The Sound of Freedom

Since the recent release of The Sound of Freedom in UK cinemas, a number of friends and customers have reached out for my thoughts on the film and its depiction of child trafficking. The story retells aspects of a true narrative regarding Tim Ballard, a former US investigator from the Department of Homeland Security, who left his job to start an organisation focused on rescuing children from sexual slavery.

The film has courted considerable controversy and, much to the regret of its filmmakers, irritated many in the anti-trafficking sector. The controversy associates the movie with right-wing conspiracy theory groups who have long-heralded child trafficking as the unifying evil to coalesce against. Jim Caviezel, the actor playing the lead protagonist, has given several unusual interviews about the film and cited inaccurate information about the reality of child trafficking, which included comments about children’s blood being extracted and sold to rich elites for its life-giving properties. Tim Ballard, the real-life protagonist, and his organisation Operation Underground Railroad have also been investigated for money mismanagement and fraud. Their defenders have claimed such moves were motivated by a conspiracy to defame his noble work by those implicated in his investigations.

Leaving the above-referenced controversy to one side, this is my best attempt to provide, what I consider to be, a balanced, fair and informed review of the film; less regarding its cinematography and mise-en-scene, more on its accuracy and legitimacy.

As a former UK Police Officer with international experience investigating the commercial sexual exploitation of children, I would like to offer three positives that I took from the film and three of its … areas for improvement:

No 1: The film has given many thousands of people the opportunity to learn about the horrors of child trafficking. Many of whom would have otherwise remained blissfully unaware and disengaged. It’s possible that those newly enlightened will come to make a positive contribution to the fight for justice.

No 2: Tim Ballard, the movie’s handsome and brave male protagonist (played by Jim Caviezel), really did leave his career in US law enforcement to start an organisation focussed on rescuing children from trafficking (Operation Underground Railroad). OUR has delivered hundreds of young lives out of horrendous situations of suffering and exploitation and helped to raise awareness of this egregious reality. I also thought the film refrained from becoming an advert for the work of OUR which exemplified an unexpected and admirable  degree of humility.

No 3: Elements of the movie are accurate, such as the female model scout who helps to identify and source children on behalf of the traffickers. Women are more often depicted as the vulnerable victims of this crime type, rarely does a trafficking narrative include the presence of a female boss/trafficker, sometimes referred to as an Alpha. It is not uncommon however to see females, often once trafficked themselves, move into positions of authority within brothels and trafficking operations.

As to the areas for improvement:

No 1: Models of Response

The film includes a number of questionable, if not lamentable, approaches to fighting child trafficking. The principal investigation, based on a true story, involved setting up a sting operation in Colombia, whereby the detectives posed as businessmen looking to party on a private island with access to underage sex workers. Their plan was to aggregate as many child victims as possible whilst identifying and detaining their traffickers. This type of investigation is problematic. The sting would offer its suspects a statutory defence of entrapment, or what’s known in UK policing as an Agent-Provocateur defence. This means that defendants would claim they only committed the crime in response to the corrupting request made by the undercover agent, should such a request not have been made, they would never have committed the criminal act, which in some cases would prevent the case ever being heard.

The film also features an unlikely hero in the form of an ex-drug dealer for the cartels who now buys children out of sexual slavery. He cites, in the movie, that his conversion followed a night spent with a prostitute who he later discovered was just 14 years old. Some charities in the anti-trafficking sector still employ this myopic and self-defeating tactic, which involves paying traffickers for the release of children, with little thought for the future victims created to fill their space.

The anti-trafficking NGO OUR has received considerable criticism over the years for its approach to fighting child trafficking, one that focuses heavily on the rescue and very lightly on everything else. Ex-special agents in tight tee shirts equipped with big budgets and 4×4’s can certainly help in closing illegal brothels, but in the complexity of modern slavery, arresting “bad guys” and releasing traumatised and abused “victims” is not an effective way of seeing scalable and sustained change. Appropriate and comprehensive aftercare is an essential means of rehabilitating and restoring those who have suffered the effects of such physical, emotional and psychological violence. Models used by NGO’s such as Justice and Care, IJM and Hope For Justice, have all learned to prioritise effective victim management as a means of pursuing justice.

The rescue-focused model also overlooks the importance of legislative change that protects and prevents future victims of exploitation, such as the international ban on child marriage and its attentive enforcement.

Door kicking is far less important than preventative campaigns which raise awareness in at-risk communities, highlighting the prevalence of trafficking methodologies, such as the lover-boy approach or falsified job adverts for young, uneducated women from rural communities. The UK NGO Stop the Traffic uses data to identify such areas and applies targeted ads to reach communities at risk of exploitation with a clear, coherent communication campaign.

These are just a few models that I consider to be more scalable and impactful.

No 2: The Hero Narrative

The movie, I felt, rehashes unhelpful tropes of a white American saviour, beset with bulging biceps and innocent good looks, rescuing poor brown children from the developing world. I, of all people, need to be careful in this criticism, however, the hero narrative when viewed from a cinema seat, appeared to me as a predictable and unhelpful vehicle for this complex issue. The white saviour narrative has long been called out for its unhelpful ability to disempower and mislead. It may cause some to believe that individual acts of heroism are what it takes to change the world, rather than intelligent, survivor-informed strategies. There is also a good guy / bad guy polarity which is often less clear in real life when desperately poor parents force their children out onto the street to earn money through sex work, begging and pickpocketing.

The screenplay moves away from reality when the hero of the piece, Tim Ballard, sets off on a one-man boat ride into the Colombian rainforest to rescue a missing girl and strangle to death Scorpion, the leader of the rebel group who held her captive. This felt like an unnecessary departure from the truth and appeared weirdly reminiscent of one of the Rambo movies.

No 3 – Call to Action

At the close of the movie, cinemagoers are invited to remain past the end credits to watch an important message delivered by Jim Caviezel. At the showing I attended, 90% of the audience stayed in their seats to hear the actor read a somewhat incoherent monologue about the importance of sharing this movie with others in defiance of all those who have tried to block its release. He promoted a pay-it-forward scheme for cinema tickets to help those who can’t afford to buy their own. The film’s call to action seemed to be focused on getting more people to see the film itself, which I thought was a curiously wasted opportunity that only served to emphasise its conspiratorial associations. Far better would it have been to signpost moviegoers to effective organisations engaged in the fight against child trafficking or deliver a two-minute video on how to spot the signs of modern slavery.

In conclusion – if asked, “Should I go to see the film?” I would say yes. Why? Because it may create in you an emotional response that leads to action. That action should be to research the issue via trusted sources and lend support to established NGO’s with effective programmes, some of whom I have already mentioned, and others such as the Child Rescue Coalition, A21, ECPAT International and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

I commend the movie makers for creating this conversation and helping to shine a light on an egregious injustice that often exists out of thought and out of mind. Sadly, the existence of child trafficking is an irrefutable truth that should move us all into action.

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