The divide between meaningful journalism and ethical filmmaking seldom seems as wide as it does in Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams’s The Wrong Light, a documentary about COSA, an NGO in Chiang Mai, Thailand that specializes in rescuing teenage girls from nearby brothels and providing them with an education and a place to live. It’s operated by Mickey Choothesa, a war photographer turned philanthropist whose good deeds initially appear to be self-evident. However, as Choothesa’s stories of his heroic efforts present numerous contradictions once family members of rescued girls start to weigh in, Swantek Heitz and Adams shift their focus, and The Wrong Light’s tone, into outing Choothesa as both a con artist and sex offender.
The discovery of Choothesa’s lies isn’t entirely a surprise given that the film opens in media res with Swantek Heitz on screen recovering from an unknown revelation. She appears both exasperated and caught off guard, and the cameraman asks her what’s going on just off screen in a way that doubles as a rhetorical question for the spectator. It isn’t the only moment where The Wrong Light focuses on its makers’ response to surrounding events. Later, Swantek Heitz and Adams video-chat with Mickey about the conflicting details of COSA’s origins and purpose. A cutaway to Swantek Heitz shooting concerned glances at Adams compromises the integrity of the exchange by highlighting the film’s lack of objectivity, especially given that these directorial choices were made in an editing room with full consideration of the events.
The film’s core, at least for the majority of its first third, features interviews with several of the “rescued” teenagers, who recount the paths that led them to COSA. Their stories are supplemented with brief animated reenactments, which play less like essential components of each girl’s trauma than requisite acknowledgements of documentary practice in works such as Chicago 10 and Waltz with Bashir. The assemblage proves doubly dubious once the pieces of the narrative’s puzzle become clearer and Choothesa’s status has shifted from savior to probable criminal. In practice, The Wrong Light embodies its makers’ vantage points by rendering the sequence of events into the form of a thriller.
This dishonest setup can be detected in the music choices, beginning with solemn piano keys as the teenagers reveal their difficult paths, and continuing with electronic basslines that accompany the journalistic pursuit of the truth. Each scene during the film’s latter half works to stoke the potential suspense of the investigation, which necessarily turns the teenagers into supporting evidence for the film’s case file. Attempted bombshell phrases such as “It’s all a big lie” and “We were never going to get the answers we wanted from Mickey” are integrated without a deeper purpose or context, so that the film’s narrative transforms from a potentially humanitarian work of empathy into a much uglier and concealed work chronicling two American filmmakers serving as the mouthpiece for a group of Thai teenagers and their parents.
Unlike the recent, and far superior, Starless Dreams, which documents the lives and experiences of teenage girls living in an Iranian correctional and rehabilitation center, The Wrong Light relishes the fact that its camera lingers on these teenagers as they discover they’ve been lied to. The majority of such representational problems lie in the film’s lack of transparency about the nature of its narrative. The opening scene works explicitly as a teaser and therefore perverts Choothesa’s dishonest actions even further by exploiting it for dramatic potential. A frequent voiceover by Swantek Heitz consistently situates the film’s context in light of the possibility of further bombshells and works in service of keeping that manufactured suspense alive.
In the end, as the specifics of COSA and Choothesa’s fate remains in question, Eye, one of the teenagers, speaks directly to the camera and says, verbatim: “Lies cannot live forever. One day, someone may investigate and the truth will be revealed.” True to form, this concluding statement, which appears wholly staged, serves little more than to further valorize Swantek Heitz and Adams’s self-ascribed valor and bravery in their choice to be documentary filmmakers.