruts of their own. She recalls asking one prostitute how old she was when she lost her virginity. The woman told Sywak that she was 12-years-old, but 17-years-old when she lost it with consent.
“She said thank you so much for making this film and for coming to talk to us. You don’t know how important it is,” says Sywak.
“She was a 35-year-old woman. When I got close to her I felt that her energy was so bright and shiny. It affected me so much that…”
As her sentence trails away, her eyes drop to the ground and two tears roll down her face. Sywak is a good actor, but those tears seem awfully real.
“I am so proud of this film because it exposes a cultural calamity instead of buying into the cultural fringe. I don’t think Australians want to actually acknowledge that this (the sex slave industry) happens in our country…It goes against the Australian way completely.
“But I think in order for us to celebrate our country and be proud of our country, we need to embrace the good and the bad. And I think this film is taking important steps to realise that.”