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Movie Review: Secret Life

(Film Review guest blogged by Nonny Mouse) In 2002, the last British secure residential treatment centre for convicted paedophiles in Wolvercote was

(Film Review guest blogged by Nonny Mouse)

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In 2002, the last British secure residential treatment centre for convicted paedophiles in Wolvercote was shut down after fierce campaigning by protesters. Yet during the seven years the clinic was open, no one in the community was ever harmed by any of the residents. An official report showed the clinic was twice as effective at reducing recidivism rates than prison-based treatment programs, and the government Home Office as well as several UK children’s welfare charities like Bernardo’s and Childline highly praised Wolvercote as showing ‘that treatment of convicted sex offenders is effective in significantly reducing the risk that offenders pose.’ Despite the proven success of centres like Wolvercote in the rehabilitation of offenders, none now exist in the UK. None. Since the closure of Wolvercote, the recidivism rate for child sex offenders has risen, more offenders are on the sex offenders register than ever before, and more are being convicted every day.

Children are now less safe, not more.

Channel 4 in the UK has an award-winning track record for producing thought provoking programmes, not afraid to tackle controversial subject matters. Paedophilia is one of the biggest, and ‘Secret Lives’, to be broadcast this Thursday evening at 9:00 pm, confronts it head-on. Rowan Joffe (the son of Roland Joffe who directed the Oscar winner, The Killing Fields) felt compelled to write this full-length feature drama after watching a news item about the Wolvercote closure, exploring the government’s increasing failure to provide vital support for offenders, and lack of effective preventative measures to stop convicted paedophiles from re-offending after being released from prison.

Charlie Webb (played by Matthew Macfadyen), a white, educated, middle-class man has just finished his prison sentence for sexually abusing two young girls he once coached in swimming. Unceremoniously released from prison, he makes his own way to a rehabilitation centre he voluntarily enters for treatment, aware that without supervision or psychological help he will continue to struggle against his compulsions, and remain a risk to children - never mind harbouring any hope of ever reintegrating back into society. But after some initial success with the help of Emma, the trainee psychologist (played by Holly Aird), Charlie finds himself forced to leave when the treatment centre becomes the target of angry locals determined to close it. Without the help and support of the centre, he quickly spirals downward, aware that he’s again become a risk, but unable to stop himself. Although the ending of the film is slightly predictable, I still found myself watching with a knot in my stomach as Charlie befriends a 12-year-old girl at a fun fair, and begins grooming her for what seems the inevitable…

The programme has been criticised for being overly sympathetic toward paedophiles and insulting to victims, and that the attractive Matthew Macfadyen, better known for his roles in the BBC series ‘Spooks’ and as the sexy Mr Darcy of the 2005 film ‘Pride and Prejudice’, contradicts the more comfortable stereotype of dirty old men in raincoats. But the director has done his research – the majority of child sex offenders are nice, friendly, charming people; they would never get close to children, or their families, if they weren’t. It is exactly this – the intelligent, charming, likeable Charlie – that makes the film as disturbing and as sinister as it is.

And it is well past time for such an analysis, particularly in the wake of the UK government’s announcement last week of pilot schemes in England and Wales of ‘Sarah’s Law’ (after 8-year-old Sarah Payne who was murdered in 2000), the UK version being based on ‘Megan’s Law’ in the States to publicly name and shame local paedophiles. This afternoon, I spoke at length with Donald Findlater, the former director of the Wolvercote centre, and the current Helpline Manager of ‘Stop It Now!’ , a public information and awareness raising campaign regarding child sexual abuse which actually was an American organization before being imported into the UK. He also saw ‘Secret Life’ at a recent screening for child charity and law enforcement personnel – with the exception of a few minor inconsistencies due to artistic licence in the story, he confirms that much of Charlie’s experience is very much based on facts, and they are sobering facts indeed.

Much of the excellent work being done by charities such as Stop It Now and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, and the Scottish crime reduction charity Nacro, was founded on work done in Vermont, and by Philadelphia’s Joseph J. Peter’s Institute. America once led the field in progressive, successful treatment in behaviour modification for child sex offenders. But in a political climate where a thirst for revenge has superseded common sense in recent years, it’s not surprising that such programmes are under threat. Findlater told me that between 30% and 35% of calls made to the UK Stop It Now! helpline are made by adults, mostly men, worried about their sexual thoughts or behaviour towards children, and were seeking help and advice. This same percentage was also reflected by the Stop It Now! helplines in the United States… until Megan’s Law. Overnight, the calls made by adults in the States desperate not to give in to their compulsions and hurt a child dried up.

In Oklahoma, state Representative Lucky Lamons (Dem.), a police officer for twenty-two years, and self-described ‘lock-‘em-up kind of guy’, is fighting the growing NIMBY policies that don’t even attempt to distinguish between true sexual predators and those convicted of pissing in public, still considered a ‘sex crime’ in Oklahoma.

The 2,000 feet rule around schools and playgrounds are forcing offenders into impossible living conditions, out of cities and into rural areas where they are difficult to monitor and have limited access to jobs, public transport or psychological support, with the result that many are simply giving up and going underground. The knee-jerk public fear of sex crimes against children is counter-productive. The hard, cold fact must be faced: Megan’s Law does not work.

Nor does demonising offenders as monsters beyond redemption. Regardless of how anyone feels emotionally about child sex offenders, if our primary objective is the safety of our children, then we as a society must, must, begin dealing with the human face of paedophilia. ‘Secret Life’ is a brave, intelligent and well-made film that, once again, shows why Channel 4 is at the cutting edge of television programming. If you can, watch it. For those who can’t, it may be possible (no promises) to watch it on-line through.

Cast:

Charlie: Matthew Macfadyen

Emma: Holly Aird

Rudi Phil Davis

Michaela: Yasmin Paige

Probation Officer: Michele Austin

Producer: Madonna Baptiste

Executive Producer: Jane Featherstone

Written and Directed by Rowan Joffe

Kudos Film and Television Ltd, for Channel 4, MMVII

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