Call + Response reveals the world’s 27 million dirtiest secrets: there are more slaves today than ever before in human history. Call + Response goes deep undercover where slavery is thriving from the child brothels of Cambodia to the slave brick kilns of rural India to reveal that in 2007, Slave Traders made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined.

Music is part of the movement against human slavery. Dr. Cornel West connects the music of the American slave fields to the popular music we listen to today, and offers this connection as a rallying cry for the modern abolitionist movement currently brewing.

Rockumentary has a worthy aim, but not well executed.

Touring Russia a few years ago, US singer-songwriter Justin Dillon met a young translator who awakened him to the horrors of human trafficking. Determined to generate awareness of the issue, Dillon sought the help of fellow musicians and various experts in the field.

A laudable idea but the result, Call + Response, is an odd hybrid of talking heads, soundstage performances from the Concert to End Slavery, and often grainy footage of the perpetrators and victims of slavery, child and adult.

Dillon can’t help injecting himself into many of the interviews. He may be a good musician but he’s not a skilled interviewer or an insightful commentator. And he’s content to allow some celebrity activists and experts to make unsubstantiated claims. For example, Julia Ormond asserts human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing crime but offers no evidence to support that contention. One official complains of a 'paralysis’ among governments to deal with the problem, without elaborating. The only stats which back that up are estimates that 1 million people are trafficked into the US each year, and there have been only 50 convictions for those crimes in the past 10 years.

Dr. Cornell West, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, blathers on about the connections between slavery and music, but then launches into a long riff about the meaning of 'funk,’ which is off-message, I’d have thought. Dillon draws a very long bow when he tries to make a link between slavery and the groups he grew up loving, like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, because a lot of their music stemmed from the blues. Dillon says he went undercover at a San Francisco brothel which employs sex slaves, but little is made of what he uncovered.

Among the most illuminating testimonies is from New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof, who relates buying two child slaves, for $150 and $203, and taking them back to their villages in Cambodia. Alas, one girl returned to the brothel a few days later to feed her crystal meth addiction.

Another girl testifies that she was forced into prostitution at the age of six and obliged to service 1,000 men a year; the poor kid never went to school. Curiously, the faces of some traffickers are pixelated: why should their identities be hidden?

Musically it’s a very mixed bag, spanning rock, reggae, hip-hop, blues and ballads, with an array of acts including Matisyahu, Imogen Heap, Cold War Kids, Emmanuel Jal (a former Kenyan child soldier), Moby and Natasha Bedingfield. No doubt the songs are sincere, but to my ears and tastes, they weren’t especially memorable or uplifting. Most were not written specifically in response to the slave trade, so those are about as relevant as what you’d see on MTV.

The doco does serve a worthwhile purpose as a call to action, urging people to engage with the call and response website. Another celebrity activist, Ashley Judd, makes a heartfelt plea: 'Each individual has a spiritual responsibility of cultivating that indignation, tapping into that rage, and allowing that rage to be connected into compassionate action."


1 hour 26 min
In Cinemas 22 October 2009,