In a field crowded with franchises like Indiana Jones, the unexpected box office success of the summer is a movie about child sex trafficking, Sound of Freedom. Based on the story of Operation Underground Railroad’s Tim Ballard, the small-budget film has earned $45 million since its July 4 release.
The movie tells the story of Ballard (Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ) becoming frustrated with his work as a Department of Homeland Security agent arresting pedophiles. He wants to rescue the children being sex trafficked, but he says at one point, “Most of those kids are outside of the US.”
He quits his job and goes rogue to track down a brother and sister who have been trafficked, traveling to Mexico and Colombia. He and his assembled team try to set up an Epstein-style island sex club to entrap traffickers and rescue the children.
This isn’t an explicitly faith-filled film, aside from Ballard quoting Mark 9:42 (“It would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck …”) as he’s arresting a pedophile. The real Ballard is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But the film has drawn a Christian audience concerned about trafficking. It is distributed by Angel Studios, the same company that distributed The Chosen (as of May, Lionsgate is now The Chosen’s distributor). Sound of Freedom had been dead in the water after its distributor Fox Latin America dropped it in 2019. But Ballard said in an interview with Fox News that he was visiting the set of The Chosen when he met Angel executives: “They made a deal in five days.”
In real life, Ballard’s anti-trafficking organization, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), became known for the types of dramatic rescue operations depicted in the film. Ballard also runs the Nazarene Fund, which has rescued Yazidis and ran private airlift operations to rescue persecuted Afghans out of Afghanistan after the US military exit in 2021.
Staffers with experience in anti-trafficking ministries that CT interviewed recognize that this is a movie, so the story will be dramatized. But they want audiences to understand that a lot of anti-trafficking work in the US looks different from what’s in the film.
Prior to the film, organizations already encountered the idea among volunteers that they were going to go on dramatic rescues.
“We’re not taking doors down. We’re not taking people over our shoulder,” Jeff Shaw told CT. Shaw is the chief program officer for Frontline Response, a Christian anti-trafficking organization based in Atlanta that has operations in Georgia and Ohio. Shaw was “blown away” by the movie and is recommending it to people, but has caveats: “Even child trafficking victims that have been ‘taken,’ most of the time, they’re resistant to being rescued, because they’re not in that psychological space, either. So a big part of our trainings is deprogramming our volunteers into what their expectation should be about how people are going to respond to them, and what sex trafficking looks like.”
Rescue operations do happen, experts told CT, but they are often a small part of anti-trafficking work. Anti-trafficking ministries in the US do the less dramatic work of offering hot meals during street outreaches, having safe houses available that involve long-term rehab and recovery, educating and supporting children at risk of exploitation, training employers to recognize trafficking, and collaborating with law enforcement. Sometimes ministries’ work looks like poverty fighting, addiction recovery, or relationship building.
“It’s great that [the film] is raising awareness,” said Suzanne Lewis-Johnson, a former FBI agent and a Christian who worked on child trafficking cases in Ohio for a decade. “But if we become too hyperfocused on what we think trafficking looks like, we miss the real thing. We tend to base our programs and approaches on the anomaly. … We’re going to miss what’s under our noses if we think it’s these people overseas moving through networks.”
Sudden abductions of children as depicted in the film do happen, she says, but that’s not typical. Traffickers in the US usually traffic people that they know, according to statistics from Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization that runs the US National Human Trafficking Hotline. Polaris describes the “top three recruiter types” as family members or caregivers, intimate partners, and employers.
“We’ve had survivors say to us, ‘I didn’t know I was trafficked because it didn’t look like what it looks like in the movies,’” said Beck Sullivan, the chief program officer at Restore, an anti-trafficking organization that works in New York City. Sullivan, too, thought the movie was good for raising awareness, and she appreciated the closing text in the film that notes that the US is among the largest consumers of child sex, showing that the demand problem is domestic. But: “It’s important for people to get educated on what it looks like in their town.”
Some of the trafficking fighting methods depicted in the film—creating an island where Ballard and his team ask traffickers to bring children, or one character buying children out of sex trafficking to free them—could inadvertently create more demand for trafficking children and worsen the problem.
“You can’t help but ask the question, ‘Did they go take more kids away from their families in their communities to come meet this demand?’” said Shaw from Frontline Response. “It’s complicated.”
Shaw saw the film in a packed theater and as he was sitting there, he was thinking to himself about what the millions who have seen the film will do next.
“What can this American audience that watches this film of something that’s happening in Central and South America do to get activated locally?” he said. “We’re not going into the rainforest in a motorboat to … rescue children.”
He hopes people will look up anti-trafficking organizations in their communities. He remembered a 2011 sex trafficking documentary, Nefarious, that provoked an outpouring of support and volunteerism for anti-trafficking organizations. At Frontline, after that film came out, he remembered packed trainings and onboarding people “as fast as we could” to do tasks like outreach or manning hotlines.
Many of those people became long-term volunteers, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some consistent volunteers pulled back. And while Frontline still has many volunteers ready to do a service day here and there, the organization hasn’t gotten back some of those consistent volunteers it relies on.
He hopes to see the Nefarious effect again—“people’s hearts getting broken, God calling people into the work, and then them committing themselves to it.”
“I think as Christians, we want to go get everybody saved, as opposed to meeting people where they’re at,” he said. “Maybe [trafficking survivors] leave the safe home and go back, and then they come six more times before they decide to stay. It’s really being prepared to let that process unravel in God’s timing.”
Bob Rodgers is the CEO of anti-trafficking ministry Street Grace, which is focused on helping children in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. Street Grace has partnered with OUR in the past. He thought the film was well done but that it depicts a “sliver” of what trafficking can look like.
“We’re grateful to the film and the attention that it draws to the issue, but it’s important for people to realize that that’s not necessarily what trafficking looks like in Houston or DC,” he said. “It’s our kids in our communities being bought and sold by people in our communities.” He’s not criticizing the film—“it was not filmed to be a domestic or local issue”—but he wants audiences to know what domestic organizations are doing.
Street Grace, for example, focuses on using technology to interrupt demand for child sexual exploitation and has long-term programs to keep children out of trafficking situations. On an average day, Street Grace is doing corporate trainings, talking to law enforcement, and instructing children in youth leadership academies about leadership skills, healthy boundaries, and how to protect themselves online.
Rodgers is hopeful that the film has people interested in the issue, and it comes at an important moment. The pandemic “kind of disrupted everything, while trafficking and sexual exploitation exploded as the entire world was pushed online,” he said. He said anti-trafficking groups have had a hard time keeping pace with “the bad actors” online.
Lewis-Johnson, the former FBI agent who is now CEO of No More Trafficking, left the bureau in part because she wanted to be able to talk to Christian audiences about what trafficking is really like.
“We want to do the big giant thing,” she said. But fighting trafficking “requires all of us to do what seems like the small things, consistently, together.”
She said rescue operations by inexperienced people can be botched because traffickers are good at deception—“They try to make the good guy look like the bad guy.” And she has encountered well-intentioned nonprofits that mishandled trafficking situations because they didn’t have experience—buying a ticket for a woman to go back to her trafficker, for example. In trafficking cases, “you’re trying to put a puzzle together, and you don’t have the picture on the box or know how many pieces there are,” she said.
“The reality is, there’s more evil in the world than what you know,” said Lewis-Johnson. “No single human is the answer—I know from what I saw that there is a good God who is restraining people [from evil]. … If we humble ourselves and pray, we will see the tide turn.”