Last week two films were released that present propagandized visions of the United States. Bill Maher’s Religulous suggests that religion is poison and its adherents are crazy; the spoof An American Carol wants to say that questioning President Bush is itself an act of treason and critiques of the war in Iraq deserve no attention because they are inherently spineless. Both films are intellectually disingenuous and add little positivity to the current national debate. So it’s something of a relief to say that another piece of cinematic propaganda goes on a national tour of movie theatres this weekend, one whose moral compass is something of an antidote to the arrogance and victim mentality of An American Carol and Religulous in the form of a shocking expose of the horror of modern slavery: human trafficking. In Justin Dillon’s film Call and Response, the stories of the 27 million people currently in labor bondage are illustrated with graphic hidden camera footage and intercut with interviews and musical performances by the likes of Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, and Emmanuel Jal.
It’s a powerful film, in which interactions with the victims of trafficking speak for themselves. Talking heads such as Nicholas Kristof, former U.N. Ambassador John Miller, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and actor Ashley Judd make the case that there are more people in slavery today than at the time of the abolition movement and outline the relationship between the arms and drug trade and the buying and selling of people. Human trafficking, bonding labor, and sexual slavery are vastly profitable businesses, and so the question of supply and demand is obvious. And you don’t need to look far for this horror, for even people who serve in your favorite restaurants may be subject to the oppression of not being able to make their own choices.
Everyone who sees this film will have their own most striking moment –- for me, when a former child prostitute says she was forced to service 1,000 men a year for six years, but can’t add up the total as she has never been to school, I had to pause watching for a while to absorb the extraordinary sadness of that statement. I was also shocked by the statistics. For example, the film claims that 1 million people are trafficked through the United States every year, but there have been only 50 related criminal convictions in the past decade.
These stories are so beyond our worst imaginings that this film provides nothing less than a prophetic community service: It exposes an unpalatable truth and cries out against injustice.
Important questions are alluded to, and hopefully the film will inspire people to find their own answers:
What are the economic roots of violence?
What is the relationship between recreational drug use and human trafficking?
What does it mean when we value products that may have been produced under oppressive conditions solely on the basis of their price?
How do we restore human decency in a world where even the Christian church is sometimes complicit in nurturing identities of shame and humiliation (which themselves contribute to the context where human trafficking can occur)?
How can the mid-level officials (police officers, hotel and restaurant managers, and others) who serve as intermediaries with those who use sex slaves be held accountable?
And, as Dr. Cornel West asks, “How do you convince a folk that are prone toward paralysis to keep on moving?”
The film does not prescribe particular forms of action, instead inviting the audience to ‘open source’ activism through dialoguing with others on its Web site and supporting organizations that are working to free slaves and end human trafficking. Perhaps the most important philosophical statement in the film is the suggestion that nostalgia for freedom movements of the past will get us nowhere. Only when people of passion and action get more committed to ending modern slavery than the slave owners are to perpetuating it will there be hope that a new abolition movement can succeed.
Dr. West also says that the only thing that slaves have is their voice and their bodies. Call and Response is a powerful attempt at representing the power and dignity in the words and faces of the oppressed. It deserves attention.
Call and Response will be released this Friday, with screenings organized across the U.S. For a list of screenings, see www.callandresponse.com.