Selling Isobel - An Interview with Frida Farrell

   Human trafficking is big business – one of the world’s fastest growing industries for those who operate in the black market or, for that matter, anywhere else. The stereotypes suggest that it is only under the cover of darkness, a seedy underworld in the shadows, where women and children are sold into slavery and controlled by organised criminals. This may be a comforting thought for some – those of us who imagine that such an industry could only exist in a world far removed from our own; an abstract plane almost.

   The truth, however, is that trafficking is a more common crime than you could imagine – in 2015, for example, the industry dwarfed Burger King’s annual net sales of $1.1bn by a multiple of thirty. People are being bought and sold, traded and bartered for, with a greater frequency than which we consume fast food. Frida Farrell, actress and survivor, speaks of her own experience: “People don't know that it happens in London, right now, right here, all the time, every day.”

   My conversation with Farrell takes place the day after I have seen her latest feature Selling Isobel – a harrowing movie which details her real life abduction and time in captivity with unflinching brutality and visceral intensity. I’m still emotionally bruised almost 24 hours later as our call takes place.

   The first question asked, somewhat open-endedly, is to enquire as to what the actress hopes people will take from the film and the story she shares. “I just want them [the audience] to realise that it can happen to absolutely anyone,” Farrell states, “and just to be really aware of what is going on so we can stop it before it happens. It can happen to young English girls, it doesn't have to be people who don't speak the language.”

  The actress remembers being approached after the recent screening of the movie at Raindance Film Festival, where it won the Indie Award, by a number of people stunned by what they had witnessed. “We did a quick Q and A and people were so thankful we did because they had a few questions of just, like, shocked disbelief. They almost needed to have a conversation about it afterwards.” The feedback, she states, was amazing. “We got loads of compliments like: ‘Oh my God that was shocking’; ‘That was so good’; ‘I'm so glad I saw it, I'm going to tell my children’. There was an eighteen year old girl who came up to me and she was like in shock: ‘I've been so na├»ve’.”

   Farrell’s own experiences took place fourteen years ago as a young drama student looking for work in London. A well-dressed English-man invited her to a casting session at a small apartment near Oxford Circus - the photoshoot quickly turned sinister.

   In scenes which are recreated in Selling Isobel, the previously charming man held Farrell captive at knifepoint before drugging her and then forcing her into work with men who visited the apartment. The feature repeats these violent and traumatic events with unwavering and unremitting force – the attacks are graphic and the physical and spiritual toll they take on Isobel are portrayed with distressing verisimilitude. The role would be exceptionally gruelling for any performer but, given the circumstances involved, I wonder how much more difficult appearing in the movie would have been? How must it have felt to relive these sequences once more?

   “I wasn't actually… when we started doing it… I wasn't sure if I could.” Farrell remembers. “I was like – ‘hmmm this is going to be hard’. I thought about hiring another actress to do it and then we got closer to the time and I got more used to the script and I felt maybe I can actually separate myself from the character a little bit and do it that way so it's not like I'm thinking ‘oh it's me, it's me, it's me’. It's the character. It's kind of how I did it.” In part, this explains both why the movie’s location and protagonist’s name do not reflect their real life equivalents.

   As we discuss characters, I’m reminded of the antagonist in Selling Isobel – if good writing is, as I believe, steeped somewhat in empathy, how could it be at all possible to even begin to understand the motivations of the trafficker Peter and, by extension, his real life counterpart? Farrell’s answer ultimately floors me.

   The film, she explains, was written with Glynn Turner – “he's so good. [And] we're also very, very close friends so I felt comfortable sitting with him, recording stories and details. I gave him some creative freedom to take all the things I've given him and actually make it into a story that works onscreen.”

   It was through this collaborative process in which the character of Peter was formed: “I didn't know anything about the guy so I couldn't add anything to Glynn as in ‘this is who he was’. I can only mention a few things he said and that he didn't speak much but to make it into a film we had to have something.” With this in mind, the pair began work on sculpting motivations for the character as he appears in the movie. “You never like the baddie but you need to understand why he's doing it. That was important for us from a storytelling point of view.”

   As we read reports on people trafficking in tabloids, it becomes easy to distance ourselves from these events by pretending they happen in a dark criminal underworld which never overlaps with our own existence. Equally, it is true, we will often look at the perpetrators of these crimes as physical incarnations of pure evil, as grotesque animals possessed by wickedness – we imagine these monsters as “other”.

   Farrell, however, in discussing Peter helps to elucidate something rather worrying. “He is a human being,” she states, “but he's not a very good human being.” In this one sentence, it is clear that Farrell has considered her abductor's humanity more than he ever considered hers and alerted us, too, to the fact that evil can take many forms including, as in the instance of a charming casting agent, seemingly benign ones.

   I ask if our understanding of trafficking and the modern slavery industry has begun to grow in recent years and, whilst the answer is a positive one, the reasons for this are rather disturbing: “I think part of it, unfortunately, is that it happens more and more and more.”

   The police, I’m informed, didn’t deal with Farrell’s case in the most professional or compassionate of manners but have begun to catch up to what is going on within the industry as it expands. “I don't know if it was more rare at the time or more difficult to deal with - I don't know the reason why they weren't so sympathetic but I have since spoken to a policewoman who deals with these cases. She says it has changed a lot in the last ten, fifteen years. They're a lot more aware when young girls come in and report something and how vulnerable they are and how scared and almost how much they blame themselves, how much help they really need. I was hoping for that answer actually.”

   To try and understand the industry a little bit more, I ask a question which I think the answer to already. Why, I enquire, is trafficking becoming increasingly more popular year-on-year?

   “It's the money isn't it?” Farrell tells me. “People are attracted to the money you can make. So I guess someone who is really down and out and they don't have a choice and they need to make money for their family or... I don't know. I don't know how they'd think about getting into the business. They must be in a very bad place, a very low place. And they think ‘I can make more money if I sell a couple of girls than if I go and work for two months’ or work for whoever for six months. So, yeah, its money I think. It's greed, money.”

   Whilst this article opened with a declaration of the enormous figures brought in by organised crime, Selling Isobel helps us to understand this by shrinking the number down to one. This is but one tale of the millions who are caught up in slavery, who are kidnapped, and who are subjected to abuse every day, often in plain sight. This is one of the many stories we need to listen to, to understand and to share. Selling Isobel is a powerful and important movie - one I suggest you try your best to seek out.

Thank you

   A huge thanks to Frida Farrell for taking the time for this interview. You can find out more information about her at her website

   Farrell is hoping to screen Selling Isobel at more festivals before trying for a theatrical then VOD release. Keep your eyes open for this!

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