A CHANCE encounter with a translator on his band’s eastern-Euopean tour awakened Justin Dillon to the world’s worst-kept secret.
When Dillon’s Russian translator—an impressionable young girl—informed him of certain job offers she was considering in America, he suspected they might be ploys to lure her into sexual slavery. Back home, Dillon read countless books highlighting the horrors of the international human trafficking trade. The sheer magnitude and extremely lucrative nature of the trade astounded Dillon (the FBI estimates that the human trafficking industry generates $9.5 billion dollars annually). He realized his musical platform could serve as a medium through which he could capture the plight of 27 million men, women and children deprived of their basic human rights.
But what could one musician do to make a dent in a multi-billion dollar industry?
As Dillon weighed his options, he realized not only could he dialogue with people knowledgeable about the realities of human slavery, he could invite like-minded musicians to contribute performances—a concept akin to a benefit concert. For the next several months, he interviewed leading experts on human slavery. He recorded the insights of renowned journalists, advocates, actors, and government officials. He sat down with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, actress Ashley Judd, and Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission.
Call + Response, the culmination of Dillon’s efforts opened in select theaters last week. The “rockumentary” is, like many documentaries, an amalgam of expert testimony and survivor stories. Unlike many documentaries, it’s embellished with world-class musical performances: musicians ranging from Cold War Kids to Imogen Heap, Matisyahu to Emmanuel Jal. The film juxtaposes grainy undercover footage shot in seedy Asian brothels with vivid, cutting-edge footage showcasing performances by some music’s biggest names. One moment finds the viewer tapping his foot to the beat of Matisyahu’s reggae brilliance, the next squirming in his seat as he’s faced with sordid details of sexual slavery.
The film lacks a certain amount of fluidity—the transition between the various types of footage tended to feel disjointed. The musical performances certainly give its message some punch, but only when they aren’t stretching the attention span. Shorter, more direct performances would have tightened the film’s plot by backlighting its gripping narrative.
Much to Dillon’s credit (he handled directing duties), Call + Response transcends its weaknesses. It successfully conveys the horrors of the human trafficking industry without resorting to tasteless, graphic illustration; as usual, the power of suggestion is completely sufficient. Audience members responded strongly to a scene in which an undercover agent (posing as a client) solicited sexual favors from Asian girls as young as four years old. While the audience gasped and visibly cringed during that scene and similar ones to follow, the film as a whole was not as horrific as it justifiably might have been.
Each expert and musician contributed a distinct flavor to the project, shaping the film’s international feel. The larger-than-life personality of Dr. Cornel West provides welcomed comic relief. In an eloquent monologue, he praised the healing power of music: “Music is about helping folk,” he says, “it helps them by getting them to dance, getting them to move, getting them to think, getting them to reflect, getting them to be themselves … to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.” Sudanese musician Emmanuel Jal delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines: “Music is the only thing that can speak into your heart without your permission.” A former child soldier, Jal uses his music to highlight the plight of countless boy soldiers robbed of their childhood.
Human slavery has been around since the beginning of history. The rise of globalization has only facilitated the transportation of countless innocent victims across international boundaries. The staggering statistics and sheer numbers can easily blur the faces of victims. Whether it’s the face of a 12-year-old girl forced to service clients in a filthy brothel, or the face of an elderly man forced to spend his life paying off his mother’s debt, the face of human slavery cannot be dismissed or forgotten. A self-proclaimed modern-day abolitionist, Dillon encourages others to join him in the fight against human slavery: “It’s come into my life for a reason—I have to respond.”
“Never forget,” Dr. West admonished the audience, “justice is what love looks like in public.” By shedding light on the grotesque practices of human traffickers, Justin Dillon has given the world’s worst-kept secret a few less places to hide.
Carmen Magana is a post-production coordinator for National Geographic Television.
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