In our world of uninhibited online free-market capitalism, the easiest impulse to exploit is lust. The new documentary from Jonathon Narducci explores one of the most audacious examples of this in action: mail order brides (or consensual human trafficking).
John Adams is an ‘Average Joe’ from Phoenix, Arizona that met his wife Tanya 14 years ago on a Russian “Love Tour”. This inspired him to set up A Foreign Affair, a website for American lonely hearts to find love online through thousands of profiles of Eastern European (mainly) women. After users signs up for the service, they get the chance to talk to women directly – the only catch of course is that they speak different languages, so Adams helpfully provides a $10 per message translation service. He also organises expensive group holidays over to Ukraine for the men to meet women in person.
Director Narducci follows six men before, during and after such a holiday to find out how successful they are, yet this is filmed more as fly-on-the-wall anthropology than televisual exposé. He tries to stay neutral by showing stories with happy and not-so-happy endings, but includes enough information for viewers to decide for themselves.
The ideology of the characters in the film is unashamedly conservative. They are all so devoted to the traditional notion of marriage and finding ‘the one’ that they are willing to fly to the other side of the world to get what they want. Because of this desperation, an exploitative industry has emerged that espouses such romantic dictums as “the internet has changed the way we date, both internationally and domestically…”
The amazing insight that the film reveals is the appalling (yet predictable) arrogance of Western men. They fly to the other side of the world to meet a woman who speaks a different language that they have only met through email, and are genuinely shocked when it doesn’t immediately work out. One Ukrainian woman is smart enough to propose that her new ‘husband’ is in love with an idea and not actually her as a person, but the men never seem to work that out.
The characters in the film are easy targets to mock, but the real judgment should be reserved for the company that exploits these men. At $10 a message, one man admits to spending over $10,000 talking to a single woman – yet when it doesn’t work out what does he do? He waits a while and tries again… These men are not only in love with an idea, but are addicted to an idea. Which makes it all the more insidious that they are taken advantage of.
Another man travels to Ukraine to meet his future wife for the first time (!) and is shocked when a man comes to her door to demand money from him or she will be locked up – he gives the man what he has but then only admits to things being ‘a bit fishy’.
Naturally the film is in English and focuses on the American men, who admittedly are amazing characters to watch onscreen, but the real story that is somewhat glossed over is why Eastern European women are so desperate to get married. The quality of life in Ukraine clearly needs improving for them to want to so desperately marry a stranger from America. I don’t fault the documentary for answering this question – an army of socialogists could dedicate their lives to it – but I do, again, fault the company for exploiting the phenomenon.
Love Me is a fable for the Internet age to go alongside other virtual warnings such as TalHotBlond and Catfish. As more and more people spend their lives online concocting fantasies, the more and more people will be disappointed with the ever elusive ‘real world’…