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What you should know if your friends start talking about ‘Sound of Freedom’

What you should know if your friends start talking about ‘Sound of Freedom’

All over South Africa, people are discussing the movie ‘Sound of Freedom’ in tones of hushed reverence. Here’s what to keep in mind if this happens in front of you.

Remind me: What is Sound of Freedom?

It’s an action movie which is smashing box office records globally, raking in an estimated $190-million by mid-September — and the film had only opened in a few territories internationally by that stage. It stars Jim Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, as a former federal agent who ventures into the Colombian jungle to save a pair of siblings from ruthless child traffickers.

And I hear it’s based on a true story?

In reality, it is factual to approximately the same degree as The Passion of the Christ was.

But the guy Jim Caviezel plays is a real dude! Someone told me that!

Yes. Caviezel’s character is based on a real person called Tim Ballard, a devout Mormon from Utah who is a former US Homeland Security agent who founded a non-profit called Operation Underground Railroad to rescue trafficked children. Ballard’s claims about his work have been extensively fact-checked by Vice and other media outlets and have been found to be massively misleading.

Ballard claims to go into countries — mainly in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America — with a group of tough and sexy former FBI agents and the like to rescue children from sex trafficking.

Sound of Freedom

Screenshot from Operation Underground Railway website, via Vice report. (Image: Supplied)

In reality, Vice found that the bozos who joined Ballard on these missions were ordinary volunteers — and in some cases, rich donors — who pay for parts of the experience, making this a kind of extremely creepy adventure tourism.

Ballard and his team enter countries and flash a lot of cash around, asking local pimps to procure women for them. If the pimps return with sex workers of legal age, Ballard asks for younger girls — which, as multiple experts have pointed out, actually creates a perverse kind of demand. When sufficiently young-looking girls are offered to Ballard and Co, the US team “busts” the pimps — ie, hands them over to local law enforcement — and “rescues” the girls. In many cases, it appears that what this “rescue” amounts to is doing literally nothing for the girls in question afterwards.

A constant complaint has been that Ballard and his ilk simply conflate sex work and human trafficking. To quote one of the Vice sources:

“Look, the developing world is rough. People are desperate. They do what they can. So you have a lot of 16-, 17-, 18-year-old prostitutes. They’re often young women who are willingly prostituting themselves. I’m not saying it’s okay. I’m not saying they don’t need help. But this is not Taken with Liam Neeson. These are girls in a desperate situation. They need a job and an education. They don’t need someone to rescue them, some white guy from Utah.”

But Tim Ballard is legit! He’s even testified before Congress!

Yes, because he was a particular favourite of former US president Donald Trump — because Ballard’s bollocks about child trafficking happen to chime perfectly with Trump’s anti-immigrant narrative. One of Ballard’s nonsensical claims is that 10,000 children are smuggled into the US for sex every year, which Trump went on to gleefully cite on the campaign trail as evidence for why his Wall was needed.

Jim Caviezel in ‘Sound of Freedom’. (Photo: Supplied)

So are you saying that angelic white children are not being kidnapped daily by strangers and forced into sexual slavery?

It happens extraordinarily rarely, and most of the statistics floating around the web are hyperbolic nonsense. Overwhelmingly, evidence shows that children and women are most likely to be sexually abused and exploited by people close to them: family members or friends. Mostly, children seem to be trafficked for forced labour. A report this year from the International Organization for Migration found that boys were almost twice as likely to be trafficked as girls, and mostly forced into activities like begging.

(IMPORTANT NOTE TO PRE-EMPT FROTHING IN THE COMMENTS SECTION: Human trafficking is a Very Bad Thing in any form!)

When sex trafficking does happen, it is often in the context of vulnerable illegal immigrants: smuggled migrants, notes the UN, can become victims of “severe human rights violations”. But Ballard, Caviezel and the gang don’t seem particularly interested in the more accurate stories of, say, a 27-year-old Zimbabwean woman being held hostage in a Yeoville flat by a Congolese pimp. Neither do they seem interested in the reality that the most vulnerable youths are often gay or trans: in fact, Ballard has tried to claim that the transgender movement is fuelling child sex trafficking.

The current hysteria over child trafficking and human trafficking, more widely, has been compared to the 1980s “Satanic panic”. More worryingly, the issue is a recruiting tool for QAnon, the bonkers conspiracy theory/cult which, rather embarrassingly, seems to have originated in South Africa.

One of QAnon’s claims is that a global cabal of elites and celebrities is trafficking children and murdering them to extract from their juicy veins the hormone adrenochrome, which bestows the gift of eternal youth. (This is not a sentence anyone would have imagined typing sober 20 years ago.)

Sound of Freedom star Caviezel has repeated this bonkers lie in interviews. It is, in fact, quite hard to convey just how unhinged Caviezel seems to be on this point. In June, he appeared on right-wing media maven Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room and claimed that human traffickers charge $77,000 for a barrel of children’s body parts and blood, which is then sent to “bio-labs” in Ukraine.

This all sounds like a whole lot of the US’s problem, not ours

It’s true, up to a point. While coastal elites are flocking to see Barbie and Oppenheimer, large swathes of the US hinterland have gone nuts for Sound of Freedom. US journalists have described watching the movie in cinemas where the viewing experience has been akin to being stuck in an evangelical church, with audience members crying and screaming “Amen!” in response to the film’s rousing tagline: “God’s children are not for sale”. (They, quite literally, are really not.)

Banner on display at V&A Waterfront’s Ster-Kinekor cinema. (Photo: Supplied)

But Sound of Freedom madness also appears to be spreading quietly in South Africa. This country was the second place it opened, after the US, and it’s been in SA cinemas for at least three months. Ster-Kinekor, which markets the movie as an “incredible true story”, boasts that it has issued more than 21,000 free tickets to the movie. At big cinemas, like the one at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, banners offer the chance to donate a ticket to “someone who can’t afford it” through the click of a QR code.

It’s not hard to see why Sound of Freedom would find fertile ground in South Africa, a country where many live in a state of fear and paranoia, and the idea of guys like Tim Ballard breaking down doors to rid the world from evil provides a comforting fantasy.

But ultimately, Sound of Freedom is just the latest lightning rod for the long-raging US culture wars. Let’s leave them to it. Frankly, we have bigger — and substantially more real — problems. DM


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