'The Wrong Light': Film Review

The Wrong Light Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The Wrong Light Still - Publicity - H 2016

A disturbing story for Westerners who think opening a checkbook is all it takes to do good in the world.

Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams' doc introduces a crusader against human trafficking in Thailand who isn't all he seems.

A dramatic reminder of how easy it is to exploit Westerners' good intentions in cultures they don't understand, The Wrong Light explains how documentarians Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams avoided becoming the mouthpieces of a self-proclaimed rescuer of young Thai girls being sold into prostitution. Despite occasionally shaky storytelling, the doc sticks to its mission even as the most fundamental obstacles arise, producing a dramatic account that will make all do-gooders think twice about how they spend their charitable dollars. Theatrical appeal is modest, but word of mouth should help get the film seen on small screens and in special bookings.

The filmmakers went to Northern Thailand in 2013 to meet teenagers being helped by an organization called COSA. Mickey Choothesa, the group's founder, told them he was a veteran war photographer who came back to his home country to help girls who had been sold to pimps by their impoverished rural families. Choothesa offered the directors "unprecedented access," telling them heartbreaking stories about girls who, even before being sold off, were often raped by their own family members. At COSA, we see them living happily, going to school and bonding with each other as they plan ambitious futures.

But "unprecedented access" doesn't mean everything we might expect: We learn that COSA guidelines prohibit staffers or outsiders from asking the girls about their pasts, lest they be traumatized by old memories. We are well into getting to know the 17 year-old Fon, for instance, before Heitz's voiceover reveals that none of what we know about her past comes from the girl herself.

With Choothesa as their translator, Heitz and Adams go to a hill-tribe village to interview Fon's mother. The woman denies selling her daughter or letting her be abused. Choothesa explains that this is a face-saving lie, but the Americans' suspicions are aroused; in the scenes to come, they realize the film they're making is much more complicated than they expected.

Too committed to their initial project to switch gears completely, Heitz and Adams refuse to make this the gripping true-crime investigation it might have been, instead letting their onscreen detective work share time with a focus on two or three of the girls living at COSA. Understandable as it is, this divided-attention strategy results in a couple of odd moments, as when the doc takes multiple breaks to follow one girl's efforts to become class president at school.

Arguably, scenes like this underline the downside of the film's investigation: If they learn and can prove that COSA is a sham, will they inadvertently end whatever good it is doing for these children? Such questions are enough to make any outsider doubt whether it's possible to do good in a culture he doesn't know intimately. The Wrong Light shows that sometimes, those who seem to be best acquainted with a problem shouldn't be trusted to solve it.

Production company: Shine Global
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Directors: Josie Swantek Heitz, Dave Adams
Producers: Susan MacLaury, Josie Swantek Heitz
Executive producers: Albie Hecht, Barbara Dobkin
Director of photography: Dave Adams
Editors: Chris Tuss, Matt Cascella
Composer: Adam Taylor

In Mien and English
78 minutes