OPINION

OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: The unlikely blockbuster


It took two days, but we finally were able to purchase a couple of seats against the rear wall of the sold-out Golden Ticket theater in Harrison.

I'll bet half of Boone County began lining up to see the nation's surprise big-screen phenomenon "Sound of Freedom," enough to continuously fill the theater seats from the moment it opened July 4. And like everyone else in our theater who walked out after two hours of living face-to face with the horrors of child trafficking most people know exists, we left singing its praises.

This based-in-reality independent film starring Jim Caviezel of "Passion of the Christ" nearly surpassed establishment Hollywood's latest "Indiana Jones" saga in ticket sales even though it opened in far fewer theaters. All the sold-out theaters nationwide showed me just how starved Americans are for a true story about good battling evil in this culturally torn country.

Evil doesn't come any darker than trafficking in children, estimated in the film to now surpass the profits from illegal drug sales: "You sell drugs once, but you can sell a child five or more times a day," reads one line from the script. "God's children are not for sale," reads another.

Produced by Eduardo Verástegui and distributed by Angel Studios, "Sound of Freedom" tells the story of Tim Ballard, a federal agent with several young children of his own, battling child trafficking deep into urban and rural Colombia, with a focus on saving a young boy and his sister. Throughout the film, we are introduced to smarmy men involved in the multibillion-dollar business who abduct and traffic children by the thousands. One could rightfully call this a dramatic thriller with a message. In another sense, for many it's understandably a tear-jerker.

The heart-rending scenes of all that innocence being destroyed for the benefit of a relative few greedy criminals are enough to generate powerful emotion in any viewer with a soul containing a gram of compassion. Verástegui in an Internet interview said he was warned not to make the film because the subject matter was too dangerous and his response was, "it's too dangerous not to make it."

Simply knowing this much about the film that reportedly cost $14 million to produce while generating over $40 million in its initial days of opening, should suffice as encouragement to see for yourself. I'll not delve much deeper except to say the acting, especially by Caviezel and the children, is convincing and compelling.

Spoilers are never any fun anyway. Well, that's not quite true.

I'd never before realized that those who abduct children for trafficking could collect enough to total at least a million victims a year as reported in the film. In one movie scene, a sweet-spoken former Colombian beauty queen, like a Black Widow spider, lures a dozen children from under 10 years old into their early teens into her hotel suite under the guise of photographing and auditioning the kids for possible film roles.

Parents are told to return to pick up them up at precisely 7 p.m. They arrive to find the room empty and their precious children swept away, likely forever. Their posed audition pictures wind up as Internet sales promotions for pedophiles.

I saw nothing political, religious. unbelievable or untrue in the content or presentation of this story. Yet some critics in the mainstream corporate media immediately and predictably accused the film of being a radically right-wing production. Sorry, but for me and everyone who shared the packed theater with us, the story was a two-hour thriller based on a terrible reality.

Besides, try as you might, how do you effectively politicize a matter that 90 percent of the nation would agree is pure evil? And how does one convincingly pan a film that draws a near-perfect score from audiences on the Internet? Check it out for yourself. The bottom line: Would we go see it again? An unequivocal you betcha. And the streaming services have yet to get their hands on it.

If there's a lesson in this film's incredible success for filmmakers, especially blockbuster-hungry Hollywood, it's to drop the obvious political attempts at social engineering, cut back on ho-hum special-effect explosions, gratuitous sex and nudity, predictable gore and carnage, and cartoons in favor of producing meaningful movies that reflect inspirational reality.

Staying on the same subject and close to home, according to a news release from the state House of Representatives, since its inception in 2007 the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified 557 cases of human trafficking in Arkansas with some 1,500 victims identified in those cases.

"Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery," said the release, "is a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services or to engage in commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological."

Gov. Sarah Sanders in February signed an executive order citing our youth as the future of Arkansas and required the Arkansas Department of Human Services to consolidate efforts to better crack down on human trafficking in a variety of ways.

In recent years, the Arkansas General Assembly also has made efforts to strengthen state laws involving trafficking. In the most recent session, legislation was passed to expand civil remedies for trafficking victims, increase fines for trafficking convictions, and clarify language in existing laws.

For example, Act 354 allows a victim to bring a civil action against a person or entity who knew or should have known that the individual was being trafficked.

Act 327 increases fines for human trafficking convictions and trafficking-related charges to between $5,000 and $15,000. Fines are to be divided between specified funds that support exploited children and trafficking victims.

Act 330 ensures victims are eligible for victim reparations even if they don't cooperate with law enforcement.

Act 722 created the offense of sexual solicitation of a minor and classifies it as a Class B felony.

Act 736 added the words "reasonably should know" to Arkansas code on trafficking, which allows individuals to be charged if they knew or reasonably should have known they were benefiting financially or actively engaged in trafficking.

Act 772 clarifies the definition of "serious harm" under the Human Trafficking Act of 2013.

After watching this film, it's reassuring to know our Legislature will continue to review ways to prosecute and prevent future trafficking cases while raising awareness of this beyond-serious issue.

To report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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