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This weekend we’re watching: Hunting apartheid’s sex traffickers

'I am All Girls' (Image courtesy of Netflix)

'I Am All Girls' is a gritty upcoming SA suspense thriller based on true events, set in the dying days of apartheid, about a detective’s unwitting relationship with a serial killer as they both pursue a powerful global sex trafficking syndicate.

Human trafficking is, by nature, a hidden scourge. Accounts of the degree of its prevalence are alarmingly varied and public perception of it even more so. It has often been swept under the rug – out of sight, out of mind – and more recently, it has also been used as a tool to feed mind-boggling conspiracy theories under the hashtags #QAnon and #stophumantrafficking.

But we do know that it happens all over the world, particularly in countries like South Africa with high inequality and unemployment. Human trafficking is an opportunistic crime, and in periods of chaos, it thrives on government unaccountability. We are currently experiencing one of those dangerous periods of chaos – the upheaval of the pandemic has created new opportunities for human traffickers to prey on increasingly vulnerable and desperate people.

Another one was South Africa’s transition to democracy. I Am All Girls is a gritty South African suspense thriller based on true events, which will be released on Netflix on May 14. Set in the dying days of apartheid, it follows a detective’s unwitting relationship with a serial killer as they both pursue a powerful global sex trafficking syndicate that deals in South African girls.

I Am All Girls

“In 1994 in Johannesburg, Gert de Jager abducted six girls who were never found. After he was caught, he confessed on tape. The apartheid government refused to release it.”

De Jager was acting under instruction of a corrupt National Party Cabinet minister (played by Deon Lotz). Most of the girls were sold to Iranian sheiks in exchange for oil to bypass sanctions, but his favourites he would take himself, and pawn off to low-end brothels when he felt they’d been “used up”. One such girl resolved to exact her revenge: Ntombizonke Bapai.

Years later, the pursuit of trafficking units in South Africa is severely strained, with budgets being allocated to law enforcement according to convictions, but when the mutilated bodies of paedophiles and traffickers start getting found on the streets of Johannesburg, detective Jodie Snyman (Erica Wessels), realises that they’re linked to the Gert de Jager case, and the chase begins.

I Am All Girls is a bit of an enigma. It strives to bring South Africa to international audiences by imitating well-trodden stylistic techniques from American crime-thrillers and transposing them into a South African story. Think CSI in Joburg – people storming out of boardrooms and tense conversations with severe drawn-out silences.

There are some jittery chase scenes and shoot-outs but the film relies primarily on dialogue rather than action – it’s drawn-out in a fashion usually associated with slow-burn mystery series, yet it’s surprisingly watchable, less clunky than South African dramas often are.

On the whole, the acting feels natural, with particularly compelling performances from Isidingo’s Hlubi Mboya as Ntombi Bapai, and Tsotsi’s Mothusi Magano as captain George Mululeki. Wessels does a decent job as detective Synman, the leading lady, though she tends to try too hard to look cool and overplay the drama.

Detective Snyman is crumbling under the enormous stress of her job. A highly empathic person, she is so desperate to free the trafficked girls she’s looking for that it is a constant struggle for her to remain within the bounds of the law. When her captain recommends she go in for medical evaluation, saying, “this job gets to all of us”, she replies: “It’s supposed to get to us George, otherwise what the fuck are we doing?”

This statement reflects the uncomfortable nature of much of the film. The scenes of creepy white men looming over cowering girls, or young Ntombi Bapai singing sweetly to herself as she’s hauled through the gloomy streets of Johannesburg in the back of a covered-up backie – they are supposed to disquiet us.

Some of the most disturbing and captivating scenes are flashbacks of Ntombi’s journey from being trafficked into prostitution to becoming a forensic detective and badass masked vigilante serial killer. The moral ambiguity of her murderous quest for vengeance is a little underdeveloped, a slightly irresponsible decision by director Donovan Marsh, despite Ntombi’s justified fury and the undeniable evil of her prey.

Marsh has a flair for creative sequences that provide much-needed cinematic colour. Many of the eerie establishing shots between scenes are more gripping than the action itself, complemented by Brendan Jury’s suspenseful score of building drums and violins that scratches and gnaws on your reptilian brain like nails on a chalkboard.

While the moving flashbacks of Ntombi’s story and the transitory shots between scenes are the soul of I Am All Girls, they punctuate the present-day narrative in such a way that the film is disjointed. Between this fragmentation and Marsh’s approach to dialogue, the film is slowed down considerably. Yet it retains an intriguing moreish quality, and the strength of its actors and its story should help it to hold its own on the international stage. DM/ ML

I Am All Girls is available in South Africa on Netflix from May 14.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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