The following article contains subject matter that includes sexual assault, child sexual exploitation and paedophilia. If any of the following subject matter is triggering, please visit https://childreninthepictures.org/find-help/ to find support.
Film activism has been always a powerful tool to raise awareness across social, environmental and political concerns. At its most successful, it has the ability to create a movement, and at its most vapid, it spawns a hit Netflix limited series quickly replaced by the next doco-of-the-week.
However, while success can be a fickle audience-based phenomenon, it’s rare to see a documentary built on an agenda of activism, a steppingstone if you will designed to initiate not just awareness and conversation, but instigate deliberate essential action, both vital and relevant to the wellbeing of our society. But that is exactly what the compelling, and confronting documentary The Children in the Pictures aims to do.
A forensic expose on the culture of child sexual exploitation, filmmakers Akhim Dev (The Final Sacrifice) and Simon Nasht (Defendant 5) have crafted an enthralling behind-the-scenes profile of ARGOS, the steadfast law enforcement unit based near Brisbane Australia whose directive is to identify and rescue victims of the monstrous online communities that produce and trade in explicit sexual content primarily focused on the abuse of children.
And while it may seem an uncomfortable subject, the film is essentially one of optimism showcasing real world solutions and intimate profiles of the law enforcement officers who have achieved actual results in saving abused children. In fact, the film itself is a remarkable work of engagement against a leviathan of malevolence.
“A lot of times you get asked as a filmmaker, ‘how did it get so big? How did we get here?’ And honestly that’s part of the story,” explains Akhim Dev, the film’s co-director during an extended chat on the film’s origins and societal impact.
“We wanted you to see how we were getting to these numbers, we wanted you to see the correlation in numbers – from dialup to the proliferation of mobile phones – and what has created this explosion. It makes you realise that the crime is growing in size. Yet one of the biggest crimes is that we haven’t really talked about it.
“Social media applications such as Tiktok, Facebook and Instagram are creating fertile ground for predators, but they’re also creating these theatres, where children who are engaging in risk-taking behaviour, feel that they’re safe because of the anonymity they have from behind their phone. But actually, they are completely exposed. And this is causing a mass of victims.”
In fact, one of the documentary’s most powerful scenes is one in which a simple size-comparison graphic showcases the disturbing reality of online participants within the criminal communities. One of the first predatory chat rooms, innocuously named The Group, was brought down in 2009 with approximately 54 active members. Five years later, a site known as The Love Zone was reported to have in excess of 45,000 active members, and in 2017, thanks to the proliferation of the dark-web, a site insidiously titled Child’s Play was reported to have a membership exceeding 1 million. Today, some leading child sexual exploitation sites have global memberships of over 2.5 million participants, actively exchanging video, audio and still photography among its members.
“The thing that is really important now is to realise that we all have a potential child abuser in our back pocket,” explains Dev, holding up his mobile phone as an example of the clear and present danger faced by today’s youth. “So, the first thing we need to do is talk about it. And we need to talk about it in the right way. Part of our objective is to educate the media on the language that we should use around this.
“Stop calling everyone that does it a ‘Pedo’. Those kinds of salacious names and headlines aren’t helping. Stop calling it fucking child pornography, for god’s sake. That has got to be one of our big takeaways. It is Child Sexual Abuse.”
For a film dealing with a demanding subject, one of the things The Children in the Pictures gets right is its focus on the law enforcement officials who have dedicated their lives to fighting, not simply against the perpetrators, but for the victims. A distinction both Dev and Simon Nasht approached with a considered respect, and which delivers a compelling procedural narrative that will appease any true-crime aficionado. It also gave the filmmakers an approach that allowed them to gain the necessary financing required to produce a film on a subject that many believe untouchable.
“It wasn’t an easy one by any means,” reveals Nasht, when asked about the challenges of finding support. “I think, not that the heart wasn’t willing from them, but I think they needed to keep being convinced that we could find a way to tell the story that would actually be watchable.
“So, pretty early on we decided that we’ve got a couple of things going for us. It’s obviously true crime in the truest sense. And though we certainly don’t shy away from that, I think we’ve avoided using the usual Netflix tropes. It had to be engaging for the audience on a level of: are they going to find the criminals, how do they find them, what’s the trade craft? All these sorts of issue are interesting in that true crime sense. But we wanted to avoid the matte kind of flashy style that’s already become a cliché.
“Secondly, I think our approach overcame that resistance, by actually telling the story from the investigators’ perspective. This is the cop’s story. It’s an awful crime involving pretty awful people but there are also some remarkably good people, some really courageous people in this story and they, of course are our key characters.”
Based near Brisbane, ARGOS has become a global leader in tracking, infiltrating and decimating numerous exploitation rings, often liaising with international law enforcement agencies to save thousands of children from continued sexual assault, exploitation and grooming. In the last financial year alone, ARGOS has helped identify 201 children facing sexual harm around the world, which has directly resulted in the arrest of 49 child sex offenders on 402 criminal charges, and led to an additional 690 referrals to international agencies.
However, under the prevailing inaction from the likes of Facebook and Amazon (which house 90% of the world’s servers) and other social media juggernauts, and dark-web protections, the threats faced by children continues to remain. Child sex abuse is now the fastest growing major crime in the world. Reports made to authorities increase 50% each year with the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) receiving in excess of 22,00 reports of online child sexual abuse this year already. A similar task force in the United States has reported over 65 million images and videos having been forwarded to them.
In the face of such an overwhelming tidal wave of human misery, Dev and Nasht have produced a remarkable and vital profile on the significant and unrelenting dedication of the investigative team with The Children in the Pictures. However, as filmmakers, the pair have invested significant time and resources beyond a simple produce-and-release strategy, with the documentary set to launch an ongoing campaign to draw attention and advocacy toward the issue in hopes of affecting real change.
“We’ve got cinema screenings where we can, in Perth, Brisbane and Hobart, Launceston, Darwin, Alice… a few places,” elaborates Nasht regarding the film’s roll-out. “We’re working with Fan-Force on having virtual screenings where you buy your ticket and watch the film during a set session time. And then we’ve got Q&As being hosted by the likes of Peter Fitzsimons, Andrew Denton, Derryn Hinch, as well as Q&As with cops and specialists in the field. A lot of the ARGOS team themselves – so that you have a kind of value added to the audience in terms of watching.
“It plays on SBS on Sunday evening, October 24, as the final film in a series called Australia Uncovered, which is kudos to SBS for actually doing that. And then, our main game in terms of the release of the film is international.
“It’s looking pretty good – it’s not confirmed – but we are looking at South by Southwest in March and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
“Also, because of the nature of the film, we have a lot of high-powered partners, including some of the world’s largest law enforcement agencies such as Homeland Security and Europol who are endorsing the film. We’re also in advanced discussions with UNICEF, so that we can get the word out to their membership and user groups.
“And beyond that, we have, what I’m sure is the largest ‘Impact Funding Grant’ an Australian film has ever received. It’s seven-figures from Westpac, who are backing the film. So that allows us to employ, for two years, a bunch of special staff who’ll be dealing with the impact of the film. We will also be releasing a podcast early next year which Dev and I have done.”
“Simon and I have been on this together for 6 years, I’ve been on it for 8 years,” interjects Dev. “It’s a real testament to ARGOS and law enforcement that they gave us the entrée of the vision, and let us hang around and discuss the ways to really be able to get this right. It was really about getting the messaging right, and for them to actually realise, ‘oh, you’re not just gonna come here and make some movie and go home. They trusted us to be in it for the long haul.”
“It’s an interesting experience,” continues Nasht. “We’ve seen a couple of American films that have done it. An Inconvenient Truth, Invisible War, which was about sexual abuse in the US military which resulted in changes in the legislation in the US. It’s that interesting combination of zeitgeist for an issue coming at the right time and an ability for audiences to actually do something rather than just watch the film.
The Children in the Pictures screens on SBS Sunday, October 24. For information on special Q&A sessions, online or in-cinema screenings or to learn how you can become involved and help support the fight against child sexual exploitation visit https://childreninthepictures.org/
Victims of child sexual assault or those who know of a crime taking place can find a list of organisations able to help by visiting https://childreninthepictures.org/find-help/