“We want you to act as 12-year-olds.” This was the bizarre, admittedly creepy direction Vit Klusak gave to a gaggle of 19-year-old actresses who turned up for a casting call on his newest docu project, “Caught in the Net.”
The film, co-directed with Barbora Chalupova, has not yet opened in the Czech Republic but has already caused a stir – and has led to the arrest of several alleged sexual predators, the director told a master-class audience at the Ji.hlava docu fest on Saturday.
When Klusak and Chalupova first began looking into the idea of online predators targeting pre-teens, they confess, they had no idea of the extent of the problem.
But as “Caught” makes abundantly clear, there are enough dangers for young people to give any parent nightmares.
The team was assisted in their research by the Czech police cyber crimes unit, Klusak says, which acquainted them with some chilling metrics: As many as 9,000 sexual crimes are committed online every year in the Czech Republic, just a tiny fraction are reported and incidents are up 90%-100% annually; meanwhile, every sixth child in the country has shared “intimate pictures” online.
The docu idea was sparked, Klusak says, after he was approached by Internet provider O2, whose executives wanted him to create a viral video illustrating how easily young girls can be exploited on the web. The company, he learned, is constantly approached by police asking for the addresses of clients suspected of pursuing minors online for web sex and sometimes dates.
Then Chalupova learned about one 12-year-old girl who actually created a fake sexual predator profile for her phone so that it would appear she was getting explicit messages from an older male. Her motive: having something to talk about at school with all her friends who had real older men’s profiles on their phones.
“That’s when I knew we had to make this film,” Chalupova says.
Klusak, known for his elaborate past docu stunts with director Filip Remunda, including creating a fake cheerleader squad to cheer the construction of an American Radar base in the Czech Republic, has also focused his lens on a Holocaust denier, whom he brought to Auschwitz to confront a survivor of the camp.
This time around, he decided with Chalupova to create three complete identities online for 12-year-old girls who do not exist and to have the roles performed by youthful-looking 19-year-olds. Each would have an elaborate social media profile and would be filmed on a custom-built bedroom set loaded with plush toys, hidden microphones and cameras.
The sets were built, along with a bathroom – online predators frequently ask girls to speak to them on camera there – in a huge soundstage, where a team of camera crews, web security experts, counselors and psychologists set up shop to advise and monitor the action.
Almost as soon as the fake profiles were set up, Klusak says, hundreds of men from around the world began contacting the Czech actresses, believing they were pre-teens. Usually they asked them to disrobe, offering money and then asking for dates.
The actresses, made up to look child-like, repeatedly told the men they were 12 and had elaborate back stories that would hold up to Googling. They were also coached in what to say and when to end the conversations during the 10-day shoot, in which calls would come in for 12-hour stretches.
The experience was stressful enough that at least one actress is now in therapy and confesses she feels stressed every time an older man looks at her on the street.
At the end of the shoot, says Klusak, he and Chalupova handed over to Czech police copies of their footage. The men secretly filmed have their faces obscured and their identities are not revealed onscreen but their voices are heard clearly and some who have seen the film’s trailer online have already said they recognize them.
Police have also tracked down the predators, according to Klusak. “Charges have been filed,” he says, admitting that at least some producers were troubled by the ethics of the project. German television chose not to participate in “Caught,” he says, though pubcaster Czech TV is fully onboard and a non-profit Internet safety organization is working with the team, planning education and outreach on the dangers of online sexual predators.
The film, produced by the Czech Republic’s Hypermarket Film, and co-produced by Slovak production company Kerekes Film and Czech Television, was also funded by thousands of crowdsourcing donors and won Czech Film Fund support. It is now in post-production and is expected to hit screens and airwaves soon.