On a sunny, let’s-go-to-the-beach, middle-of-the-week day, in the middle of the afternoon, at a theater in the middle of a major construction project at the local mall, I decided to see Sound of Freedom. I didn’t purchase an advance ticket; not only was it midday and midweek, it was also a Christian-themed movie made by a little-known director (Alejandro Monteverde) and distributed by Angel Studios, an independent company best known for the TV series “The Chosen.” And it had already been in theaters for nearly three weeks. Most faith-based films are lucky to last two. With maybe a dozen folks in the theater.
Nevertheless, I found myself staring up at the screen from the middle of the front row. I was lucky to have that seat. The theater was packed.
Sound of Freedom has been a phenomenal success, building from an opening weekend box office of $18 million and crossing the $100 million threshold just two weekends later. Responding to Angel Studios’ genius “pay it forward” formula, whereby satisfied viewers are invited to donate money for others to see the film for free, the satisfied viewers in my screening stayed to click on the QR code to make that donation. They weren’t just seeing a movie; they were joining a movement.
I found myself staring up at the screen from the middle of the front row. I was lucky to have that seat. The theater was packed.
The film is based on crusader Tim Ballard’s personal mission to end sexual slavery around the world. I know Tim Ballard. I met him in 2016, when I showed The Abolitionists (directed by Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas) at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. Tim had been working with the CIA and then Homeland Security assigned to the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force for a dozen years, but he became discouraged when he realized the government was more focused on arresting adults than on rescuing children. Tim quit his job and started Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) to fund his covert operations that have led to the rescue of hundreds of minors who have been forced into sexual slavery and the arrest of thousands of their abusers.
The documentary is good, but the narrative film is even better. James Caviezel, who portrayed a gritty, strong, powerful Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, is tender, determined, and nearly broken emotionally in his portrayal as Tim Ballard. The story unfolds with a strong sense of conflict, rising action, and catharsis. And, by all objective accounts, Sound of Freedom stays true to the essential facts of Tim’s first independent sting operation, although some characters are combined or altered to streamline the narrative and protect some of the real-life characters. For example, Tim really was overcome by the plight of these young children who were being left behind after the government “got their man”; some of the children really were enticed from home by a woman promising an entertainment career; Tim really did set up a pleasure island scheme in which he pretended to be hiring a hundred children for an exclusive members-only club, and the operation led to the rescue of 123 sex slaves (55 of them minors) and the arrest of dozens of criminals; Miguel Aguilar (Lucas Avila) really does have a sister, and he really did give Tim a necklace when he was rescued. But Tim’s search for Rocio (Cristal Aparicio) is a composite of several searches, including his search for a little boy named Gardy highlighted in The Abolitionists. Most important, it really is a film worth seeing.
Responding to Angel Studios’ genius “pay it forward” formula, the satisfied viewers in my screening stayed to click on the QR code to make that donation.
So, how do The Abolitionists or Sound of Freedom compare? Both are good. Both are true. But Sound of Freedom has the edge. Because it focuses on his very first sting, Tim Ballard had no idea that it would someday be an important story. There were no documentarians hiding in the bushes. He was just hoping the police would arrive on time and no one would be killed. In a scripted narrative, however, the director could return to Ballard’s sting operation and recreate every part of it. It begins with a little girl, Rocio, and her encounter with “Katy” (Yessica Borroto Perryman), the glamorous woman who promises to make her a star. Katy is beautiful and sophisticated, exuding confidence and success. When she sees Rocio’s cute little brother Miguel, she offers to make him a star too. The innocence and speed with which this all unfolds is a frightening warning about how easily one can be fooled by glamour and sophistication. The scripted genre also allows us to see the children’s father (Jose Zuniga) at the moment of his heartbreaking realization that both his children have been kidnapped, and Tim’s intimate moments of despair over what his job forces him to experience. By contrast, The Abolitionists follows a later case, and while it was similar to the first one, it does not deliver the same emotional punch as Sound of Freedom, partly because the victims rescued in The Abolitionists were older, partly because we don’t see the backstory of those girls and their families as we do in Sound of Freedom, and partly because documentarians really don’t know what the story is going to be until the footage is in the can. They are limited to filming what actually happens in front of the lens.
Director Alejandro Monteverde has a gift for working with child actors, and that gift is seen in this film. He also uses lighting and music effectively without being precious, ranging from lush orchestrations that stimulate the viewer’s emotion to heavy rumbling percussion that makes our hearts race with fear. He has a good eye for creating intimacy through camera angles and closeups, and he creates tension through suggestion rather than graphic or gratuitous voyeurism. We know what is happening to these children; we don’t need to see it to feel their despair. In fact, despite its subject matter, the film is rated PG-13. Any pedophiles who come to the theater hoping to “get some” will be sorely disappointed.
The innocence and speed with which this all unfolds is a frightening warning about how easily one can be fooled by glamour and sophistication.
At the end of the film, James Caviezel appears as himself to talk about the movie and the crisis of sexual slavery, sharing the startling statistic that more people are slaves today than at any other time in history — even when it was legal. He encourages those in the audience to join the cause with the snap of a camera on a QR code — and they do.
Among other things, he says, “The people with power are the storytellers.” As a film festival director who focuses on liberty-oriented themes, I found this statement resonating with me. Artists tell stories, affect emotions, and motivate action in ways that news reporters, white papers, and lecturers simply can’t. It will be a long time before Miguel’s earnest little face leaves my memory. Storytelling can move mountains, as Pepper (Jakob Salvati) the main character in Monteverde’s Little Boy, discovers. And storytelling moved the members of an audience on a beach-day afternoon to become more than mere moviegoers — they became members of a movement. They became the abolitionists.
Review of The Sound of Freedom, directed by Alejandro Monteverde. Santa Fe Films and Angel Studios, 2023, 131 minutes; and The Abolitionists, directed by Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas. Fletchet Entertainment, 2016, 85 minutes.