Feature Narrative Reviews

Choir Girl (2020) – Unrated

Director: John Fraser

Writer: John Fraser

Cast: Peter D Flaherty, Sarah Timm, Krista Vendy, Jack Campbell

Running time: 1hr 35mins

Every review of this film should begin with a warning. Throughout its 90-minute run-time, Choir Girl features themes of trafficking and sexual abuse, and a graphic depiction of a rape. It is not a film for the faint hearted, if indeed it is a film for anyone.

Of course, films can and do tackle these subjects – and when it is done right, it is a vital exercise in speaking truth to power; either literally via a hard-hitting documentary, or via metaphor through an unflinchingly grim piece of narrative. Ultimately though, if a film in either vein is to succeed, there must be a justifiable motive behind it.

Filmmakers who feature such heinous crimes need to use the work as an opportunity for survivors and or victims to define their own story. In turn, around this they should build a clear call to action: an urging of the audience to take a hard look at themselves – and how they might be facilitating the culture that enables such abuse – or to pile pressure on the organisations failing to prevent it. Films like DION, V and Good Girls Don’t Tell manage to do this across multiple genres.

Should an artist fail to do this, they run the risk of producing something gratuitous and self-righteous; even if they think they approached the project with the best possible intentions. Sadly, I can only determine that writer and director John Fraser is very much in this latter camp. He builds a disgusting world which is suitably drained of colour, but to no discernible end beyond living out a troubling good guy fantasy.

Choir Girl centres on Eugene, a freelance photographer who is attempting to sell street photography to a glossy art magazine. An early exchange between the frustrated Eugene (Peter D Flaherty) and one of the magazine’s editors possibly pre-empts what I have to say about the film itself. His photographs, he claims, simply show the truth of the run-down part of town he lives in – filled, according to his pictures, with pimps and pushers, sex workers and drug addicts. The editor is not having it though – suggesting his imagery is ‘voyeuristic,’ while there is no point at which readers could engage with the story. In other words, we are not being invited to do anything about the suffering on display – just to consume it.

Eugene then happens on something that could change all that. On a nocturnal walkabout, he spies a young woman, Josephine (Sarah Timm) being forced to take heroin by her pimp. He photographs the scene, and pushes the new angle that he could provide more images of her as “someone you’d want to help.” Indeed, Eugene does make all the sounds of wanting to help – and in the end he manages to ‘rescue’ her. However, once he has her away from her captors, his motives become less clear.

In a town where Josephine’s ‘owner,’ Daddy (the chilling Jack Campbell), apparently has various officials on his payroll, Eugene repeatedly urges her not to flee. After all, then he wouldn’t be able to take more photographs of her, and see his name in print in a big-time magazine… or expose the corruption. Obviously, he wants to expose the corruption…

Throughout the twists and turns of the plot, he sinks to increasingly depraved lows in order to keep his ‘muse’ in his lens, while keeping her out of the hands of Daddy, and it is clear that the filmmaker is setting him up as having lost his way. He is doing things that are wrong, and he will, we expect, realise he is perpetuating a harmful system of control rather than actually challenging it. Josephine will finally get her truth across to him, and he will realise this story isn’t about what he wants – and do the right thing whatever the personal cost.

To an extent the film delivers on this. On the first part, you will spend the duration of Choir Girl feeling increasingly sickened by Eugene. His increasingly tenuous claims to being a ‘good guy’ are manipulated by other players looking to make profitable art without making change, and he is puppeteered into leaving Josephine in extreme danger.

The delivery of his ‘grand sacrifice’ is where things go grotesquely off track, though. As the film canters toward the 90-minute-mark, he develops a plan to save Josephine and bring down the traffickers with the help of the editor who previously criticised him. She can get him and her on television to tell their story – if he can get Josephine back from Daddy’s captivity.

The method of this rescue is the most repulsive moment of the film, however. Going to Daddy alone, the kingpin decides enough is enough, and he will have to kill them both as they have become a nuisance to his operations. Eugene pleads that before that, he should be given the chance to have sex with Josephine alone. His guess seems to be Daddy will be amused by the prospect, enough to let him live for now. And he is right. But he is then taken to a hotel room, stripped, and told to rape her for the entertainment of her pimps. It has been implied he loves her, so the protracted brutality that follows is apparently agony… for Eugene. The moment is creepily framed as necessary, as if he’s doing this for her own good; and even as though the real trauma is his. What a hero.

The camera never wavers from the horrific event, while it is choreographed in sickening detail. Following the scene, Eugene whispers in Josephine’s ear he will save her – before a montage of images and voice clips from outraged talk shows suggests public infamy generated by his plan did bring down the trafficking empire. How exactly is never seen though.

We are left to guess how the pair escape from the brothel the assault takes place in. We are given no reason as to why Daddy, who is not exactly a man of his word, left them alive to tell their story after he had no more use for them. Worse, there is no footage of Josephine finally telling her story, speaking of dreams or aspirations, giving humanising details about her life, or making a call to arms to help those like her. There also is no suggestion of what kind of surge in public opinion, or even physical mobilisation, might have been necessary to push the story beyond a typical cycle of media outrage, and really force change. So, we have seen so much horror, but not for anything we could take away and inform our real-world relationships with. The only thing this film serves is revulsion as an experience – which is every bit as distasteful, exploitative (and disrespectful to the real people living this nightmare) as it sounds

The film ends with a final exchange between the two leads. Eugene seems to be in prison, and Josephine is inexplicably able to just walk into the courtyard and visit him. She hands him a picture. We never see what is on it, but it is a small square, with a white back. She nuzzles against him and we cut to black. Perhaps it isn’t – but the ending seems worryingly to imply that the violent assault he subjected her to resulted in a pregnancy. I cannot be certain, but if that is the case, it adds an extra layer of molasses-thick filth to the already grim conclusions to be drawn from the narrative arc.

The story was about Eugene, about his redemption, more than Josephine’s liberation. In terms of the narrative, her enslavement serves to test his virtue. Does he really want to save her, or does he want to make money from her suffering? It is ‘virtue’ which he proves when he ‘sacrifices himself’ in the vilest way possible. To suggest maybe she is happy that she is somehow with him now, with or without the pregnancy angle, serves only to reward his actions.

There isn’t a rating this film can be given in good conscience. This topic necessitates much of the disgusting and uncomfortable content found in this story – but only if it serves a particular end. Choir Girl does not ask us to change our selves or the world around us. That makes it gratuitous. At the same time, it seems to be living out some grotesque fantasy; what if you could only liberate someone through extreme sexual violence? That makes it unforgivable.

3 comments

  1. I have not watched the film, but your summary of the plot, and particularly the “redemption” of Eugene has warned me that I don’t want to. How many times must it be explained that one person believing they are “in love” with another never, ever excuses non-consensual sex? That the non-consensual act will not endear the perpetrator to the victim, no matter what the intention? Thank you for pointing it out. Again. I guess that’s all we can do.

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