Friday, August 05, 2005

Matrioshki, The Belgian Sopranos?

Finnish TV2 has shown during this summer a Belgian crime drama series of ten episodes called Matrioshki (2004), as its Finnish title Tyttökauppiaat ('The Girl Traders'). Directed by Marc Punt and Guy Goossens, Matrioshki follows a Belgian criminal gang that travels from Antwerp to Lithuania to recruit young Eastern European girls.

The story starts in Vilnius, Lithuania, where a gang of criminals are recruiting local girls to work as dancers in Belgium and Holland. A blonde girl called Daria is anxious to leave behind the life of poverty in the family with her abusive father but her friend, tall and dark Kasandra is more suspicious by the deal offered by a Belgian "businessman" Ray Van Mechelen, in fact a hardened, sleazeball-like criminal (played by Peter Van den Begin, who creates one of the most evil creep-looking TV villains ever). First of all, the contract offered for the girls to sign is written all in Greek...

Kasandra, like her ancient namesake in Greek mythology, acts as a prophet of doom -- eventually doomed herself -- whose warnings will go unheeded, telling Daria she will only end up as cheap prostitute in Europe, but Daria refuses to believe Kasandra. Nico Maes, a Belgian journalist who's making a story on woman trafficking from Eastern Europe prompts Kasandra and Daria's brother to contact police but in the end this is futile, and Daria, with a bunch of other girls, both Lithuanian and Russian, embark on a journey to Belgium, after a "training period" in Cyprus. Meanwhile, Kasandra's fate is sealed in the hands of local criminals working as accessories to Van Mechelen's gang.

We have already witnessed the cruel execution of two Eastern European dance girls-turned-prostitutes in the hands of Ray Van Mechelen and his henchmen. The operations are formally led by an elder businessman John Dockx whose violent, ruthless and intimidating son Vincent becomes in the course of series Ray's nemesis in the power struggle over the strip club called 69 in Antwerp, Belgium, run by the gang. At Club 69 Daria and other girls are reluctantly first turned into strippers, then virtually prostitutes offering sexual favours to the club's clients in a backroom. The criminals have confiscated the girls' passports and visas, so they are actually held as prisoners at the club. Some girls refuse to have sex with clients and find themselves in trouble with their ruthless contractors. A sensitive girl called Luna is raped by one of the clients and ends up braindead in a hospital.

Matrioshki is a tale of cruel exploitation and treachery, filled with ugly scenes of sex and violence reminiscing Martin Scorsese's mafia films such as Goodfellas or David Chase's Sopranos on TV, also following closely the complicated relationships between criminals and their victims. (As with Tony Soprano, these criminals seem to have some human traits too; in the end we almost start to feel pity even with the main villain Ray Van Mechelen who is trying to maintain a desperate relationship with a Russian girl called Kalinka who is among the girls a hated accessory for the criminals, but he has to dump her because of the demands of Vincent -- if possible, an even more disgusting character than Ray -- leading to the fateful conclusion of the series.) The difference here only is that this time the backdrop is -- instead of American-Italian mob life depicted by Scorsese or Chase -- Belgium's sleazy and dark Eurotrash scene.

And it's not nice watching: girls are being physically and mentally abused all the time, informers talking to the police killed. In one scene a girl throws up over an elder client, disgusted by the idea of having to give him a blowjob. Nico Maes, the journalist intending to expose the gang in a newspaper is intimidated by Vincent. People are blown up, their kneecaps are crushed with a pool cue, they are stabbed with scissors or banged to death with a baseball bat. Girls are turned against each other, according to if they are willing to participate in the whoring game or not.

It's a misogynistic nightmare which reveals the ugliness of human trafficking business in all its stark bleakness as girls are sold and traded like slaves from one owner to another. Backstabbing intrigues are followed as everyone tries to exploit or rip off each other. Some well-meaning Belgian men are trying to help the girls to escape from their virtual prison of sex slavery, but these hapless, lovelorn guys only end up in trouble for their efforts with their own misunderstanding families.

It is also interesting to hear that clips from Matrioshki are to be incorporated into an educational video Amnesty International will be distributing to high schools and potential sex trafficking victims across Europe.

Besides being shown on Canal+ and VTM in Belgium, the series also aired in The Netherlands (RTL4), while the series has also been sold to FX (UK and Brazil), M6 (France), LAPTV (Latin America), Ren TV (Russia), SBS (Australia), TV2 (Finland), RTV (Slovenia), LRT (Lithuania), Latvian TV, Kanal 2 (Estonia), RTVFB (Bosnia) and TV Markiza (Slovakia), with other territories pending. In Benelux, Universal also released the series on DVD in the beginning of April 2005.

Producer/director Marc Punt of Independent Productions has also confirmed plans for a second series.

Matrioshki: the official site (in Flemish)
Matrioshki @ High Point Films
Matrioshki @ Flanders Image
Matrioshki @ Allocine (in French)