In the wake of the convictions of Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris, the post-mortem dissection of Jimmy Savile’s character, and murmurings of a historic cover-up that protected and enabled paedophiles going right to the heart of British politics, the topic of sexual criminality has perhaps never been such an acutely sensitive area, at least within the British Isles.
The audacity with which director Veronika Lišková decides to tackle this issue head-on in her new documentary film Daniel’s World is therefore in itself shocking, yet commendable. Under the influence of tabloid newspaper headlines that regularly shriek about ‘PERVERTS’, ‘SICKOS’, and ‘MONSTERS, we’re conditioned into considering paedophiles to be somehow sub-human. History has surely taught us, if nothing else, that this is a very dangerous path to tread.
Thus, instead of immediately dismissing paedophiles as depraved sex-criminals and invalidating their human experience, Lišková offers us a glimpse into the world that one of them inhabits. His name is Daniel, a young man of 25 who studies literature at university in Prague. It’s taken him a while to come to terms with, but he now freely admits his sexual attraction to prepubescent boys. Beyond fantasising, he claims never to have acted upon these desires, and vehemently denies that he’s ever committed a crime, at least not of a sexual nature.
Through a series of remarkably candid interviews and encounters with Daniel himself – his meetings with his sexologist, members of his family and other paedophiles he associates with – we gradually build up a sense of this young man’s life, and whatever you may feel about the morality or the truthfulness of his claims, his humanity’s all too apparent. His worries, insecurities and anxieties about the future will resonate with any young man struggling to find his place in the world, and to gain the acceptance of a society so swift to cast hypocritical judgement and exclude those that it shuns.
The film dispenses with artistic flourishes, letting the hard-hitting subject matter do all the talking. And the impact, however it makes the viewer feel towards Daniel, is bound to be hard-hitting, such is the genuinely empathetic yet neutral approach of the documentary. At times the film even raises a comic moment, Daniel explaining to his friends in a pub that for his sexual desire, he has his right hand and – when he wants something more exotic – he has his left.
Nevertheless, this is still very difficult viewing, and will challenge even the most compassionate and open-minded audience to confront their own prejudices, or at the very least make them squirm in their seats. The film concludes with Daniel at an ice-rink, the metaphorical ‘thin ice’ (perhaps a rather laboured image) describing his hopes for the future. He claims he doesn’t want sex with minors to be legalised, as he knows this is wrong – something he must and can resist. Apparently, all he wishes for is to be innocent until found guilty, and to be accepted by society for who he is, provided he doesn’t commit a transgression. In his mind, that acceptance would include being allowed to spend time with the boy he loves – Miša, the son of some friends.
While this will make many viewers profoundly uneasy, the merit of this insight into such a troubled and ostracised individual can’t be denied, and Daniel’s World is an important step on the road to a better and more constructive societal response to paedophilia.
Daniel’s World screens on 20th June at the Curzon Bloomsbury as part of the Open City Docs Festival 2015. This screening is organised in collaboration with the Czech Centre, London.