It was Justin Dillon’s passion and profession that unexpectedly exposed him to the dark underworld of the international slave trade. He’s a musician, and his band was touring through backwater cities in Russia when a young female translator began talking about an upcoming extraordinary opportunity she had to come to the United States. When he asked for more details, he discovered that what she thought was a great opportunity was instead an elaborate and nefarious seduction — the kind of effective ruse targeting vulnerable young women around the globe.
The musical documentary Call + Response is Dillon’s ambitious and masterful artistic counterattack to an all-too-easy-to-overlook enemy who still sells men, women, and children like commodities to the highest bidders. The grainy, undercover film footage taken in Asian brothels is interspersed with the testimony of eloquent activists such as Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission and actress Ashley Judd, as well as performances by the Cold War Kids and Matisyahu, the Orthodox Jewish reggae artist.
According to Dillon, it is not as if he tapped his speed-dials in order to call in favors from his celebrity friends: He really didn’t have any. Instead, he began cold-calling managers and agents. It worked. The film features performances by Natasha Bedingfield, Moby, Five for Fighting, Imogen Heap, Talib Kweli, Switchfoot, and the incomparable rapper Emmanuel Jal. As a child, Jal was taken from his family in Sudan in 1987 and trained to serve in the rebel army, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In almost five years, Jal fought in two civil wars as a child soldier. He was later smuggled out of the country by a British humanitarian. Jal began rapping to express the repercussions of his experiences.
In the midst of the rock and rap, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actress Daryl Hannah, and Kevin Bales of the activist group Free the Slaves etch out the scope and enormity of human trafficking — what the film refers to as “the world’s 27 million most terrifying secrets.”
According to the 2008 U.S. State Department “Trafficking in Persons Report,” approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders. That does not include the millions trafficked within their own countries. “Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors,” states the report. “Human traffickers prey on the vulnerable. Their targets are often children and young women, and their ploys are creative and ruthless, designed to trick, coerce, and win the confidence of potential victims. Very often these ruses involve promises of a better life through employment, educational opportunities, or marriage.”
“We’re not talking about good or bad business practices or working conditions,” former ambassador John Miller testifies in the film. “We’re talking about slavery. We’re talking about the loss of freedom and the threats of force or the actual use of violence to deprive people of freedom.”
As a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador against Trafficking and Slavery, British actress Julia Ormond visits places around the globe suspected of benefiting from slave labor and interviewing those who’ve been set free. “This is about people being held often at gunpoint, being chained, being electrocuted, being drugged, being thrown out of windows, having their families threatened that they’ll kill them,” she says in the film.
In researching his book Not For Sale, professor David Batstone — featured in Call + Response — traveled to Cambodia, Thailand, Peru, India, Uganda, South Africa, and Eastern Europe to investigate modern-day slavery. His findings are breathtaking. “Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa,” he writes. “Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.”
Indeed, the most difficult imagery in the film is footage of children being exploited in brothels and brick kilns, and on battlefields. The blank stares and soulless facial responses betray an inability to smile — even on the part of some of the rescued children.
“The bad guys, the traffickers, the slave owners, they’re committed to what they are doing,” says Haugen of the International Justice Mission. “And they have a certain tolerance of do-gooders who come alongside and say they want to take them on because they know that at the end of the day the commitment is not the same.” Haugen should know. His organization of lawyers, criminal investigators, and social workers has been on the frontline to investigate human trafficking, collect evidence, and work with local authorities to rescue the victims and put the bad guys behind bars.
Justin Dillon is looking for commitment to be sparked in the documentary’s viewers. The title of the film is borrowed from the African-American musical tradition of having a leader call for the response from an audience — turning the song from a solo to a choral crescendo.
“The only property slaves had was what? Their voices and their bodies. That’s it,” says academic provocateur Dr. Cornel West in the film. “They held hands and they raised their voices. And call and response. Call and response. Lifting every voice, because at least at that moment you have a power and a dignity. In the dark, when you couldn’t see each other, all you had was your voices being raised so somebody in the world now or further down the line would hear your voice and recognize you are human, you have a right to be treated a certain kind of way and you are worthy of attention. The worst thing for all of us as human beings to feel is insignificant. Then we experience extinction.”
Call + Response was funded completely by donations and credit cards. No studio backing. Dillon believes that grassroots involvement and awareness can generate real change on this bipartisan issue of freedom and social justice. In response, he has vowed that 100 percent of the profits from the use of the film, DVD, soundtrack, and iTunes downloads will go directly to combating human slavery.
His film was the Call. Now he is waiting to see the Response.
– Steve Beard is the editor of Good News magazine and the creator of www.thunderstruck.org — a website devoted to faith and pop culture.