Paedophilia and The Woodsman (2004)

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Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman. Photograph: Universal Pictures.

The Woodsman and The Paedophile Next Door blow a breath of fresh air on a highly contentious matter that’s turgid with relentless ignorance and violent mob justice.

I have long detested moral panic and knee-jerk reactions, and with Operation Yewtree uncovering a seemingly endless history of showbiz child abuse, paedophilia is the moral panic of the moment. There are many torrents of bile on Twitter and various comment boards that call for the torture and murder of paedophiles; Channel 4’s recent documentary The Paedophile Next Door inundated the Internet with the opinions of angry, perennially unthinking people. This prompted me to write both a review of The Woodsman and an article on the matter.

When I saw an advert for the documentary, I was immediately intrigued and impressed by the premise, it appeared to have an approach and insight that I thought would be deemed far too transgressive by the television executives who arrogantly believe they know what the entire public wants to see. Then again, this is Channel 4 we’re talking about, a broadcaster whose past programming includes the brilliantly daring Brass Eye paedophile special.

Eddie in The Paedophile Next Door. Photograph: Channel 4
Eddie, the self-confessed paedophile at the centre of the documentary. Photograph: Channel 4

The documentary has a very compelling subject in Eddie, a self-confessed paedophile who is as haunted as he is titillated by his attraction to children as young as five. He deserves enormous kudos for endangering himself for the furtherance of public thinking and discourse. Although the programme inevitably provoked a stream of aggressive nonsense on Twitter, there was also a marked and promising presence of empathy and understanding – ‘The demonisation of paedos has driven them underground & left them with no therapeutic access. Prevention is the cure’ – @TheWhackyPaki.

Many of those who are attracted to children must be riddled with guilt and torment; they know that articulation of their urges would be greeted with almost unparalleled hatred and disgust. They would be branded as evil, sub-human monsters that must be killed by the outraged local community like a witch in the 16th century.

The demonstrable fact is that paedophilia, like heterosexuality and homosexuality, is a sexual preference. We may consider it reprehensible, but the reaction to paedophilia shouldn’t be a violent one. We must recognise it, understand it and ultimately control it instead of reacting with crude demonization.

Much denigration was prompted amongst the indignant, enlightened people of the Internet when interviewee Professor Corine De Ruiter compared paedophilia with diabetes. One must listen carefully to the comparison Ruiter was right in making – ‘I compare it to having diabetes, it doesn’t go away and it must be treated.’ Yes, one is a psychological problem and the other pancreatic, but Ruiter’s statement does not concern this, it concerns rather that both diabetes and paedophilia are conditions, chronic conditions that require urgent treatment.

Indeed, not all paedophiles possess Eddie’s moral compass. Take Geoffrey Leonard for example, people may laugh at the outrageous man, however he has campaigned for the legalization of sex with children in a similar manner to the Paedophile Information Exchange mentioned in the programme. My sympathies do not extend to these people, but I do not wish dangerous vigilante justice on them either.

The subject of vigilante justice brings me onto another Channel 4 programme named The Paedophile Hunter, which almost makes ‘The Pedo-Files’ a reality. It makes for toe-curling and undeniably compulsive viewing; however, it is merely reality TV that revels in crass sensationalism. The Paedophile Hunter follows the scuzzy ‘Stinson Hunter’ and his friends as they pose as underage girls on Internet chat rooms, easily tricking desperate groomers. Gleefully riding his high-horse, ‘Stinson’ harks on about how important his work is; indeed, his passing of information onto the police is helpful, but posting humiliating recordings of his victims onto the Internet most certainly isn’t. Unfortunately, it appears that ‘Stinson’s’ myopic, antagonistic vigilantism is more palatable for many viewers than The Paedophile Next Door, which instead focuses on understanding and long term solutions.

Despite my objections, the practice of deceiving predators in online chat rooms is, it seems, one of the only ways to tackle the difficult and considerable problem of Internet paedophilia. However, this task should be reserved for police officers like DC Jonathon Taylor interviewed in The Paedophile Next Door, not some self-righteous, utterly vindictive yobbo like ‘Stinson Hunter’, whose primary motives for his vigilantism is keeping out of trouble and, I can imagine, off the dole.

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Photograph: Universal Pictures

The Woodsman follows Walter (Kevin Bacon), a character who is unlikely to feature in Bacon’s EE adverts. Performed with great nuance and sensitivity, Walter is a paedophile who’s just been released after a twelve-year prison stint.

Walter secures work at a local lumber mill, surrounding himself with people who’d feel very much justified in exacting their own nasty retribution if they discovered his secret. Shots of whirring buzz saws and towering piles of wood and metal reinforce the palpable danger he faces.

Walter keeps a low profile, endeavouring to work hard and sustain a communication with his colleagues that’s merely phatic. However, Walter’s humble reserve attracts the attention of Vicki, played by Kevin Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick. Vicki’s tough, seasoned demeanour means she easily survives in her masculine workplace – it appears she’s experienced many hardships.

Despite Walter’s detachment, he eventually buckles under Vicki’s persistent advances, letting her into his life. It is comforting to see Walter drop his oppressive, steely façade and embrace a kind, understanding person: you invest far more into the pair’s real, raw relationship than you would the decidedly unreal ‘romance’ of many releases. As their relationship grows, however, you are acutely aware of Walter’s secret and wait anxiously for him to reveal it, fearing the worst.

Society’s vindictive, unhelpful attitude towards paedophiles is represented in Seargent Lucas (Mos Def), Walter’s parole officer. Lucas is a consummate unprofessional, aggressively flouting his authority in an attempt to rile the civil, tortured Walter. He has no interest in rehabilitation and makes clear the intentions of his regular visits to Walter’s home – ‘I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you out on the street, it just means we have to catch you all over again’. The resentment Lucas has for Walter can be understood, Lucas speaks of a highly unpleasant paedophilic crime he was once witness to, but he is nevertheless awfully unsuited to the job and generally an obnoxious screen presence.

The viewer’s sympathy for Walter comes so very close to being crushed when he befriends Robin, a lonely, precocious young girl with an interest in wildfowl; their final scene together makes for highly uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing. What is revealed during their interactions is both tragic and enlightening – it’s a very well executed piece of filmmaking.

It is pitiful that The Woodsman reached a peak of 84 cinemas during its release in the United States, its UK theatre run was also shamefully limited. Unfortunately, I think a film with more ‘gunishment’ would have had greater commercial viability. On the other hand, The Paedophile Next Door had and continues to have, through Channel 4’s online service, an audience that numbers in the tens of millions. Even if only a minority watched it with close attention, the documentary’s infiltration of the mainstream has hopefully planted thoughts of measure and understanding in the minds of many.

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