In/Visibility in Dirty Pretty Things

By Aria Alamalhodaei |

In 1999, the average person in Great Britain was captured on closed circuit television (CCTV) nearly 300 times per day.[1] The unregulated adoption of surveillance technologies, along with deindustrialization and austerity-driven economic policies, have compounded to produce a massive shift in the social topography of British urban life. Fractured laboring classes—service workers, those circulating in underground or survival economies, and undocumented laborers—proliferate amidst the parallel growth of militarized state borders and domestic immigration detention centers. The historical devaluation of racialized and migrant life endures as surplus to capital’s imaginative zone, with many (poor, brown, without papers) unevenly yoked between invisibility, surveillance, and the law.

Stephen Frear’s 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things compels us to press into this nexus, to tangle ourselves in the violent contradictions that constitute contemporary forms of disposability.[2]  The film chronicles the lives of two migrants, Nigerian-born Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a Turkish woman named Senay (Audrey Tautou), who live and work in London. It is a story of the liquidation of excess populations under neoliberalism, narrowly gathered around an organ trafficking ring in which Okwe and Senay become involved. Although much of the film’s scholarship focuses on Okwe, the moral propeller of the narrative, this essay takes up Senay’s story, and the questions it contains regarding the relationship between gender and surveillance under neoliberalism, or what Pierre Bourdieu describes as “a utopia of endless exploitation.”[3]

Despite feminism’s long-standing insistence on thinking through gender as a field of power relations, its emphasis on the body’s appearance in space, as well as its theorization of the psycho-sexual dynamics of looking, surveillance scholarship has paid surprisingly little attention to the gendered and raced dimensions of surveillance technologies. Rather, gendered violence and the creeping gaze of the surveillance camera are imagined to be discrete forces, occupying different territories of control—the former specific, targeted, and private, and the latter omnipresent, non-discriminating, and public. Senay’s narrative demands closer attention to the modalities of techno-governance that operate in the lives of migrant women.

For Senay, surveillance, rape, and organ trafficking collapse into an assailing penetrative violence that threatens to swallow her into its brutal unspeakability. Dirty Pretty Things turns on her exposure to harm, and gains narrative coherence via her decision to sell one of her kidneys, so that she might escape both immigration detention and sexual abuse. At its core is an emerging logic of feminization, as expressed via post-colonial migration networks and capitalist accumulation, which the film visually posits through the metaphor of the wound: the surgical scar, the vaginal opening, the porous boundaries of a nation-state, and the piercing gaze of the camera. Charting these borders leads us to the work of Julia Kristeva, whose writing on abjection relays a vision of the body constructed through/by the fraught relation between surface and boundary. Her work finds an unlikely elaboration in the complex border optics of Dirty Pretty Things and Senay’s narrative therein. Underscoring the anxious depiction of rape, bodily violence, and surgical procedures is a cinematographic and directorial aversion to violation, an aversion that inadvertently reifies the migrant woman’s body as abject.

Although nearly fifteen years have passed since the release of Dirty Pretty Things, the questions it insistently poses regarding the distribution of vulnerability, dispossession, and injury across the socio-political landscape remain more prescient than ever. What can gender, abjection, and contemporary forms of citizenship tell us about surveillance? How can a metaphorics of the wound—and its attendant psycho-somatic horrors—fill the silence in the space between gender, migration, and technology? Senay’s story speaks to this silence, sharply calling attention to the multiplicity of forces that attempt to (both literally and psychically) cut up her body and circulate its commodified pieces in a global organ market.


The first time the viewer sees Senay is through the lens of the security camera that hangs in the lobby of the Baltic Hotel, where she works as a domestic cleaner. The camera’s eye, trained on the doors through which the workers file in the pre-dawn exhaustion, carefully records their daily attendance. Here, the global devaluation of domestic and care work intersects with regimes of post-colonial diaspora, to generate the living labor that now flows through the hotel doors. As viewed through the security camera’s low-resolution imaging, Senay appears ghostly and flat, all blue and white pixels. For the few moments before she continues into the hotel, the space between the film camera and the security camera collapses into one lens, capturing—or being captured by—her gaze.

In contradistinction to the contemporary form of elaborated subjectivity—the waged worker-citizen—there resides in the borderlands undocumented laborers whose status marks them for ontological incoherence and social death. The security camera punctures this borderland, this boundary between visibility and invisibility, to record what is normally hidden from view. Trespassing into the subterranean machinations of hotel ecology, which include illegal labor, sex work, and organ trafficking, the security camera-cum-film camera marks out the spatial stratification of surveillance practices. For while the labor of cleaning up after, fucking, and providing care for British society is invisibilized (that is, unacknowledged, unvalued, and exploited), the security camera’s visual convergence on the women workers indicates an array of surveillance apparatuses to which these laborers are nevertheless subjected.

In this context, surveillance can be understood as a highly predetermined network of power relations channeled by technological machines, the state, and private agencies. In “The Politics of the Selective Gaze: Closed Circuit Television and the Policing of Public Space” Katherine S. Williams and Craig Johnstone argue that the long-prevailing metaphor of the Panopticon is insufficient and misleading in understanding the effects of surveillance technologies. Rather, they emphasize “the highly selective nature of these CCTV systems, both spatially and in the persons and behaviors which are surveilled.” [4] This shift in attention allows for a remapping of social geography that considers the asymmetrical qualities of urban life. In Dirty Pretty Things, the cameras watch the workers rather than the patrons; and policing systems are plainly understood to be administrations of terror rather than security. After Okwe finds a human heart in the toilet of a hotel room, an index of a botched organ extraction, he suggests calling the police. Juan, the hotel manager, treats the proposal with obvious contempt: “What is your full name, Okwe? And you never told me where you were from.” Although it is in Juan’s interest, as an organ broker and profiteer, to deter Okwe, his taunting nevertheless bears the incredible weight of reality: despite the traumatic crime that incontrovertibly occured, to contact the police would be to risk exposure to the selective violence of incarceration and deportation.

“Selectivity” when applied to surveillance technologies implies an active, rather than passive, gaze, one that purposefully plunders through its field of vision. It also restores the influential power of the human actor/operator in determining who, or what, is watched. As Hille Kosekla notes, feminist theory has been instrumental in tearing down “the myth of the universal subject of knowledge,” but this epistemic turn has not had significant impact in the study of surveillance practices. [5] Tellingly, evidence that security camera operators are overwhelmingly men has gone largely unacknowledged in the study of surveillance. [6] The domestic workers’ compulsory acknowledgement of the security camera gives reference to the highly gendered, gratuitous, and relational method by which surveillance selects its objects of attention.

Consider, for a moment, the vertiginous effects of the UK Home Office’s live-tweeting of coordinated immigration raids throughout the country in 2013.[7] Their tweets, and the accompanying hashtag #immigrationoffenders, disclose the strange intimacy between purportedly democratic-utopian social media and the UK Border Agency’s increasingly aggressive policies. Like the blurred security camera footage of Senay gazing at the viewer, surveillance has increasingly come to be understood through its optics; that is, through a particular repertoire of imagery. As Paul Virilio reminds his reader, “Weapons are not just tools of destruction but also of perception” (6). Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that horror cinema has kept apace with technological developments, deploying the aesthetics of the VHS tape, the home movie, or cyberspace to provoke new terrors in the viewer. Dirty Pretty Things operates within this genealogy of surveillance, which, like the Home Office’s hashtag, converges on the intersections between visuality and control.


Indeed, considering surveillance as a mechanism of control requires accounting for the full range of social positions charted along a matrix of gender, race, and citizenship, wherein the uneven valuation of life re-situates certain bodies as objects of civic abandonment. That is, for those liquidated in the wake of neoliberal expansion, the meaning of being seen is complicated by an increasing population of migrants, like Senay, whose anxiety is inextricably conjoined to her fraught immigration status – to ‘being seen’ by the state. In this configuration she is not only forced into a position of ontological non-existence by virtue of her status, but it becomes her imperative to remain invisible, to not be seen. ‘Being seen’ is to be vulnerable to injury. When a visit by immigration officials forces her to flee the Baltic Hotel, for example, Senay is pushed into more dangerous sweatshop labor and sexual abuse at the hands of her employer: she was seen.

And yet, as noted earlier, her vulnerable status ‘selects’ her as an object of the surveillance gaze, just as her racialization imbricates her as an object of male scrutiny. Consider the remarks of the Baltic Hotel’s doorman, a Russian migrant named Ivan (Zlato Burić), to Okwe: “So it’s true what they say. They say you and the Turkish girl are nesting like birds.” He continues: “You know, she’s a Muslim, which means she’s a virgin – like a little angel.” His comments are the first (though not the last) allusion to Senay’s virginity, which quickly emerges as the plot’s fulcrum and the symbolic measure of her girlhood. At several points her girlishness is inscribed as a kind of naivety or guilelessness. In a later scene, after Okwe tells her that he lived for a time in New York City, she asks him if it is true that the NYPD ride white horses. Her childlike desire registers on the level of a fairytale, as the security state apparatus is elevated to the fantastic and the chivalrous.

In this sense, her image is carved out through the camera and her virginal sexuality in turn-that is, carved out of the spectre of penetrative violence. Bizarrely, the film’s promotional material and DVD cover depict a smoldering, coquettish-looking Audrey Tatou glancing back at the viewer over a bare shoulder, a blind sexualization of her character that is, at best, inappropriate given Senay’s narrative. Yet it is her image, her suggestive glance, that entices the would-be spectatorial gaze. And so sexuality becomes just another mode of hyper-visibility; or rather, to be sexualized is to be hyper-visible, fluorescent, hanging desperately by a rope of suspended agency. Juan’s particular, emphatic interest in Senay, and an added stipulation to her receiving a European passport, rests in a sexual exchange; and her boss at the sweatshop only offers her protection from immigration detention on the grounds that she open herself up to sexual violence: this is the bargain.

Many black feminists have written about the intersections of invisibility and hyper-visibility with regards to the black female body. In her seminal essay on the transformative power of language, Audre Lorde states, “Black women have on the one hand always been highly visible, and on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.” [8] Without eliding the irreducible differences between black women and Senay (played by the very French Tautou), in particular the geographical specificity of anti-black racism in the United States, I want to identify a similar triangulation of invisibility, hyper-visibility, and sexualization as refracted through Senay’s experience in the film, and in particular, the role of surveillance in perpetuating feminized violence against migrant women. The criminalization of migrant women compounds with processes of sexualization to produce a double-layer of scrutiny that marks their difference as that which must be disciplined and controlled. The result is the lodging of vulnerable women in-between sexualized hyper-visibility, and social desertion and invisibility. In this liminal space she is neither fully alive nor dead. Instead, she becomes what she was always marked out to be: the raw material of capitalist recuperation, her living body reduced to a composition of extractable parts.


The tenuous relation between visibility and invisibility in Dirty Pretty Things is primarily expressed via the fugitive, restless motion of its characters.  Mrinalini Chakravorty and Leila Neti note in their article “The Human Recycled” that Dirty Pretty Things is framed by scenes of movement, with both the opening and closing sequences set in an airport, “the quintessential place of modern transit.” [9] The viewer watches as Senay and Okwe move through tunnels, hallways, stairwells, and other darkened interiors, hallmarks of London’s labyrinthine topography. The cinematography, particularly the use of hand-held cameras and tinted lens filters, confers onto these scenes a nearly incandescent glow.


Tom Whittaker argues that this “manufactures a vision of London hinged on the tension between the squalid and the scenic, the bleak and the beautiful—or, as the film’s title suggests, between the dirty and the pretty.” [10] But despite its titular veneer, mobility is treated less as a blessing and more as a curse, a ‘running from’ rather than ‘running to.’ Inverting the ecstatic flows of global capital, whose endless, unencumbered circulation stands in for freedom, the viewer encounters Senay and Okwe’s movements as the fraught, threatened actions of captives under siege.


Insofar as transit is one of the key technologies of modernity, propelling the circulation of both commodities and bodies, mobility can be understood as one of the primary characteristics of the modern worker. Dirty Pretty Things unfolds around contemporary transformations in post-colonial labor conditions, which demand hyper-mobility from an increasingly globalized force of precarious workers. Inquiry into ‘the feminization of labor’ attempts to address such anxieties, in particular the role of gender in post-Fordist systems of production. Yet however ‘feminized’ work has become, analyses consistently fail to address the crucial ways ‘the feminine’ has been altered by this new neoliberal demand on workers. For while it’s true that men’s roles in the global economy have been significantly diminished—“feminized”—the term risks glossing over the enduring differences in both the gendered division of labor and the lived experience of working as a woman. The film explores these differences in the latter half of the film, after Senay takes up work at a sweatshop. When immigration officials track Senay to the sweatshop (the film does not make clear how they discover her), they confront her boss, who lies about his employing her. After they leave, her boss pulls her to a secluded part of the shop. Between racks of plastic sheet-covered garments, he threatens her, saying, “If you can’t give me a good reason [not to turn you over to the police], I will call the Immigration.” Senay turns away, trapped by the racks of clothes. She presses her face to the plastic as he continues: “I’m a good man, Senay. I know where to draw the line.” He touches her hair and presses himself against her. “I don’t want to take your virginity, Senay. I just want you to help me relax. You have such a beautiful mouth, Senay.” She goes to her knees and he forces her to perform oral sex. The structural conditions that facilitate her rape, and the routes of escape available to her—deportation by the state, selling a kidney in exchange for a passport—come together to form a lifeworld of seemingly unavoidable bodily terror and violence.

This abuse registers on the material and the psychical planes. In ‘Powers of Horror,’ Julia Kristeva’s seminal psychoanalytic text, the ‘abject’ converges on boundaries: sites where scato-biological terror emerges and takes shape. To encounter the abject is to encounter a breakdown in meaning instigated by the confusion between subject and object. For this reason, the abject flows from such matter that transgresses the body’s limits. Blood, faeces, breast milk, urine, sperm, even food, are all liminally coded as both of and not of the subject; they call attention to the cycles of integration and expulsion necessary to physical functioning and yet repel all the same. Crucially, the abject is inextricable from the feminine, which Kristeva uses to delineate that which is repressed by language and the law. It is both the underside and the co-constitutive element of coherent articulation. Its emphasis on femininity and sublimation make abjection a useful framework through which to think of the intersections between surveillance, rape, and organ trafficking, particularly in relation to the cinematic and the horror/thriller genre. As Barbara Creed illustrates in her seminal text on horror cinema, ‘Monstrous Feminine,’ the abject as it appears in horror films has long been connected to the feminine; that feminization, at its core, is always already abjectification. Could it be that the undocumented migrant woman is herself coded as abject (of- and not-of, here- and not-here) in the white capitalist imagination?

The trauma of the rape spurs Senay to action. Immediately after her first assault in the sweatshop, the viewer watches as she dances in her living room. Head back and arms thrown open in a posture reminiscent of a crucified Christ, she spins around her living room to loud Turkish music. The camera cuts between close-ups of her face and long shots, mirroring her dizzying gestures. Only when Okwe enters and shuts off the music does she seem to emerge from her reverie. She tells him that she has decided to go to America. Implied are her plans to approach the organ broker, Juan, for a passport – which she will only receive in exchange for one of her kidneys. Okwe tries to dissuade her, but she tells him, “One of the laundry girls did it, and now she’s free.” When he warns her that others have died from the procedure, she responds, “So, they are free, too.” As Chakravorty and Neti remark, her response suggests that “freedom within the market and freedom through death are closely allied in the conditions under which these laborers exist.” [11]

Indeed, via her exposure to sexual violence, Senay treads the well-worn cinematic path from innocence to pragmatism; in a sudden reversal, Okwe is the one who appears naïve. This scene reveals his fundamental failure to grasp the important differences between his and Senay’s status as laborers and migrants, in their neuralgic being-in-the-world. Specifically, she understands the bodily and psychic splitting necessary to endure both episodes of sexual abuse and the coercive removal of a body part. Has her constant hiding prepared her to more readily bodily abnegate? While somatic invasion and fragmentation horrifies Okwe, perhaps the realities of sexual abuse and organ removal are more closely aligned in Senay’s psychic life. Is being reduced to a mouth, or a kidney, so different?


Frear’s camera reflects Okwe’s masculine aversion to sexual rupture. Instances of Senay’s sexual violation, such as her rape by Juan, are partially concealed by editing, fracturing, or a purposefully darkened mise-en-scène. In the final assault from the sweatshop owner, the camera refuses to acknowledge their co-presence in the back room, bifurcating the owner’s torso to show either Senay, who is kneeling in front of him, or the owner’s face in moments of pleasure and later, pain. With regard to this scene Abby Hinsman argues, “not showing the sexual act… preserves the stability of the viewer’s identification with and investment in the narrative, and avoids destabilizing the narrative’s (thriller, romantic) thrust through visualizing an act of such traumatic violation.” [12]


Although the film maintains a formal preoccupation with the rules of its genre – a tightly controlled plot, linear narrative, and fast pacing – moments of Senay’s agency nevertheless leak into the story, uncontained by both the obscuring diegesis and the bare life of sexual violence. During this terminal sweatshop assault, the camera trains itself on the owner’s face in a brief moment of pleasure. But rather than allowing identification with the instance of violation, Senay (literally) castrates him, biting down on his penis. The patriarchal language of sexual domination, as conveyed erotic distance of looking, is disrupted in Senay’s moment of cannibalization.


Ultimately, Senay receives an Italian passport without having to give up one of her kidneys; instead, along with Okwe, a hospital mortuary employee named Guo Yi, and Juliette, a prostitute who works the Baltic Hotel, she enacts an elaborate ruse by which Okwe harvests Juan’s kidney instead. Here, the castration is complete: it is the rapist whose corporeal boundaries are penetrated, whose organ is extracted. Frear’s camera again relays an aversion to depicting the wound, as white sheets shield the surgical procedure from view. But however victorious their scheme, the film denies the viewer an ethical catharsis. Instead, the trauma of organ harvesting continues, deferring yet another body to a globalized market of injury. Paradoxically, it is the unrequited love between Okwe and Senay that holds hope that the sine wave of serialized terror might be abated. For while the film concludes with their respective departures – Senay to New York City, Okwe to Lagos – it does so on the grounds of an affective exchange between its two protagonists: “I love you.” Despite the very real dangers and distances that exist between them, love, and with it, affection, solidarity, and friendship, persists. Foreclosing both ethics and romance in its conclusion, Dirty Pretty Things instead offers a model of “being together in homelessness,” a wild dispersal too fast for even a camera shutter to capture.  [13]


Works Cited

[1] Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1999), 22.

[2] Dirty Pretty Things, DVD, directed by Stephen Frear (2002; British Broadcasting Corporation, et al., 2014).

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Essence of Neoliberalism: Utopia of Endless Exploitation,” Le Monde Diplomatique (1998), translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro.

[4] Katherine S. Williams and Craig Johnstone, “The Politics of the Selective Gaze: Closed Circuit Television and the Policing of Public Space,” Crime, Law and Social Change 34 (2000): 207.

[5] Hille Kosekla, “‘You Shouldn’t Wear that Body,’”: The Problematic of Surveillance and Gender,” in Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, ed. Kirstie Ball et al. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 50.

[6] Hille Kosekla, “‘You Shouldn’t Wear that Body,’” 55.


[8] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider, (New York, NY: Random House, 2007), 42

[9] Mrinalini Chakravorty and Leila Neti, “The Human Recycled: Insecurity in the Transnational Moment,” differences: a journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 20 (2009): 196.

[10] Tom Whittaker, “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14 (2011): 123.

[11] Chakravorty and Neti, “The Human Recycled,” 203.

[12] Abby Hinsman, “Suturing the Wounds of Globalization: Immigration and Organs in Dirty Pretty Things,” Mediascape: UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (2013). Accessed April 1, 2014.

[13] Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 96.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s