'I Am Jane Doe': Film Review

A clear-eyed and pressing work of advocacy journalism.

Filmmaker Mary Mazzio examines the uphill legal battle to hold Backpage and other classified ad websites responsible for the online sex trafficking of underage girls.

There are two outrages at the investigative heart of I Am Jane Doe: the horrifying truth that a market in child sex trafficking is thriving, and the persistence of a legal loophole that protects the websites where children are sold. Zeroing in on what one victims’ advocate calls the public square for a modern-day form of slavery, Mary Mazzio’s eye-opening documentary reveals that the buying and selling of tweens and teens, long recognized as a plight in some developing nations, is also very much a domestic problem, and one that’s significantly enabled by a 20-year-old piece of American law. 

Without revealing their full names, a couple of teenage sex-trade victims speak directly to the camera about their ordeals, focusing on the psychological aftermath rather than the grim details of their abduction and the countless rapes they endured. Mazzio — a lawyer-turned-filmmaker whose previous doc, Underwater Dreams, focused on the odds-defying scientific achievement of a team of undocumented-immigrant high schoolers — is here primarily interested in the mission to stem the proliferation of web-based sex transactions, whose ease one former customer likens to shopping on Amazon. 

That mission, spearheaded by the girls’ mothers, takes the form of legal action on multiple fronts, and in each case the target is the classified-ad site Backpage.com, which reportedly reaps more than 80% of online sex-ad revenue and is linked to 75% of suspected child sex trafficking cases. A scrappy “street lawyer” in Seattle and a white-shoe law firm in Boston mount their legal challenges, claiming that the website is essentially participating in the criminal pimping of underage “escorts.” In appeal after appeal, they find their goals thwarted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That provision of the 1996 law (introduced in the House of Representatives under the Orwellian title Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act) grants internet service providers immunity from responsibility for third-party content on their sites — a protection not extended to print publications. 

As the various cases make their way through the courts, Mazzio uses simple graphics to trace the legal timeline as well as Backpage’s steadily climbing revenue. Attorneys and reform advocates remain guardedly hopeful amid an accumulation of alarmingly tone-deaf decisions — one written by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter — that espouse a Pretty Woman fantasy of prostitution and focus on theoretical adult freedoms while ignoring the very real fate of underage girls. 

This is the central, urgent paradox of Mazzio’s film: that a statute designed to safeguard basic American freedoms has been inflexibly interpreted in ways that help to promote human bondage. A onetime pimp explains the harrowing psychological manipulation at work when traffickers target runaways and other girls. And a former Backpage “moderator,” his face obscured and voice distorted, explains how his job ostensibly was to flag offensive ads but actually involved tailoring the ads to use code words and emojis instead of red-flag language like “fresh off the boat” and “Lolita.” 

Through interviews with former Village Voice reporters and editors, the director explores a further irony. Backpage was, until 2014, owned by Village Voice Media, whose refusal to acknowledge the website’s role in the child sex trade is a far cry from the Voice’s well-established reputation for muckraking, truth-to-power journalism. 

No one interviewed for the film offers a rigorous argument in favor of the application of Section 230. In their evasions and doublespeak, the execs and legal representatives of VVM who rely on the legal provision come off not as crusaders for journalistic independence but an unsavory lot. Their eleventh-hour shutdown of Backpage, on the eve of their (uncooperative) appearance before a Senate subcommittee, only deepens that impression. Earlier, a subpoenaed executive's no-show leaves committee member John McCain astounded. 

Home movies and childhood photos of the film’s two central trafficking survivors drive home the notion of innocence destroyed, and Jessica Chastain’s narration sounds notes of compassion and alarm — all of which renders unnecessary the emotion-underlining use of Alex Lasarenko’s score. 

But despite that heavy-handed misstep, Mazzio makes her case. She interweaves testimony of abuse and suffering at the hands of web-savvy pimps, on the one hand, with feeble legal defenses and techno-gibberish, as when VVM general counsel Liz McDougall asserts that the company is the “sheriff” keeping the Internet safe. In response, a justice-seeking mother says, “I want to shake her.” Many viewers of this pressing report will have the same reaction.

Production company: 50 Eggs
Distributor: 50 Eggs
Narrator: Jessica Chastain
Director-screenwriter: Mary Mazzio
Producers: Mary Mazzio, Alec Sokolow
Executive producers: Linda Cabot, John H. Carlson, Joanna Creamer, Julie Fisher Cummings, Jessica Chastain, Sue Wagner, Lorna M. Auerbach, Geralyn Dreyfous, Betsy Sokolow Sherman, Jonathan Alter, Autumn Hanna Vandehei
Director of photography: Joe Grasso
Editor: Collin Cameron
Composer: Alex Lasarenko

99 minutes