July 13, 2023
Note: ACT Alberta does not provide services for children (only adults over the age of 18). At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some wonderful organizations that are currently supporting children who may have experienced exploitation.
Strap in folks, there is a lot to unpack here.
If you are going to grab a spot to watch Sound of Freedom – it is important to remember that this is one story in a collection of millions and this story is not the whole story.
Human trafficking and mainstream media
Released July 4, 2023, the film Sound of Freedom placed number three in the box office, and, after just six days, it has already grossed $40.2 million. ACT Alberta staff tried to go to three different shows, and they were all sold out. We ended up at a sold-out show starting at 9:20 p.m. on a Tuesday night. While this does not tell us if the movie is good or bad, what it does tell us is that the public has an appetite to learn more about human trafficking. While the movie is selling out in theatres across the country, media reviews of it are spreading a counter-intuitive narrative:
“The QAnon-Adjacent Thriller Seducing America” – The Guardian
“Sound of Freedom Is a Superhero Movie for Dads with Brainworms - The QAnon-tinged thriller about child-trafficking is designed to appeal to the conscience of a conspiracy-addled boomer, grossly exaggerated epidemic of child sex-trafficking.” – Rolling Stone
‘Sound of Freedom’ is an Anti-Child Trafficking Fantasy fit for QAnon” - Jezebel
If you do not know what QAnon is, it is “an internet conspiracy theory that has taken hold among many on the American extreme right. The core QAnon conspiracy theory is that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic child molesters are operating a global child sex trafficking ring which conspired against former U.S. President Donald Trump during his term in office.” - Wikipedia
Understanding QAnon is important for context as these reviews suggest the movie is part of a conspiracy theory that is damaging the ability to educate the public about what is actually going on in our communities. While the movie is sensational, it is not a fantasy. This is happening and it is happening here.
Child sexual exploitation in Canada
Public Safety Canada states that in Canada:
Just this month the largest seizure of child porn images and video in Alberta’s history - over 1M images and videos - were seized, resulting in the arrests of eight people in Calgary and Edmonton.
This is happening here.
We went into this movie, wondering if it was going to sensationalize human trafficking (similarly to the film "Taken") or communicate the sobering reality. While a bit sensational, it more accurately represents certain forms of human trafficking, though there's still a long way to go to bridge the divide between Hollywoodized storytelling and survivor testimonial.
Human trafficking is a complex crime, where victims can be exploited over a prolonged period, in various locations and in various ways. This type of crime occurs in every country, affects a wide diversity of people, and is a largely hidden crime (UNODC, 2021).
Sound of Freedom takes place mostly in several different foreign countries and follows the true story of Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent who investigated child predators. Eventually, Ballard leaves his job to rescue the children he has been seeing for years in the child pornography images and videos he has been investigating.
The movie opens with Rocio, a young girl sitting on her bed playing a drum and singing next to an open window.
There is a knock at the door, and it is a beautiful woman named Giselle who claims to be a talent agent recruiting for a modeling company. She tells the girl she heard her singing and thinks she has notable talent. The girl is overjoyed and excitedly encouraging her dad to take her to the “audition.” Her father takes her and her brother to the audition and when he returns to pick them up, the apartment is dark, and the kids are gone.
The kids are moved to a warehouse where they are loaded into a storage container and transported out of the country.
This is the beginning of this story and how they were rescued in a raid known as Operation Triple Take and the foundation was laid for the organization Operation Underground Railroad to be created.
Real life traffickers
The character of Giselle is loosely based on a woman named Kelly Johana Suarez, a former beauty pageant queen and professional model in her early twenties, known as “Miss Cartagena,” who really did recruit and traffic children using her credentials in Colombia.
Suarez’s reputation in her home of Obrero, a poor neighborhood in the South of Cartagena, made her an effective recruiter of young girls and boys for sex trafficking. Her trusted role as a leader in her impoverished community was gained through her former beauty pageant experience and social work studies. She used her good standing and credibility to lure children away from their families with promises of making them successful models, but instead she sold them into the booming sex trade.
This is how it happens in many forms of human trafficking. The trafficker is often someone the victim knows and trusts.
Talent scouting is a common recruitment method for traffickers in North America, but the kids will return home at night. The grooming process continues from there and slowly creates a foundation to isolate and coerce victims into being trafficked.
Rocio is branded by her trafficker which ends up being how Tim recognizes her. This is a frequent practice for sex traffickers, used to control and psychologically manipulate their victims. It signifies to other traffickers and trafficking victims that the victim belongs to the trafficker.
After the Sound of Freedom
The real-life story does not end here. The return home is just the beginning. Many victims and survivors of trafficking face months and even years of physical and emotional healing that requires counseling and therapy, treatment of injuries, tattoo removal, nutritional assistance, addiction counseling, court support, and more.
What can we do?
Awareness is important and needs to be followed/accompanied by knowledge and education – watch the movie and then do your own research. Think critically about what is being said in the news and on social media. Ask questions. Have hard conversations. Lend your knowledge and time to organizations who are fighting in this movement. Stay informed.
Child sexual exploitation resources