Something’s happening on the campus of Seattle Pacific University. Students are inspired about doing what they can to end slavery in the world around them.

Yes, slavery. Slavery in India and Africa, sure, but also the slavery right under their noses here on American soil. A new abolitionist movement is rising up. On Sunday night, hundreds of students gathered to show their desire to make a difference.

In order to consider the problem for ourselves, how we might respond, and how we might encourage students in addressing it, I took several of my coworkers over Queen Anne Hill yesterday to see Justin Dillion’s rock-umentary Call + Response. And I’m glad we made the trip. I encourage you to round up a group, go see it in the theater, and discuss it afterward. The proceeds will give immediate help to agencies striving to free the captives worldwide, and the film will do a good work on the hearts and minds that give it attention.

Call + Response¬†delivers horrifying statistics; interviews with experts, celebrity activists, and relief agency workers; an inspiring conversation with a highly caffeinated Cornel West; and sickening footage of sex slave workers — some of them only seven years old — in India and Cambodia. This is all presented in a flashy program of performances by Dillon himself, Cold War Kids, Rocco DeLuca, Imogen Heap, Matisyahu, Switchfoot, and many others.

The information served up by Dillon’s film may not be new to you — yes, there are more slaves today than ever before in human history.

But this overview of the world’s open wounds will be a harrowing experience for anyone, no matter how familiar they are with the information. Call + Response gives us a whirlwind tour of abhorrent practices that many of us would rather ignore. Sex slavery is thriving around the world, even in the U.S., and the average age of the victim is getting younger.¬†In their eagerness to buy sex slaves that are disease-free, customers are buying younger and younger slaves… children right on to to seven, five, even three years old.¬†Last year, slave traders made more money than all of the profits of Google, Nike and Starbucks put together.¬†

It’s not just sex slavery… it’s also about the exploitation of children in military endeavors, as young boys are trained to use AK-47s in African civil wars.¬†

This kind of presentation can leave you feeling shell-shocked, numb, and useless. Our group walked quietly back to the car, almost speechless at what we’d experienced.

I’m ready to stay up all night shouting at God, even as I feel ashamed for how little care I’ve shown to the influence of my buying habits. Cornel West’s exhortation is ringing in my ears: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

As a film critic, I have some mixed feelings about the nature of this production. Sure, the performances in Call + Response are heartfelt, and you may find them to be rather inspiring. Matisyahu stirred me up, even though I could hardly understand a word of what I’m sure is a very passionate plea for campassion. The participation of hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jai is riveting, as his performance is part of his story, a story of escape from training as a child soldier.

But yes, I think the film would have been stronger if it had focused more on the stories of people who are devoting their lives to making a difference, using music as soundtrack, instead of spending so much screen time on the furrowed brows of handsome lead singers. I could have done with a lot less of the mediocre rock-video footage, and the close-ups of Imogen Heap’s bizarre costume (which looked like a tribute to Rufio from Spielberg’s Hook). While Heap performed her breathless lament at the piano, I wanted to shout at the extreme close-ups, “I don’t care about her lipstick!” If Dillon wanted to make Call + Response into a movie about music and its power to give voice to the oppressed, he should have focused more on the power of musicianship and performance, and not done the typical slice-and-dice editing job, so that the speeches and the music crowd one another. The performances are so chopped up by footage of general distress, and by flashy animation, that we can’t experience them as performances.

But even as I note these problems, I feel a bit ashamed for even bothering to mention them. These unfortunate stylistic compromises were made for a reason. It seems that many young people — and alas, many adults as well — need to be entertained and dazzled if you want to keep them in their seats. We live in the era of American Idol, and if you want the masses to put down the remote and pay attention to an international emergency, you’ve got to dress it up with glamor and glitz and spirited performances. If that’s what it takes, then I’m very glad that Justin Dillon invested his time and talent in gathering a myriad of stars. Further, all of the profits from the film, the DVD, and the music goes straight to the relief effort.

Who knows? Maybe this is the production that will inspire a young artist to rise up and make a world-changing masterpiece that will open eyes and hearts for years to come? 

And despite the film’s telethon-style program… the testimonies will shake you, and the pictures of young people trapped in a nightmare will bring you to your knees. The stories being told by Gary Haugen, Nicholas Kristof, and¬†Julia Ormond (So that’s what she’s been doing! She’s a¬†United Nations Goodwill Ambassador against Trafficking and Slavery!¬†God bless her!) about the horrors they’ve seen and the laments they’ve heard in India and Africa and even the United States… they hit like sledgehammers to the gut. I walked away reeling, wanting to do something, wanting to grab congressmen and congresswomen and shake them into action.

And the good news, according to Dillon, is that there is quite a bit that I can do. Quite a bit that we can do together. Mission accomplished, Justin.

I highly encourage you to take young people… the high schoolers and college students in your home, your classroom, and your church youth group… to see Call + Response. It’s designed to grab and hold their attention. And if the young people in your neighborhood are as thoughtful and conscientious as the students I see here at Seattle Pacific, you might help light a fire that will bring about extraordinary change.

Here’s the trailer.

Here’s the official website.

Here’s Steve Beard’s review of Call + Response.

Here’s Mark Moring’s interview with Justin Dillon.

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