Justin Dillon never intended to become a filmmaker. He hadn’t even decided to make a movie until he was halfway through the project that became his directorial debut.
So it’s rather surprising that his first film is selling out screenings, in some cases garnering bigger per-screen weekend averages than “Max Payne,” which opened at No. 1. “Call + Response” has opened in just a few cities since Oct. 10, but it’s already the year’s fifth-biggest political documentary.
Mr. Dillon isn’t just making waves at the art house, either. The passionate artist-activist in his late 30s was in the District this week to speak at a forum on human trafficking at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“I’m not the type to speak at the White House,” he says with some amazement that morning at a cafe in Adams Morgan, where the becapped producer-director pulls out his laptop after the interview to start composing his remarks. “Call + Response” hasn’t just made its maker an expert in the subject of slavery, though. A not-for-profit film, the doc could spark a whole new brand of guerrilla filmmaking and marketing.
“Call + Response” is both harrowing and inspiring, a look at the state of slavery around the world and a call to do something about it. It explores sex slavery, labor slavery and child slavery from the perspective of such experts and academics as former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; a particularly animated Princeton University professor, Cornel West; actress-activists such as Ashley Judd and Julia Ormond; and former slaves.
As one talking head in the film notes, there are more slaves in the world right now than were taken from Africa during 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who has spent much of his career chronicling human rights abuses, says that when he first began his work, the word “slavery” “seemed borrowed from a different era.” He soon learned otherwise - as will every viewer of this film.
It’s often hard to watch. A young Cambodian woman says she was forced into sexual slavery for six years. She guesses she was forced to sleep with 1,000 men a year and asks the viewer to do the math. “I’ve never been to school, so I can’t add it up,” she says. Undercover footage shows girls as young as 10 being sold for sex.
It was just as hard to make. Mr. Dillon is a musician by trade and was exposed to the sometimes pervasive problem when he and his band toured an obscure part of Russia a few years ago.
First, he loved touring in such a remote area. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” he says. “Automatically, you’re the Beatles.”
Then he would talk to the young Russian girls who did translating and find they all had plans to go to America - with shady job offers awaiting them. After investigating, he would explain to the girls that the jobs weren’t legitimate. Without exception, the girls insisted that slavery would never happen to them.
On his return, Mr. Dillon decided he had to do something. He wanted to organize a benefit concert but realized it would be difficult to get a lot of big names together in the same place at the same time. So he set out to make a viral video for the Web. Then he dreamt bigger and thought of doing something for PBS, then VH1.
Instead, “Call + Response” became a combination documentary-concert film - “I’ve yet to see its analog,” Mr. Dillon proudly notes - and is getting a slow but steady theatrical release. (Look for it in the District again after the election.) Interviews are interspersed with musical performances by musicians such as Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, Imogen Heap, Five for Fighting and Mr. Dillon himself.
“Some of the great moments of my life happened at concerts,” he says, explaining he wanted to use the power of music to create that kind of “transcendent” experience that “can make you feel you could be a better person.”
In fact, if you’re so moved, you can contribute to the cause right from your theater seat by texting a donation of $5. The film itself was financed entirely through donations. “I didn’t get paid,” Mr. Dillon says. “I thought it’d be a couple months.” Instead, it took him a couple years.
The musician says he hasn’t spent any money marketing the movie, either. (There is a trailer, though, which happens to have been voiceover legend Don LaFontaine’s final project.) Instead, he has used his skills as an independent musician and transferred them to independent film.
“It’s just like how a band breaks,” he says. He has just four other people working on the film, but they flier a city in preparation for the film’s opening and rely on word of mouth once it does open.
He’s also making use of technology that indie artists of all stripes never had access to before. As you might tell all your friends on Facebook about your favorite band’s upcoming gig, you now can encourage all your Facebook friends to donate $5 to help end human slavery.