Sex Trafficking Mars the Mystique of Cannes Film Festival: “This Crime Is Significantly Underreported”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, each May, young women arrive in the South of France with big-screen ambitions, but even after the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, their journey to Hollywood often begins with producers promising movie roles and visas in return for sex.
In 2014, Kadian Noble met Harvey Weinstein in the lobby of the Majestic Hotel in Cannes. After some small talk, he instructed the aspiring actress to come upstairs so that he could have a look at her reel. Noble, who was 27 and from the U.K., had previously met the since-disgraced mogul in London, where he told her he liked her look and was eager to cast her in one of his movies. To make the whole matter seem legit, he introduced Noble during that London encounter to Oprah Winfrey, an idol of Noble’s.
Before Hollywood’s #MeToo awakening in 2017, there was nothing unusual about taking a meeting alone in a hotel room during the Cannes Film Festival. Hundreds of U.S. film companies like The Weinstein Company booked suites at glorious resorts along the Croisette like the Majestic and used them as makeshift offices during the festival and accompanying market.
“It was a case of this man who creates masterpieces has just chosen me, telling me, ‘I have something in mind for you. It’s going to be good for you,’ ” Noble tells THR. “It sounds like I was delusional at the time to believe all of that, but I did believe it.”
Once they were in the room, Weinstein put Noble on the phone with a man who Weinstein said was a producer. The man spoke so fast that she didn’t catch his name. He told her to be “a good girl” and comply with Weinstein’s wishes. “He was just like, ‘Harvey has told me about you. These things are going to happen for you.’ But it was very vague, and it made no sense,” she adds.
Weinstein then began watching the actress’ reel. What happened next, according to Noble, was sudden and unexpected, culminating with Weinstein sexually assaulting her in the bathroom.
Although Noble’s story rings familiar given the number of women who have emerged since October 2017, her lawyer took a novel approach in seeking justice. Attorney Jeff Herman, who has represented alleged sexual abuse victims of director Bryan Singer and billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, filed a federal suit in New York in November 2017 accusing the film titan of violating sex trafficking laws (at the time the Noble suit was filed, Weinstein released a statement denying any allegations of nonconsensual sex).
The fact that Cannes has become publicly associated with sex trafficking certainly sparked headlines. And yawns. After all, for decades, the festival — with its booming yacht circuit and influx of wannabe actresses and uber-wealth — had been ground zero for nefarious activity, including sex trafficking in all its myriad forms. What’s more surprising is that despite the tidal shift in awareness post-#MeToo, bad behavior on the Cannes party scene persists.
Under the Obama administration, the federal sex trafficking laws were amended to create jurisdiction over U.S. citizens violating these laws in foreign countries. The amendment allowed Herman to make a claim against Weinstein because he’s a U.S. citizen and allegedly violated federal sex trafficking laws while in France.
Herman’s suit has been challenged, but Judge Robert Sweet of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied Weinstein’s motion to dismiss and has allowed the case to move forward.
Herman has another client — whom he declined to name — who alleges that she was raped by Weinstein in the late 1990s at Cannes. “You’re talking about a 20-year span of him utilizing the Cannes Film Festival for this purpose,” he says.
Still, Herman says it’s important to distinguish the Cannes casting couch from what rises to the level of sex trafficking.
“The casting couch is [a form of] sexual harassment. It’s using your position of power to coerce women to get them to agree to engage in sexual activity for a part,” he says. “You can be morally offended by that and [say it’s] ethically wrong, but those are two adults making that decision. What makes it sex trafficking with regard to Harvey is that he coerced these women using violence, threats, fraud. They basically didn’t have a choice. And one way or another, once he had them in the room, he was having sex with them or sexually assaulting them.”
“It’s important to point out that to be trafficked, you don’t have to be locked up somewhere,” says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, which works with victims of human trafficking.
Another form of sex trafficking that is bubbling under the radar on the Riviera but obvious to most producers in the know is one in which non-U.S. citizens meet film industry connectors on the Cannes yacht circuit. The go-betweens help the would-be actresses, often still in their teens and hailing from countries ranging from Britain to former Soviet bloc states, gain legal entry into the U.S. and land a small or nonspeaking role in an American movie. The unspoken quid pro quo is that once in the U.S., they are lent out — sexually — to other powerful industry men. With the threat of her H-1 visa being revoked, the actress effectively can’t say no or go to the police.
“I have definitely seen cases where you see someone at Cannes in May, then you’re in L.A. in September, and they’re there,” says one producer who has witnessed the gambit.
In fact, the producer says it should raise a red flag any time you see a foreign-born actress with no credits suddenly make her way into a U.S.-shot movie. “No one would legitimately pay for the H-1 visa for that kind of role. No way. It costs four or five thousand bucks,” he says. “As a producer, there’s no chance that there’s this one-liner that should be a local hire [and] that we’re going to go with a first-timer from Ukraine and get a work visa for her.”
And yet, it happens with disturbing frequency, with the Cannes Film Festival playing a pivotal role. THR has learned of at least one now-prominent actress who made her first connections on a Cannes yacht and quickly landed her debut role in a U.S.-shot movie. In exchange, she told confidants, she was passed around to a group of Hollywood men, sometimes coerced. Another name actress has a nearly identical trajectory. Both declined to speak to THR.
How the young women wind up in Cannes in the first place is a bit of a mystery given the price of travel and accommodations during the festival. But a source familiar with the inner workings of yacht life says services that pay to bring women to such places are particularly reliant on Eastern Europeans and will groom them in their home countries before moving them to high-profile events. Girls who have received refinement training — so they will blend in at premieres and posh restaurants — typically fetch more for the service. As to who is paying, well-heeled film financiers often are footing the bill. One London-based woman who previously ran such a service was known by producers as a point person for the scheme but declined to talk to THR, fearful of being on the record.
“It’s important to point out that to be trafficked, you don’t have to be locked up somewhere,” says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, which works with victims of human trafficking. “The fact that people have freedom of movement, that’s not relevant. The question is: Is there a level of coercion? In the trafficking of foreign nationals, the methods of coercion are often very different from the trafficking of U.S. citizens because the immigration system is designed in such a way as to give all power to the employer.”
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an authority on human trafficking who frequently appears as an expert witness in legal cases, says most victims never come forward, making statistics meaningless. “We do know that this crime, because of its clandestine nature, is significantly underreported,” she says. “So, as far as measuring prevalence, we really don’t have those metrics to say how often this happens because of how underreported it is. Even if it is reported, [there is] a low-variable likelihood of successful conviction because of how difficult a crime it is to successfully litigate. And oftentimes the [accused] mount a very zealous defense and have the finances to do so.”
Epstein, for one, avoided a lifetime prison sentence for underage sex trafficking and abuse and instead served just 13 months thanks to a pitbull legal team that included Alan Dershowitz.
As for Noble, she says she let one of Weinstein’s female assistants know after the encounter that “he forced himself on me,” she says. “And her advice was to put it in a letter to him because ‘maybe he doesn’t realize his actions,’ and I should ‘put my skills into expressing myself.’ “
The case is moving forward. However, Judge Sweet passed away in April, and a trial date has not yet been scheduled. While there are both state and federal laws in play for sex trafficking, penalties at the federal level start with 10- to 15-year minimums.
Now 32, Noble says she has no intention of returning to Cannes. Instead, she is spending more time pursuing film and TV work in Los Angeles. But she says the experience at the Majestic has left her with health issues, and she’s wary of the intentions of men in the business.
“I did have more trust in people [before], if somebody approached me and was talking about wanting to work with me,” she says. “But now I just always feel like most people are talking shit.”