I Am Slave

Rachel Cooke is moved by a shameful tale of modern-day slavery.

I Am Slave
Channel 4

I don't know what's the matter with me at the moment. Perhaps it's the weather, so damp and prematurely chilly, but everything I watch seems to have me in tears; I leak like a perished hot-water bottle. The only exception to this is Grandma's House, Simon Amstell's Howard Jacobson-meets-Caroline Aherne sitcom on BBC2, which makes me laugh more every week (when I reviewed it, I was worried that he's too much of a smarty pants to be seriously funny; now I think that while he might be a one-trick pony, the trick in question is sublime). The rest of the time, I look around the schedules, hoping for stuff that will be gentle with me: not too upsetting, not too violent, with the kind of plotlines where you know everything will turn out all right in the end.

The big problem is that I have my responsibilities here, and tempting though it is to review Agatha Christie's Marple - the most recent episode featured Nicholas Parsons! - I do see that this would not do. All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I began watching I Am Slave (30 August, 8pm) on Channel 4 full of dread, knowing full well that I would soon be sobbing into a balled tissue.

A film by Jeremy Brock (who wrote the screenplay for The Last King of Scotland), based on the true story of a woman who was kidnapped as
a child from her Nuba village, sold into slavery in Khartoum, and then brought, against her wishes, to London, where she was kept a prisoner in a big house that she cleaned for no wage: how could such a thing be anything other than appallingly sad? This is the kind of misery not even a happy ending can cancel out, especially once you know (they told us at the end) that there are thought to be around 5,000 such slaves working in London, and at least 20,000 more in Sudan alone.

As it was, the film was even more affecting than I'd expected, thanks to the simply heart-stopping performances of Wunmi Mosaku as Malia, the woman who was enslaved, and Isaach de Bankolé as her father, Bah, who refused ever to give up looking for her (she was taken from the village aged 12, during a violent Murahaleen raid). These two imbued their parts with a rare subtlety - a kind of emotional plainness - that clawed at the heart and somehow compounded one's growing sense of outrage and disbelief. In London, Malia worked for a rich, educated Sudanese woman - her husband was some kind of businessman - in a house that would have been familiar to anyone who has driven through certain plush north London suburbs. It was so hard to match its carpeted luxury, its fitted kitchen and its plumped cushions to the terrible severity of Malia's day-to-day life; to believe that both things, such luxury and such meanness, could coexist in one ordinary red-brick building.

But coexist they do, all over the world, and it is shameful. The day after I watched I Am Slave, I read about a woman whose Saudi employees had forced hot nails deep into her body by way of a punishment (for what, God only knows). That evening, sitting in the back of a taxi with my husband, I tried to tell him about the film without blubbing. This proved to be difficult, especially when I got to the final scene.

Malia was in the flat to which she had eventually escaped, thanks to the kindness of a stranger on the street, and she was waiting for a call from her father, who'd ridden in the back of a lorry to the nearest place where he could make such a call: a shack with a single telephone.

In London, the phone rang. She picked it up. At first there was only silence. Then she spoke. "Daddy," she said. And then she began to cry. In his rear-view mirror, I saw the taxi driver eye me with concern. I was gone. If tears constitute a sodden sort of praise, I have only to think of this film to saltily garland it all over again.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial