'Call + Response' Raises a Voice Against Human Trafficking

Director and producer Justin Dillon talks about his film, "Call + Response," a documentery about modern slavery. Video by DeNeen Brown/The Washington Post, Edited by James Hale/washingtonpost.com
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Call + Response," a documentary that seeks to uncover contemporary human slavery in its many forms, opens with a sequence showing four men in a taxi heading to a bachelor party. They are almost giddy, anticipating what they will do and what will be done to them. The taxi swings through the streets of a nondescript Asian city with neon lights and billboards. As they near their destination, the men become even more excited.

But the viewer senses that something is extra wrong. The men walk up some steps and open a door.

And in the middle of a white bed sits a small girl, head lowered, black hair covering her face. Someone has placed her on the bed to service the men. They are appalled: "What kind of place is this?" one of them asks.

The camera moves quickly out of the dingy room.

Another country, another scene: Indian women in white robes are stacking bricks in a dusty alcove.

One woman, her body bent, stops work and stares at the camera. Her face is a distant blur. For a moment, you wonder if she sees any hope in the fact that a camera is there to peel back the cover on human trafficking, which exists in places where we look but do not see.

A white-shirted overseer steps between the woman and the camera: "If they want to leave, we won't let them. This is how I've run my business for 25 years now," he says, grinning as three women walk past with bricks piled on their heads.

The film, which opens today in two Washington area theaters and next week in two more, is a harrowing "rockumentary" built on difficult images interspersed with musical performances that are meant to give voice to the oppressed -- as music often has -- and spread their cries for freedom. It travels to places both urban and rural to reveal what it calls the world's "27 million dirtiest secrets," 27 million people held in bondage in brothels, fields, factories and homes perhaps not far from yours.

So we see Natasha Bedingfield on a black stage. On a screen behind her, a child digs in the dirt. "Incompatible," Bedingfield sings to the clear acoustics of a guitar. "It don't matter though, 'cause someone's bound to hear my cry." Drawing on the spontaneous call-and-response tradition of African religion and music, director Justin Dillon says the film is a summons to audiences in hope that they will answer by starting a modern abolitionist movement.

The film goes undercover in the brothels of Cambodia, the brick kilns of India and near the dead lakes of Ghana to reveal that in 2008, the slave trade that we hoped was halted in the 1800s with emancipation in the United States and elsewhere is alive and escalating, feeding the dark side of globalization. The State Department estimates that at least 800,000 people of all ages are sold across borders each year, many of them to make products we use, wear or eat without knowing the origin.

"There are more slaves today than ever before in human history," Dillon said in an interview. "In 2007, slave traders made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined."

We keep hoping that his camera will liberate the slaves. Instead, it moves from one terrible scene to the next.

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