When Sound of Freedom, the new Jim Caviezel thriller about child trafficking, was released in theaters last week, it garnered mixed reviews, to say the least. The movie, with its central narrative about a former Homeland Security agent (Caviezel) embarking on a high-stakes mission to rescue children from a Colombian trafficking ring, has drawn criticism for its self-serious tone, its star’s promotion of conspiracy theories, and its dubious source material (Caviezel plays a fictionalized version of Tim Ballard, the founder of the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad, which has been accused of embellishing some of its more extreme claims, which they have denied).
Such criticism hasn’t stopped people from flocking to theaters: to date, Sound of Freedom has grossed $40 million at the box office, with many of its defenders framing it as yet another lightning rod in the culture wars and accusing mainstream theaters of suppressing the film (the CEO of AMC, for his part, has denied this, calling such rumors “really bizarre”). Yet one demographic has expressed concern about the film’s tremendous popularity: the anti-child trafficking experts who Sound of Freedom is ostensibly about.
“I’ve literally been on four different group texts about the damn movie,” says Erin Albright, an attorney who has worked in the anti-trafficking space for 15 years, including as a former fellow for the Department of Justice’s anti-trafficking task force. Albright says Sound of Freedom is “grounded in this sensational perspective of what child trafficking would be,” rather than reflecting its grim reality.
A representative for Angel Studios, which distributed Sound of Freedom, did not respond to a request for comment about questions regarding its accuracy; however, in a blog post on its website, it acknowledges altering some of Ballard’s biographical details and that the film “took creative liberties in depicting the different methods of child trafficking.”
“Understanding the complexities of this crisis and educating oneself about the reality of child trafficking empowers individuals to make a difference,” the post reads, including a link to anti-trafficking resources like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As the post notes, child trafficking is a very real and extremely serious problem, in part because it is so difficult to track. Reliable statistics are hard to come by due to the underreported nature of the phenomenon, but the U.S. State Department has reported that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders per year, with about 50 percent of these cases being children. Yet from the movie’s opening montage, which shows surveillance footage of children being snatched by strangers off the streets, Sound of Freedom offers a “false perception” of how the majority of child trafficking actually takes place, according to Albright.
Contrary to urban legends about kids getting abducted in Target parking lots by strangers, or anonymous figures snatching children from alleyways, the majority of child trafficking victims know and trust their traffickers, explains Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children’s Alliance (Huizar has not seen the film yet, but was able to provide context about the myths and realities of child trafficking). “Some are throwaway kids. They are kicked out of their homes and trade sex for food and a place to stay, and end up being trafficked by a pimp,” she says. “In a lot of these cases, the trafficker starts out calling themselves their boyfriend or girlfriend.” Indeed, a large body of research shows that many child trafficking victims are LGBTQ or gender nonconforming youth who have been kicked out of their homes and forced into the sex trade by someone close to them.
While Sound of Freedom almost exclusively focuses on very young children, the majority of child trafficking victims are adolescents or teenagers, says Huizar. (A report from the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative states that 67 percent of children trafficked are between the ages of 15 and 17). While there are, of course, cases where child trafficking victims are much younger than that, they overwhelmingly — and heartbreakingly — tend to involve parents with substance abuse issues selling their children for drugs, Huizar says.
“We want to believe that people trafficking children are unknown, nefarious strangers,” she says. “[It] makes people uncomfortable to think some of these things happen in their own communities, in their own schools, with people they might run into at the grocery store.”
The lack of focus on tragic cases like these, in favor of more dramatic narratives about international rescue missions and shadowy strangers abducting kids, has resulted in a skewed perception of child trafficking. By ignoring the realities of what victims and traffickers look like, and the larger structural issues that prevent at-risk children from getting help — like, say, widely available, government-funded substance abuse treatment programs for families struggling with addiction, says Huizar — anti-trafficking movies like Sound of Freedom and the 2006 blockbuster Taken may have the unintended effect of not shedding light on a very serious and real problem, but obscuring it.
Some of the liberties with the truth these films take can be chalked up to the demands of fast-paced storytelling. Albright, for instance, takes issue with a scene in Sound of Freedom in which Ballard takes a child victim to a burger joint. “A lone agent is never going to be alone like that with a victim, shuttling them all over the place,” she says, citing protocols that protect victims. The movie, and films about human trafficking in general, also doesn’t provide much insight into the extensive process of providing support to victims and helping them deal with their trauma after they escape a dangerous situation. This process can take years, says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, nation’s largest coalition of anti-trafficking advocates and service providers.
“Generally, young people end up in trafficking situations because their family is in incredible poverty, because of political unrest, because the child is being rejected by their family for their sexual orientation or gender identity or any number of things,” she says. “[They] are likely to be trafficked again unless you address that underlying issue: What made them vulnerable in the first place? Why was their family not able to keep them safe? Those are the questions that are ignored in the narrative of, ‘Oh, they are in a bad place. All we have to do is move them and leave.'”
Some of the larger inaccuracies in such films are also harmful in that they perpetuate false ideas about trafficking that can have material consequences for victims.
“What they are learning is so divorced from reality that it does sling back to create harm,” says Albright. “It creates harm when certain policies aren’t passed because we think trafficking looks one way and it’s another way. It creates harm when victims don’t recognize themselves in these narratives.”
Indeed, many child trafficking survivors do not come forward of their own volition, their cases only drawing attention when they present at emergency departments for different reasons — say, for access to food or shelter, or for treatment for a sexually transmitted infection. “[Most] kids don’t raise their hands and say, ‘I’ve been trafficked,'” says Huizar. If such victims don’t see their stories represented in trafficking narratives, they may not recognize that what is happening to them is, in fact, trafficking.
Dramatic raids may make for good entertainment, but in real life, the process of helping trafficking survivors is far more lengthy and complicated. Bruggeman says that her organization largely relies on targeted outreach to institutions that cater to at-risk populations — hospitals, schools, runaway homeless youth facilities — to help them ask kids the right questions and recognize red flags. For instance, because most of young trafficking victims in the United States attend school at least part-time, she says, much of her work focuses on helping train educators to see signs that a child is potentially being trafficked, so they can ask them specific questions to learn more about what they are experiencing.
“With trafficked children, that is often not the only type of exploitation or abuse they are experiencing. They generally have also experienced abuse and neglect. They are late to school or truant sometimes, they are falling asleep in school, showing signs of not eating well, leaving school early,” she says. “There are definitely warning signs where we can reach out to those kids directly and offer support and assistance to help them find the services they need.”
Another unintended consequence of sensationalist anti-trafficking narratives is that they can obscure juries’ perception of what trafficking looks like when these cases are actually brought to court. “When you have a case of really subtle coercion that’s hard to prove, and the jury is expecting Taken, you’re not gonna get a conviction… and it makes that much harder for survivors,” says Albright.
Juror bias is a well-documented phenomenon, and misunderstandings about what trafficking and trafficking victims look like — compounded with preexisting biases about race, sexual orientation, or gender — can have devastating consequences for those brave enough to testify against their traffickers. Huizar recounted an instance in which two young men, both of whom were 15, testified in court against their abuser. One of them, who had been abused longer, had a criminal record and a history of drug use due to the trauma of his abuse, while the other did not. The jury found the abuser guilty — but only on the charges associated with the latter case.
“We need to keep in mind when jurors don’t believe these kids, those jurors go home and go about their lives. But it is devastating to the victims,” she says.
The misconceptions about child trafficking promoted by Sound of Freedom are in many ways compounded by the fact that the film has received widespread acclaim from the far right, particularly proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that a shadowy ring of elites is sexually abusing young children. Sound of Freedom does not refer to the conspiracy theory, nor is it overtly political (though Ballard has legitimized a QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theory centering around the furniture company Wayfair, and star Caviezel has espoused some of QAnon’s more extreme aspects, such as the belief that elites are harvesting adrenochrome from the blood of children). But it has been embraced in conspiracy theorist circles and promoted on Q boards, and it is a concern among some anti-trafficking experts that the movie will add oxygen to a discourse that detracts from a real, and very serious, problem, even if those moved by the film have the noblest of intentions.
Contrary to claims made by some defenders of Sound of Freedom, no one is denying the existence of child trafficking, or its horrors. Those who have devoted their lives to protecting children and fighting those seeking to exploit them know firsthand that child trafficking is not only real, but that the reality may be even more horrific than what is depicted onscreen in big-budget thrillers. Their hope is that viewers of Sound of Freedom who are moved by the film connect with legitimate organizations to learn the truth about what child trafficking looks like, and how they can help. “You don’t have to manufacture conspiracy theories about child sexual abuse,” says Huizar. “There are plenty of facts at hand that dont involve spreading horrible rumors about Wayfair or pizza restaurants.”
Victims or survivors of human trafficking can contact local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline for resources at 888-373-7888, or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.