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Justin Dillon (Photo courtesy of Fair Trade Pictures)

A new call, a new response

Movies | By combining music with stories of those caught up in the horrors of human trafficking, Call + Response encourages others to take action

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

Black slaves used to voice their pain and hope in an antiphonal chant called a "call and response." Call + Response, a modern-day abolitionist "rockumentary," draws on this tradition, using music to voice the pain of 27 million modern-day slaves and to stir an audience to action: a new call, a new response.

Call + Response shows children as young as 3 years old traded as sex slaves so men can rape virgins, child soldiers kidnapped and forced into terrorism, and child laborers with work so hazardous those who survive seem physically unable to smile. The film touches on the quiet corruption that enables these atrocities to continue, the money that fuels them (in 2007, slave traders made eight times the amount of the UN budget), and the fact that all of us, in the words of Ashley Judd, "wear someone else's despair [and] … eat someone else's tragedy."

Call + Response weaves together music-from indie rock to hip hop, from Talib Kweli to Imogen Heap-with interviews of luminaries, and grainy footage of a squalid brothel where children offer their services, as policemen wander through. People like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actors Julia Ormond and Ashley Judd, and writer Nicholas Kristof tell the stories of the people they've met. Princeton professor Cornel West speaks about the definition of justice -"Justice is what love looks like in public"-and about the power of music as truth-teller: "Black music is fundamentally about unarmed truth; it's about unconventional love; it's about unadulterated justice; it's about unadorned beauty."

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The film began with Justin Dillon, a musician who five years ago read a New York Times article about how traffickers lured women to America with promises of a better life, gang-raped them into submission, and distributed them to American brothels as sex slaves. Four months later, Dillon went to Russia for a tour and found girls about to fall for similar offers.

"It was like the print came to life for me," Dillon said. He put his own career on hold and knocked on doors collecting interviews and performances. Everyone said no-at first-but Dillon eventually shipped his set to over half a dozen sites around the world so that artists like the Cold War Kids, Five for Fighting, Natasha Bedingfield, and Switchfoot could be filmed. He shot 20 performances, interviewed over 25 people, and the project grew into a rockumentary.

Dillon's nonprofit film company, Fair Trade Pictures, has no budget for advertising and has to rent every screen where Call + Response plays. Grassroots volunteers advertise through flyers and friends, and the film is selling out in New York and Los Angeles-places he said he was afraid to go because they would have to compete with major movies. Some 30,000 tickets have sold since it opened on Oct. 10, and all profits generated go toward fighting human trafficking. The movie opened in New York Thursday and is scheduled to run through Dec. 14. It will be shown in other major cities soon.

Dillon wanted to include music in the film because it often plays a role in social movements: "Music always has a power to give courage to the devastated and to give hope to the would-be courageous," he said. He wanted to combine art-the best you've seen-with information-the most painful you've heard.

In this context of pain and despair, the artists' songs take on a deeper meaning. Hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal was forced to serve in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, an experience he describes in "Forced to Sin:" "Left home at the age of 7 / One year later leave with an AK-47 / By my side / Slept with one eye open wide / Run / Duck / Play dead and hide." Listen to Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten" as if she's singing to a young girl rescued after six years of forced sex with over 6,000 men: "Reaching for something in the distance / So close you can almost taste it … / Today is where your book begins / The rest is still unwritten."

The film is the call, and its purpose is to prompt response. It employs a new model of social action: individually tailored, independent, and open-sourced. Before viewers even leave the theater, they can send a text message to take immediate action and then find "33 Ways to Respond" on the Call + Response website. "It's a 'stand up' film," Dillon said. "It's an action film because that's what people want to do with it." The response to the call makes him hope there's a new movement growing: "It's unbelievable how many people want to do good. It's like the new rock and roll is benevolence."
(Editor's Note: This movie review did not appear in the print edition of the Dec. 13, 2008, issue of WORLD, but is offered online as a Web Extra.)

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