Eden is a 2012 film about a suburban teenage girl kidnapped from her hometown in New Mexico and taken into a warehouse outside Las Vegas, where she is forced into a factory of sex slaves headed by a crooked US Marshal. The girls live in punishing conditions. They're lined up for mandatory pregnancy tests and mystery injections. Tracking cuffs are strapped to their ankles. Their clients come from every level of American society: businessmen, fraternity guys, politicians. Assigned the name Eden, the girl we follow is imprisoned, beaten, raped, whipped, and tortured. Her only route to escape is through the ultimate betrayal, convincing sex-trafficking ringleaders she is loyal to them by becoming their madam—selling other women to save herself.
As the movie makes clear, Eden's story is based on the life of a real woman. She is Chong Kim, a noted crusader against sex trafficking. The movie premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, and then played the Seattle International Film Festival, where its star Jamie Chung won the Golden Space Needle Award for best actress. At a film festival in Milan, Eden's producers and its director also won awards. For Eden's official theatrical release in May 2013, SIFF hosted a sold-out screening at SIFF Cinema Uptown. The lights went down, and the very first words to appear on-screen were "BASED ON A TRUE STORY."
By the closing credits, the theater had fallen under a terrible trance. Except for the scuffling sounds of tall stools being set up before the swooping red curtains, there was a hush. What came next was a panel discussion with Washington State senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Assistant US Attorney and Washington Anti-Trafficking Advisory Committee member Ye-Ting Woo, YouthCare social worker Leslie Briner, Organization for Prostitution Survivors founder Noel Gomez, and Seattle attorney with Christian anti-sex-trafficking organization Hope for Justice Jenna Labourr. It was hard for me to focus on what they were saying with the movie still flooding my mind, but their message was clear: What you just saw should wake you up. Sex trafficking is far more common than you think, and it happens right here in the United States, not just in exotic faraway locations.
The audience filed out into the night to consider the horrors.
Chong Kim, the person the movie was based on, had shared her story in writing before. She was known in the anti-sex-trafficking world, and she is a regular speaker on being a human trafficking survivor, represented by the global speaker's agency American Program Bureau. Two years before this screening, she had e-mailed James Barnes, founder of the nonprofit organization Breaking Out, whose mission is "to identify, investigate, and rescue victims of human trafficking," according to its Facebook page. Kim was contacting Barnes, according to Barnes, to offer to help raise money for Breaking Out. Barnes describes himself as a private investigator who was first exposed to sex trafficking when he was investigating a missing child case, and then made sex trafficking his cause. Asked about his work during a phone interview in November, he told me, "We just lost a total, in two different cases, of four girls in Guatemala. We had the intel, but we weren't able to go get 'em. We couldn't raise the airline tickets to go there, which is a shame. It's not very expensive, but I don't have the money."
Barnes remembers Kim talking about books and movies she was involved with that would raise money for his cause. She was "really a hero to me," Barnes said, "because I rescue people but I never get to see what happens to them."
But soon, Barnes said, Kim actually started asking him for money so that she could travel—with the promise that she would publicize Breaking Out in her travels—"which is kind of one of our red flags." Then Barnes began looking into Kim's own story. "It kind of changed every time we talked, and things didn't make sense."
On June 4, 2014, four years after their correspondence started, Barnes surprised the world by publishing an announcement on Breaking Out's Facebook page.
"To all our loyal followers," it began, "we regretfully want to inform everyone the results of a year long investigation by our highly experienced investigative unit, that Chong Kim whom [sic] has claimed to be a survivor of human trafficking is not what she claims to be. After thorough investigation into her story, people, records, and places, as well as, many interviews with producers, publishers and people from organizations, we found no truth to her story. In fact, we found a lot of fraud, lies, and most horrifically capitalizing and making money on an issue where so many people are suffering from...We are ready with others supporting us to take full legal action against Chong Kim." ("Fraud" referred to Kim's paid engagements through the speaker's bureau and various internet fundraisers she's launched, Barnes told me.)
Kim's lawyer immediately sent Barnes a cease-and-desist letter, Barnes said, and in response, he removed the Facebook post. "I had reporters calling me and I was like, 'Whoa, we haven't done all that work yet,'" Barnes told me. Four months later, he put up another post elaborating on the claims, but in spite of his claim about legal action, no legal action has been brought against anyone.
The day Breaking Out first made its allegations against Kim, Eden director Megan Griffiths tweeted: "I just heard about this today and it came as a shock. I am deeply concerned about it."
Neither Kim nor Griffiths would agree to be interviewed for this article. If there were a lawsuit, that would include a "discovery" process, a jarring loose of evidence, potentially—facts that might lead us toward the truth. But as things stand, we don't know who involved with the movie knew what when. And nobody, as far as I can tell, is pursuing legal action around the question of whether Eden is true, or whether Chong Kim, in her many and varied statements about sex trafficking in America, has been telling the truth.
Mistress Matisse, a professional dominatrix and longtime Stranger contributor, is another person whose first impulse was to sue. She sent an e-mail to her editors here in late June referring to a potential lawsuit. "You're getting this e-mail from me because I want some answers," Matisse began. "I believe that Seattle filmmakers Colin Plank and Megan Griffiths"—the producer and the director—"have perpetrated a fraud in their movie called Eden. Allegations have been made, and it's time for them to either double down—or fess up. And as The Stranger played a role in promoting the film, it's appropriate that The Stranger play a part [in] the truth being told about it."
The e-mail was signed "Mistress Matisse, endorsed by the members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Seattle." She wrote that she was discussing with a lawyer "the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against the makers of Eden, although I'd want to wait on that until [Plank and Griffiths] have responded to the initial allegations." The class in question would be sex workers. "Eden is prominently allied with anti-trafficking NGOs that deny that any form of consensual adult sex work even exists," Matisse wrote.
Matisse had done some research on her own. She attached to her e-mail a long list of citations of Kim's interviews and writings since 2004. These were the materials that led Matisse to conclude Kim had been lying, and which she believed could support a class-action lawsuit on behalf of sex workers who found Eden to be a grossly misleading depiction of sex work. Matisse has since discussed the matter with a lawyer, whose opinion was that "it would be difficult to prove damages, because the prevailing sentiment of the legal system more or less goes along with us being either helpless victims, as in the movie, or just plain criminals," Matisse said by e-mail. "We can't be slandered, apparently, because our status is THAT low."
We know very little about how Eden was made. But we do know that Kim, who has said she was born in 1975 and who lives in Texas, wrote a draft of her memoir and showed it to the screenwriter Richard B. Phillips. Phillips showed that script to producer Plank, who hired Griffiths "to compress a story about an elaborate, nefarious underworld of human trafficking" into an independent film, as Plank wrote in an industry paper he posted online on November 8, 2012, called "Production Notes from Inside Eden." "I knew there was an incredible story from the first time I read it and felt as if I was watching a film and not just reading a script."
According to Plank, Griffiths wrote the final 95-page draft that became Eden, about Kim's experience being sold for sex against her will in every permutation you can imagine, from servicing frat parties to catering to individual high rollers to being filmed chained and whipped for BDSM porn. The sex-trafficking ring Eden described was so hideous and huge, it pervaded every level of American life, including politics and law enforcement, which is what made it different from other movies about sex trafficking.
"True Story Inspires Tale of Sex Trade; in a Twist, a US Marshal Is the Bad Guy" was the New York Times headline on March 19, 2013.
"Scrupulously avoiding salaciousness and overstatement, Eden translates a true-life tale of human trafficking into an effectively low-key, arrestingly suspenseful drama," wrote Variety.
"To call this a magnificently told tale would discount its history," praised the Austin Chronicle.
In 2012, The Stranger gave Griffiths a Stranger Genius Award in film. I was on the panel of critics who gave her that award.
Griffiths and Kim went on the road to promote Eden, and the broadcast interviews were calm exchanges about horrible things, laced with clips setting up Kim's descriptions of her actual experiences.
"Each unit had about 20 to 25 girls... so it was like a giant human factory," Kim told a CNN interviewer on October 15, 2013. Her ordeal lasted from 1995 to 1997, she said, and it was in 1996 that she "ranked up as a madam."
She described finally escaping through an air vent in a Las Vegas casino by convincing a maintenance man to fall in love with her, so that he would show her how to climb through the vent into the laundry chute. She explained that she first had the idea when she remembered a James Bond film she'd seen as a child, and it made her think, "Can you really crawl through there?"
At the end of the CNN interview, Kim called for action. She estimated that more than a thousand girls are still in the position she was in in the '90s, but that the "trend" in domestic trafficking is that women are taking over as ringleaders. This is because a woman can use her "feminine charm," she explained, to recruit girls in junior high and high school.
Asked whether she fears for her life as an outspoken advocate, Kim said, "I do. But at the same time, I cannot get rid of the faces of the girls I couldn't save. I cannot get rid of the screams. I was forced to watch a young child being raped and sodomized in front of me. And so it's always in my mind. And so I feel like when I speak, I'm bringing voices together. If we are the voters, then start asking questions to the leaders. 'What are you going to do about these brothels that are in our towns?'"
In a HuffPost Live video interview that went online March 28, 2013, the interviewer asked the director, Griffiths, what it had been like to make a movie that deals with such harsh reality.
Host: Goodness, Megan, I mean, when you see this clip, when you hear these stories, when you realize that, as Jamie [Chung, star of Eden] mentioned, this is happening right here in America, it's just such a shock, and it must have been such a journey to direct such a powerful film.
Griffiths: Yeah, I mean, it was, honestly, I'd say it was an honor to be given the opportunity to tell Chong's story. But yeah, it was a dark period, especially researching not only Chong's story but other survivors' stories and non-survivors' stories and trying to find out what the realities of these kind of situations are so we could depict them in the movie. It's tough subject matter to live with for this long, but you know, Chong's had to live with it a lot longer than I have. So.
It seemed possible that Eden might bring down actual bad guys. Or maybe the movie would simply launch a million micro-investigations in the minds of ordinary porn cruisers at their own private computers, causing perfectly decent people to think twice about the realities behind their fantasies.
"No one who sees Eden will ever look at women in 'amateur pornography' the same way again," Stranger reviewer David Schmader wrote in a May 2013 review. A male friend of mine had said the same thing. "I just can't look at pictures online anymore without wondering about the circumstances," he'd told me after watching Eden.
At one point in the HuffPost Live interview, the interviewer said to Griffiths, "So much of this seems like it cannot possibly be real." Later she said, "Megan, I think your directing and Jamie's acting just really brought to life a story that most people cannot imagine as anything other than a fictional tale. But knowing that it's a realistic tale just makes it all the worse."
By which she also meant all the better, since the realism was probably why Eden got a slot on HuffPost Live and CNN in the first place.
When Griffiths told HuffPost Live that she'd been "researching" Kim's story and "the realities of these kind of situations," what exactly did she mean by that? How did Griffiths conduct her research? How much digging into "the realities" did she do? Did she ever consider just making Eden as a fictional film, like her previous films, and not labeling it "based on a true story"? Did she see "based on a true story" as a burden, or did she figure her audience was smart enough to know it was a loose tag and maybe even a marketing strategy? When she was doing interviews, and when Eden events were used to raise money to support anti-sex-trafficking organizations, did Griffiths ever have twinges of doubt? And if she did, were they subsumed by believing that regardless of the value of this particular tale, sacrifices have to be made to serve the larger truth that trafficking is horrifying?
The only reason I ask is because even a little bit of research reveals that the source material is contradictory.
Kim wrote about her experiences in the sex trade at least as early as 2004. There's a personal essay called "Nobody's Concubine," published in an anthology of academic and survivor writings called Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, put out by Spinifex Press. The book was edited by survivor/activist Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant, associate professor and director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
"Nobody's Concubine" is substantially different from the story in Eden. In "Nobody's Concubine," Kim is abused as a child and raped as a teen, and starts working as a dancer in a strip club before joining an escort service. She is not kidnapped. There is no sex-trafficking ring and no Las Vegas casino air duct.
Instead, there is a less juicy, more complex story of abuse, victimization, racism, sexism, power, and desperation. The author writes of believing she was not worth anything except when she was dancing, feeling the rush of men's desire and women's jealousy. Then this:
In 1995, I was introduced to an escort service after escaping from an abusive boyfriend. My abuser had destroyed my citizenship certificate, so that there would be no proof that I was a legal resident of the US. He also shredded my license and social security card. I had nothing but a Blockbuster card, which didn't help me in finding jobs, welfare, or housing. Without the documents I could not even work at the clubs. What was I to do without a job, home, or money to even survive?
She had already been the victim of abuse and rape, she writes. "Narcotics played a big role in my life," she states, after being raped by a client and "laughed at" by police when reporting it. "[I] swallowed my pride, and went back to being an Escort Lady," she writes, but soon was converted into an abused sex slave in the mold of the stereotypical "Asian girl... concubine." Still, she stayed, not at gunpoint, but in psychological chains, nonetheless.
I continued in the industry not to survive or to take care of my kids, but due to the familiarity of being abused, and due to the fact that I didn't feel love in my life. As long as I was in a stranger's arms, I was content with that. In the spring of 1998, I met my son's father, and it was he who broke me out of the industry. At the time I was residing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"Nobody's Concubine" has a happy ending. Kim describes becoming clean and sober in 2000, then starting her life as a spokesperson for women and children "who are victims of sexual violence and exploitation."
But by 2006, Kim's first-person autobiographical story had changed, at least her story as it is archived in the online resource The Survivor Archives Project (survivorarchivesproject.com). As a child, Kim writes, she was sexually abused by her father's friends, male principals and teachers at school, and her babysitter. She became "hostage" to a man who held her in an abandoned home in Oklahoma, then escaped him and met a woman "I thought I could trust," but who sold her.
"She offered to help me find refuge, shelter, and food by sending me to Vegas for a legitimate job," Kim writes. "I accepted her offer without realizing that I was being sold for market. 'Human trafficking.' I was kidnapped and was transported to Las Vegas, NV. I was involved in trafficking for more than six months up to 2 and [a] half years. Repeatedly, I witnessed the beatings, rapes, and murders of innocent women. Finally, I was able to escape from my master through a wealthy client who bought me for an undisclosed amount of money."
This "wealthy client" is not part of Kim's life story as described in her 2012 and 2013 interviews.
Five years after the Survivor Archives Project story was published, author Charles Powell included his interview with Kim in the 2011 book Not in My Town: Exposing and Ending Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery, from the Christian publishing house New Hope. From the interview between Charles Powell and Chong Kim:
CP: How did you become a victim of human trafficking?
CK: I was actually kidnapped; I had a gun to my head. The head person that does the trafficking was a consultant with the FBI in Las Vegas. So it was very corrupt.
CP: You were kidnapped? Start there; tell me about it.
CK: It started out, I actually met the guy and I thought he was my boyfriend. I didn't realize he was a recruit. The way the trafficking was set up, it's where they send out these young boys all the way through college-age to look for young girls to dote on them until they get their trust... It was here in Dallas, Texas, that I met him. From there we went to northern Oklahoma. That's where I was handcuffed to a doorknob in an abandoned house and was kept there for approximately three to six months. He was getting angry and he [didn't] follow their directions and so they [the traffickers] sent a backup person. The backup person was a woman.
So what is the story again? Does it involve a sex-trafficking ring or not? Did she start off willingly or did she start off at gunpoint? Was there an air-vent escape or not? Some of these details aren't just different stories, they are different premises on which the stories are built.
On June 25, three weeks after Barnes published his accusations on Facebook and three days after Matisse sent her e-mail to The Stranger, a PR firm called Bradshaw & Co. released a statement on Kim's behalf with the headline "Chong Kim, former human sex trafficking victim, is victimized again." It read, "Since legal action is pending, Kim and her team will not at this time address the defamatory attacks and the possible motivations for these unwarranted attacks by the organization (Breaking Out); its founder, James Barnes; and other associated individuals. Chong Kim firmly denies the allegations and knows that the real truth will prevail."
My attempts to get Kim's side of the story—to get at "the real truth"—were unsuccessful. Recently I found her on Facebook, where I am identified on my profile as working at The Stranger, and sent her a friend request. She accepted the request within moments. I wrote, "I'm writing about Eden from here in Seattle. Do you have a minute to chat here back and forth about the movie?"
"Yes," she wrote.
In an attempt to understand the contradictory narratives that were already out there, I asked, "Do you feel your story was accurately told by Eden or were there parts you had to compromise on in order to make the movie more 'saleable' (or whatever other forces come to bear on moviemaking)?"
She responded, "It's not 100% accurate because of the insensity [sic] that producers felt the public wasn't ready. The movie is washed down compared to what I went through."
I wrote, "I have to ask a difficult question: How has it felt to be accused of not telling the truth of your story through Eden? What do you say to people who doubt?"
She replied, "Are you a journalist?"
Yes, I wrote.
Her next message was, "If you have any questions direct them to my manager or my attorney. You don't go on here befriending me to ask my [sic] questions. Have a good day."
Then she unfriended me.
I wrote to both her manager, Angela Allen, and her attorney, Dan Schneider. Allen declined my request to speak further, and Schneider never replied.
Barnes, of the anti-sex-trafficking group Breaking Out, told me he believes the real truth will prevail, too. He told me that when he called the casino hotel in Las Vegas where Kim claimed that she climbed out the vents, "The head of security told me a mouse could barely fit through those vents."
And he reiterated that other details "didn't add up" either. Barnes's Facebook post questioned Kim's credibility by referring to Kim's conviction of a felony charge of theft by swindle in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2009. Kim was ordered to pay the victim more than $15,000 in restitution. Barnes, who says he works with federal law enforcement doing Breaking Out's work, told me he's heard behind the scenes that officials are investigating Kim's claims. "Check with DOJ, FBI, and Texas State attorney," Barnes encouraged me in an e-mail. "Wish I had more for you but that's who I know picked up on investigation."
I called the Department of Justice and asked whether they had any open investigations involving Chong Kim or her accusations that federal agents are involved in domestic sex trafficking. Send an e-mail officially requesting that information, they said. So I did. I heard nothing back. The FBI said the same thing, adding that I needed to know which field office would be involved. I asked Barnes; he didn't know. Again I e-mailed a request, and again I heard nothing. Both agencies' representatives on the phone sounded confused. They asked me whether Kim had filed any charges related to a domestic sex-trafficking ring or just made vague accusations. Well, I guess just vague accusations, I said, suddenly feeling very foolish.
At the Texas Attorney General's Office, the spokesman was friendly in the best Southern way. I told him I knew my request sounded strange. He told me that the attorney general in Texas handles only civil cases, "unless a DA asks us specifically to take something." Instead, in Texas, everything is handled locally, he said. "So you'd have to know what county," he told me. "If she filed a complaint, that's what would get investigated. You need more specific information before you pursue it. Otherwise, you're in the dark."
I was, and am, very clearly, in the dark.
Did Eden director Megan Griffiths do this same research only to find herself equally confounded? There's evidence that Kim has told her story in different ways at different times, but what does that mean? Did she slowly "come out" as a survivor, at first telling one version of what happened and gradually revealing more? Is an earlier version closer to the truth, or is the truth somewhere in between? Which truth did people most want to hear from her, whether they were academics or fellow survivors or sex workers or activists or Christians crusading against trafficking? Why are people on the right and the left so happy to join together on the issue of sex trafficking when they can agree on absolutely nothing else? Why does Kim have to be a fraud or a saint? What if she is a fraud for a good cause? False narratives have been known to get the job done before—if you want to, say, invade Iraq.
When Barnes posted his accusations, the internet exploded. Facebook and Twitter lit up with partisans. Told-you-so essays proliferated. People lined up to debate the substance of a series of events that can never, ever be reviewed or actually revealed. The events of Kim's life are only known—and maybe even then, only incompletely understood—by those who were actually present for them. Legal action and investigations will settle nothing of the small truth of one woman's life. And as for big truths, pretend you're in a class, assigned a reading comprehension test. The story you have to read is the script of Eden, this article, and all of Kim's writings and interviews. Using textual evidence, prove the size and scope of domestic sex trafficking in the United States. Then propose useful policies based on your findings. Good luck.
Noel Gomez, cofounder of Seattle's Organization for Prostitution Survivors, spoke as part of the panel that followed the Seattle screening of Eden in May 2013, but she purposely didn't discuss Eden that night. "I really wasn't sure if I believed it or not," Gomez said in a phone interview last week. Trauma leads to PTSD, Gomez emphasized, and "a lot of what comes from that is memory loss, so the story is not always going to be the same exactly, because you remember things the next time that you may not have remembered before." In other words, if Kim's own stories of her past are conflicting, that could easily be the natural product of terrible events, not an indication that Kim is lying. "I'm not saying she's lying at all," Gomez said. But "I personally have never met anybody who's in that situation that she was in. I personally have never heard of that happening to anybody. I mean, the real story that people need to know is... the pimp turns the young girl out into prostitution—that's the typical American trafficking story. Or it could be a gang, but it's normally not that sophisticated. I don't know... And I'm wondering why there was no, well, was anybody ever prosecuted?" No, nobody was ever prosecuted. "See, that's weird to me," Gomez said. What's important to her, she said, is focusing on "domestic trafficking as it really is, which isn't that."
It's still fair to ask whether Seattle director Griffiths vetted Kim's story before tagging Eden "based on a true story." Sure, "based on a true story" is not the same as calling a movie a documentary, and even a documentary is not the same as truth. But Griffiths did indicate, in her taped interview with HuffPost Live, that she prepared for Eden by "researching not only Chong's story but other survivors' stories and non-survivors' stories and trying to find out what the realities of these kinds of situations are so we could depict them in the movie."
I e-mailed Griffiths after Barnes published his accusations. I told her I wanted to talk to her, to ask whether she still believed Eden was substantially true, and why. If she didn't want to talk specifics, I told her, I just wanted to discuss what risks and responsibilities she thinks artists take on with biographical and historical material—and whether she still feels it's worth it. I wanted to know whether she was drawn to the story because she believed it was true, or whether she believed the story was true because she was drawn to it.
I told her I wondered the same thing about myself.
"I'd really love to participate, but I've been asked not to comment on anything around this matter until there's a resolution between Chong and Breaking Out, the organization that's investigating her," Griffiths replied.
Asked not to comment by whom? An attorney? I posed this question, but Griffiths went silent. So all we have to go on is her June tweet, that the news of Barnes's accusations "came as a shock" and that she was "deeply concerned" about it.
What is the allure of "based on a true story," anyway? The only answer from the Eden crew that I'm able to dig up in all the interviews is a side note made by Colin Plank, the producer, in his "Production Notes from Inside Eden." It's mostly practical advice to other filmmakers, about meal penalties for union workers, how producers should never yell, and which festival is right for your premiere. But deep in the notes, Plank wrote, "We wanted to make a great and important film about difficult subject matter; but in the world of distribution, that can make it hard to sell. Thus, it is important to know who your audience will be for your film before you make it. I chose Eden because I believe a narrative is a much more effective way to get people to talk about the insidious problem of human trafficking."
Presumably, he meant that "a narrative is a much more effective way" than a documentary "to get people to talk." But don't documentaries have narratives? I attempted to ask two Seattle documentarians about this, Elisa Haradon and Gabriel Miller, who for more than two years have been working on a documentary film that started out as a general portrait of Seattle's red-light district on Aurora Avenue. When I visited them more than a year ago, they showed me raw footage and explained they'd found a focus: an unconventional safe house, just an RV parked by the side of Aurora where an older man lives and welcomes women in need of rest or detox. I watched the footage of the man sitting by the women's sides as they slept, steadying them when they were shaking, feeding them soup he cooked on his little RV stove.
Then, on June 22, a shocking news story hit. Seattlepi.com reported: "A 65-year-old Seattle man who held out his motor home as a shelter for Aurora Avenue prostitutes is now accused of raping two women and recording the sexual assaults on video." Immediately, I wondered how Haradon and Miller were handling this. Wouldn't it change their whole movie? The movie already had a title, Sweetheart Deal, and a website where the home-page image was a big picture of the parked RV.
But Haradon and Miller didn't want to talk. I told Miller I didn't even care whether they thought the man was guilty or how they were going to change their movie, I just wanted to talk about the larger issues, like whether trying to tell true stories is worth the trouble. But he explained honestly that they still had a movie to make and they needed to control the narrative around it. Giving an interview would jeopardize their ability to do that.
The picture on the movie's website changed. Now the RV is gone. We see a woman in a leather jacket, walking Aurora with the flashing lights of traffic and strip-mall signs at her back, her eyes downcast.
When I requested an interview with Eden producer Plank, I also got nowhere. I e-mailed him that I knew he was "legally bound not to talk about the specifics" of Eden, and asked if he'd consider speaking "generally" about art that tells truths but is not called documentary. The only response I got was an e-mail from Eden spokesman Jim Dobson, who told me I could send an e-mail for Plank through him, but: "Please note however we are not interested in discussing anything regarding the unfounded accusations against Chong Kim. At this point all of that is pure speculation."
The thing is, it doesn't look like the makers of Eden would be in legal trouble if anybody did follow through on suing them. "Based on a true story" alone barely binds them, said Judy Endejan, a Seattle attorney who advises true-crime authors on how far they can safely speculate when facts are fuzzy or unknown.
Reached by phone, Endejan told me that the malice standard for defamation is that "you have to publish an untruth knowing it's not true, or with reckless disregard for its truthfulness."
What if you simply assume that something is true without vetting it? You take it on good faith? "That's sheer negligence," Endejan said. Reckless disregard is a higher standard.
To meet the "reckless disregard" standard, a screenwriter like Griffiths and a producer like Plank would have to know something is untrue and lie about it.
"Without knowing more," Endejan told me, "it would be pretty difficult to sue them for libel or defamation based upon [them] just stating that it is a true story. It might undermine the credibility of a filmmaker, but that's another story."
Every time somebody is caught failing to vet a story, their failure becomes the story. It eclipses the social issue that inspired the story in the first place. Earlier this month, the news cycle was dominated by another case about whether a sexual violence survivor's story is true. Rolling Stone editors admitted they didn't check some of the most important facts in a 9,000-word article they ran about one woman's story of gang rape at the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone editors explained themselves first by writing, "Our trust in her [the survivor] was misplaced." But if you're telling stories you're claiming are true, you don't do a "trust" check, you fact-check. On Feministing.com, former Mother Jones fact-checker Maya Dusenbery got right to the point about Rolling Stone's real problem: "Fact-checking taught me a lot, and here's one thing I learned: One of the main purposes of fact-checking is to correct journalism's bias toward a 'good story' above all else." Eden seems to demonstrate this bias in spades, and in both cases, rather than talking about the way human beings treat each other, we're now talking about the abstract concept of whether we can really know something's true. What a squandering of the audience's attention.
With Eden, it doesn't take a sleuth to find Kim's contradictory tellings—they're right out there if you look. If the movie's directors had told all of those stories in the same movie, would CNN and HuffPost Live and Stranger Genius Award voters and Washington State senators have cared? Which is worse, if nobody cares or if people care for the wrong reasons? Because at this point, Eden risks going down in history not as a movie about girls being dehumanized but as a false alarm.
Eden was not just a work of art. It was made to be used for justice. And whether moving pictures can deliver justice is a question that has driven Americans into the streets as 2014 draws to a close. What about the video clearly depicting an NYPD officer choking Eric Garner on Staten Island? It shows police and EMTs then leaving Garner still for several minutes without any intervention, and the coroner later ruled the death a homicide, but the grand jury decided not to charge the NYPD officer. Eden and the Staten Island video were not made for the same reasons, or in the same way, but both are hard to watch, and both are supposed to be useful. The Staten Island video was rendered futile in the sense that it did not result in charges. But it was not futile at all in the sense that the dying words captured in it are the basis of the chants and hashtags and T-shirts animating protests on streets and NBA courts and NFL fields all over the country now. Those protests are determined to make that video mean something, regardless of what the grand jury didn't do.
By claiming to be based on truth, Eden causes itself to be compared to real-life footage. And if it is only a false alarm, then it causes problems while changing nothing: Society's existing bias toward doubting survivors of sexual violence is reinforced, as is the oversimplification of stories about sex work. Nothing is improved for anybody. The movie becomes meaningless in the same way as the video.
The awful prospect that the Garner video or Eden might be meaningless in the end is ultimately about the usefulness and reliability of facts. Meanwhile, 1.5 million listeners are tuning in to a true-crime podcast about whether facts are even knowable. The podcast is called Serial, and it's the fastest podcast in history to hit five million downloads, according to Apple. It began in October, and Sarah Koenig is the host. She's re-prosecuting a 1999 murder case, testing the guilty verdict that put the victim's ex-boyfriend in jail for life, and coming up with details that both sides missed the first time around. Serial is a case of über-vetting. Koenig chases every lead, does her own reenactments, obsesses over every detail. "We'll stay with [the] story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it," the podcast's website claims.
Mike Pesca of Slate kicked off his audio interview with Koenig this fall by saying, "As I listen to Serial, I have this thought in my head: Don't let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth, don't let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth."
It's a whodunit, damnit. At the end of the day, will we get a satisfying answer to who killed the young woman, or only philosophizing?
There's a moment when Pesca tries to pin down Koenig on how the story will end. Does she know? If he had a day left to live, could she tell it to him now? (He's asking in October, two months in advance of the final episode's airdate.) Well, with "64, 66 percent certainty," she tells him. No, no, she reconsiders, more like 70 percent. A few seconds later, "I might even back up from 70 to 66... I'm not trying to be coy at all, it's just that we are in the thick of certain things."
Serial is all thicket, more and more. Here is a settled story by the standards of society. The justice system has already declared the ex-boyfriend guilty. Journalists wouldn't call him an "alleged" murderer, just a murderer. Serial is an example of somebody doing more than what Griffiths must have done. But I agree with Pesca. Facing down the prospect of the final episode of Serial, I don't want ambiguity. I want something like revelation.
In all my conversations about Eden in the last few months, one stands out. It was with Meg Munoz, over the phone; Mistress Matisse suggested I call her.
Munoz lives in Orange County, California, where a few years ago she founded an organization that was part of the "rescue industry" Matisse disparages. Munoz's nonprofit, Abeni, at first was focused on survivors, similar to the Seattle group the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. She'd been trafficked herself. But somehow, Abeni as an anti-trafficking organization felt wrong to Munoz.
She shut it down. She took a break to think. She used that time to investigate her own story.
It turned out she was biased by her final experiences in the sex industry, but those experiences weren't the whole story. When she was 18, she willingly became an escort. "It was really adventurous," she told me. "I was excited. I wanted to try new things." She left in her early 20s, only to return in her mid-20s because she needed money—not quite a victim, but no longer excited. She was right in the middle of the spectrum ranging from happy hooker to exploited victim. The third stage was, she explained to me, when a friend blackmailed her into selling her body and giving him her earnings for three years by threatening to "out" her as a sex worker.
He knew that the telling of stories is not only an art form, but a weapon in the real world.
Munoz had lived the full range of what a true sex worker's story can be. She decided to reopen Abeni after having "done a complete 180." Now Abeni serves people who are the worst victims of exploitation and enslavement. But Abeni also supports and cares for people who love their jobs in porn, Munoz told me. Why do porn workers need support? Because even if they're in the best possible scenario, they're still, as Munoz knows intimately, part of a society based on the simplification of stories, a society that creates demand for sex work while largely insisting that sex workers are only sympathetic if they are victims, if they have stories like Eden. Matisse describes Abeni as "a reality-based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people." Munoz told me that's "really a compliment, because there are a lot of misconceptions." Munoz is used to the more common response: being unpopular for being complicated. She is aligned with both the movement for sex workers' rights and the movement against sex trafficking—opposing sides in the debate about what is the real truth in a work of art like Eden.
Munoz said she knows Chong Kim a little. She has thoughts on Eden, and thoughts on Kim's story and frame of mind, but she declined to share them. What I found myself drawn to instead was Munoz herself, this complex person who reminds me of what Virginia Woolf wrote about people and their stories: "For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand."
Munoz's original story that she was an exploited victim certainly would have passed the "based on a true story" test. But Munoz became a different kind of narrator when she decided to allow conflicting facts to coexist without resolution. Since she's come out with her full story, her parents have become horrified and distant, she said, because "it's only socially acceptable if I've been victimized... broken up and repentant." Her life would make a very different movie from Eden, one probably not followed by panel discussions and fundraisers and interviews with CNN. And that more complicated movie? That's the kind we need indie film for. Eden fails as an indie, in addition to failing as a work of art that tells useful truth.
Look, it's not as if Eden has violated some sanctified genre. As I've discovered in trying to locate any accountability whatsoever under the tag "based on a true story," the category is empty. "Based on a true story" makes even grander claims than journalism, which is full of allegedlys and according tos. "Based on a true story" claims to mean everything when really it means nothing. That artists think they need to use the label at all speaks volumes about our cultural belief that fiction can't actually tell the truth, or can't tell it in a way that will matter.
I want artists to have a voice in the real world, and I was glad Griffiths wanted her art to make a difference, but what kind of art makes the most difference? Is there any correlation between "realism" or claims to truth and how effective a work of art can be in moving people to fight against cruelty or injustice? On reflection, I have to admit that in championing Eden, I was confusing the artist's voice—an artist, as citizen, can speak out or vote on anything she likes—with the voice of the art itself. After all this attempted investigation, from what I can tell now, George Orwell's utterly fictional and allegorical Animal Farm, with pigs and horses and dogs and donkeys for characters, is a truer story about totalitarianism than Eden is about American sex trafficking. And Animal Farm continues to inform and influence people. To do more for real girls, Griffiths ought to have made a truer fiction.