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Box office hit ‘Sound of Freedom’ draws kudos, concerns from human trafficking experts

A summer box office hit is garnering both kudos and concerns for its approach to the issue of child trafficking.

“Sound of Freedom,” starring Jim Caviezel, has edged out both the latest “Mission Impossible” and “Indiana Jones” releases to notch the fourth spot in IMDb’s July 28-30 rankings, with distributor Angel Studios projecting close to $150 million in ticket sales so far.

Produced by Eduardo Verástegui and directed by Alejandro Monteverde, the film casts Caviezel as Tim Ballard, who began his career at the CIA and then spent more than a decade as a special agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security battling child exploitation. Assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, Ballard was deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team, infiltrating criminal organizations that sexually abused and trafficked children.

In 2013, Ballard and a team of former agents left DHS to form Operation Underground Railroad, a private foundation that assists international governments and U.S. law enforcement in dismantling criminal trafficking organizations that target children.

Ballard has testified before Congress on child trafficking and has advocated vigorously to raise awareness of the issue.

In an interview with OSV News, Verástegui – who spent some eight years trying to bring “Sound of Freedom” to the market – said the movie’s success is down to the power of its story and “word of mouth.”

“We never had the budget for billboards or for posters,” Verástegui said. “But we have the people … (and) a people’s movie.”

Having watched the film’s retelling of one of Ballard’s most dramatic rescues, audience members have “let their hearts speak” and “shared those reviews with other people,” said Verástegui. “This is a movement that is growing.”

While admitting he has no “magic wand” for ending child trafficking, Verástegui said “the first step is to raise awareness.”

“Movies can move people” to take action, Verástegui said. “I believe in the philosophy of ‘movies to movement.’ … When good people remain silent, they’re not good people anymore because they’re part of the problem. And I don’t want to be in that category. I want to raise my voice; I want to do something. I’m not afraid to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice.”

But several anti-trafficking organizations have taken issue with the film’s approach, saying it presents an atypical strategy for dismantling human trafficking while leaving survivors on the sidelines.

“The film reflects the experience of one person and situation, not the trends and patterns that comprise the majority of human trafficking cases. It should only be taken as one story,” said Rafael Flores-Avalos, director of bilingual communications for the Washington-based Polaris Project, which since 2007 has operated the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and has since built the largest known dataset on human trafficking in North America.

In an email to OSV News, Flores-Avalos said, “Human trafficking is not a problem that will be solved via one-individual intervention, which ultimately does not attack the root causes that allow human trafficking to still happen in 2023.”

On its website, Polaris lists some of those causes as economic, social, physical and psychological vulnerability, exacerbated by lack of stable housing and other support.

 The National Survivor Network, a program of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, has been even more direct in its criticism, saying “Sound of Freedom” plays on fears and conspiracy theories about human trafficking amid a climate of political extremism and “disregard for facts and evidence.”

Specifically, the NSN noted the QAnon conspiracy theory holding that liberal elites have formed a network of child sex trafficking rings. In 2016, shooter Edgar Maddison Welch fired three shots with an AR-15 rifle at a Washington pizza restaurant, claiming he was attempting to rescue trafficked children being held there in connection with an advisor to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

NSN said that it has “seen our colleagues who are actual survivors of child sexual exploitation called pedophiles for not supporting this movie,” with some dissenters “accused of being part of the media” and subjected to abuse on social media.

Both NSN and Polaris cite the 2008 thriller “Taken,” in which actor Liam Neeson portrays a father rescuing his young adult daughter from traffickers, as having clouded the trafficking landscape – and both organizations call for renewed focus on the voices of survivors.

“Bottom line: Listen to survivors and their experiences with trafficking situations,” said Flores-Avalos. “There are survivors who are willing to consult on scripts and representation in entertainment, the industry can hire them to produce something more accurate.”

Still, “‘Sound of Freedom’ shines a light on the terrible scourge of child trafficking, specifically highlighting its presence in a developing country and the demand for sex abuse materials in the U.S.,” Fran Eskin-Royer, executive director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, told OSV News in an email.

 “Much more must be said and done to educate the public about the breadth of human trafficking, and to end this affront to the dignity of each person caught in its web – both around the globe and here in our country,” said Eskin-Royer, whose organization is part of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking coalition. “(We are) grateful for this film and hope it spurs others to join in our shared work to end the labor and sex trafficking that touches every community.”