Czechia was among the first countries in Europe to close schools because of the COVID-19 outbreak on the 10th of March, 2020. I learned the news of this in a patched-up boutique cinema in the basement of an otherwise run-down functionalist Prague office building from the 1930s called, somewhat disturbingly, “House of Joy,” as a voice on the mic was excusing the education minister’s absence at the press conference held after a screening of Caught in the Net.
The new documentary by Czech directors Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák about child abuse on the internet was screened here in a remixed version intended for children below the age of 15, while its restricted access, much darker uncut counterpart had already been making rounds in cinemas, reaching a little short of 180,000 ticket sales within the first 7 days. This not only made it the most successful Czech documentary of all time (dethroning Citizen Havel, a 2007 portrait of the country’s beloved first president and Velvet Revolution leader), but gave it extraordinary momentum to dominate public debate across our small nation—a long-overdue discussion that was ultimately only cut short by the pandemic. Cinemas closed along with schools. However, with the kids now at home in front of their own small screens, maybe the conversation—previously avoided by the Czech public as unpleasant and borderline taboo—is as important as ever.
While Chalupová had yet to make her big entrance onto the Czech doc scene, having only worked on several small films for limited audiences—debuting with her student film about gun control Arms Ready in 2016 at the Ji.hlava IDFF—Klusák is an established name, having produced bold work before that generated comparisons to Michael Moore from Czech media on several occasions. For him, Caught in the Net seems to be a continuation of a documentary method that has worked in the past: building lab-like settings and elaborate cover stories to provoke reactions, at times almost secondary to the set-up itself, but nevertheless valuable to and symptomatic of Czech society. Klusák’s 2004 docu-comedy Czech Dream (co-created by Filip Remunda) involved scamming thousands of people into arriving at an empty field for a supermarket opening, following an extensive advertising campaign. Since then, he has hobnobbed with the despised but indispensable heroes of Czech thrash journalism in Tabloid Blue-Collars (2014); produced what the Czech populist prime minister Andrej Babiš reportedly wanted to be a favorable documentary on himself (and therefore considers it a fraud) with Matrix AB (2015); and faced controversy after his 2017 feature The White World According to Daliborek, a heavily stylized portrait of your local neo-Nazi, was branded fake and parodic, but stirred debate nonetheless.
In Caught in the Net, three young-looking but adult actresses are cast to play 12-year-old decoys. The protagonists are invited to occupy a life-sized doll house of three children’s rooms, meticulously built in a warehouse studio space with one wall opening to the film crew huddled behind a tower of monitors and recording equipment. After creating profiles on popular social networks, the women and filmmakers watch in awe as messages flood their inboxes, mostly coming from men the age of their fathers and grandfathers. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the trio is instructed to communicate with these contacts. Despite following a code of conduct commanding the actresses to stress that they are twelve in every conversation, and at the same time prohibiting them to provoke or seduce, what they get is a steady stream of masturbating creeps on video calls, dick pics, persistent requests for nudes, porn links, and threats. Throughout the film, the predators’ faces are carefully blurred; not entirely though—with the mouth and eyes left visible, what ends up peering from the girls’ screens is not an anonymous perv-crowd, but distinguishable, individual monsters-next-door.
The movie culminates with dramatic—and, in some cases, hilarious—personal meetings (only if suggested by the predators themselves) in cafés stuffed with disguised bodyguards, hidden cameras, and microphones. Somewhat disconnected from rest of the Caught in the Net storyline is an investigative side-alley in the form of a crew-member recognizing one of the predators as someone she knows in real life. The cast and crew confront this man in a different fashion from the others: cameras out, at the steps of his home. While the hidden-camera meetings provide some karmic satisfaction—a dog randomly urinates on the side of a predator’s jacket, one of the actresses, on the very edge between her character and herself, throws a drink in her assaulter’s face, a man flees the scene in embarrassing disarray upon catching Klusák’s voice playing the girl’s father on the phone, announcing he is nearby coming to pick the kid up—the “identified” man’s response, ignorant, unapologetic and defensive, is somehow anticlimactic. In front of hidden cameras, the predators become animals caught in photo-traps for later surveillance, helpless and laughable; but with all cards on the table, the perpetrators and the crew just become enemies convincing each other of the impossibility of the other party’s actions. Interestingly, maintaining the illusion as long as it can possibly hold produces a much better effect than direct action.
Similarities may be drawn between Caught in the Net and the early 2000s American reality TV show To Catch a Predator, but for the Czech audience, the film was a complete novelty and a sensation. In the pre-apocalyptic Prague, people would talk about it on trams, read about it in the newspaper and post about it online, both in “aware” Instagram posts and some of the best context-specific memes this world has ever seen. While the film displays several moments of genuine creative wit (such as when the blur-mask slips from one of the video-chatter’s faces to reveal, within the depths of the filth, just a normal guy, who really wanted to chat, rather than test his felony-per-minute rate and scar a 12-year-old for life), what seems to make it so irresistible for the movie-goers is something else: precisely the thing that made in-character meetings with the predators, revealing them as awkward and weak without them knowing they are being watched, so much better than direct confrontation. It tapped, just like the aforementioned supermarket scam central to Czech Dream, into the Czech love of—or obsession with—mystification.
Most recently (in 2017) and most similarly to Caught in The Net in intentions, the Czech rendition of Come Dine With Me was hacked by an internet personality named Kazma to feature an outrageous contestant with Tourette’s syndrome (who also had psoriasis, was a proud gerontophile, slept in a coffin—and was, of course, a hired actor), shooting Google searches for Tourette’s through the roof and basically transforming the program into a free nationwide awareness campaign for the condition without the broadcaster’s knowledge. There have been many more examples of the same thing over the years, like Jan Svěrák’s 1988 Oil Gobblers, an eco-mockumentary about new species that lives off petrol and pollution gas, which won the Student Academy Award overseas (a feat repeated only twice after by Czech creators). When Czech television attempted to spin-off the BBC’s Greatest Britons in 2005 as the Greatest Czech, it was overwhelmingly won by one Jára Cimrman, genius composer, philosopher, and inventor of everything from dynamite to yogurt to the bikini—who had to be disqualified because he never existed: he is a fictional character, whose life and works are presented by a Prague theatre company in symposium-like fashion as a sophisticated joke, on-going since first coming up with the idea in 1966.
So in the end, this feature of the film seems to be the crucial one—wrapping the documentary around a carefully crafted para-reality and allowing moviegoers to be entertained by the skill of the crew in fooling the predators. Which, of course, is not a bad thing. However, the fact that the film is wildly interesting (in the most common sense of the word) to many, incredibly accessible and therefore popular, leaves many questions absent from the discussion. In a country where police provocation is by law reserved for the most severe of crimes and subject to court orders, how fair is it to use decoys, who continue conversations we like to think our children would long leave? And regarding the choices made in blurring faces, does the limit of the predators’ right to privacy and due process really stop where the whites of their eyes and red of their lips begin, leaving them quite identifiable to friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances? And is the “identified” predator right to blame indifferent parents for what their kids are doing on the internet?
It seems that for now, what has to be enough is that Chalupová and Klusák achieved—like Kazma and his Tourette’s Come Dine With Me stunt—creating a tool, more effective than information leaflets, press releases, and NGO campaigns, for starting real conversation, where without conversation, there is no public pressure, without public pressure, there is no policy and without policy, there is no solution. And hey, if one kid sees the movie and feels more confident to block someone, if one shady guy thinks twice about asking an underage girl to take her clothes off on camera and if one parent has a good talk with their son or daughter about what they do online, it was probably worth it.