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Moviemakers originally planned on holding a small press screening, but word got out, and more than 1,000 people thronged the South Jordan Megaplex Theatres for a chance to see “The Abolitionists” on Tuesday, Jan. 27.
DJ and music producer Kaskade, “Walking Dead” star Laurie Holden and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes attended the press screening to raise awareness about child sex trafficking. Ed Smart, who works as the organization’s director of prevention and rehabilitation, announced the Elizabeth Smart Foundation will merge with Operation Underground Railroad.
“The Abolitionists” is a feature-length film about the child rescue efforts of Tim Ballard’s Operation Underground Railroad. Ballard started the organization just one year ago, yet he has received strong support from Hollywood filmmakers, celebrities and the general public. “I feel all of this is being orchestrated by a higher power. That’s what it is, because the Lord cares about children,” he said.
Co-directors Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas contacted Ballard last year to ask him to be a consultant on a historical documentary. Ballard agreed, but the co-directors found out about Ballard’s work as a secret agent and immediately dropped their project to start documenting his rescue efforts. They never completed their historical documentary. Thomas believes its only purpose was to lead them to Ballard.
Fletcher and Thomas hope “The Abolitionists” has the same effect on child sex slavery as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had on 19th-century slavery. “Our goal is to get it out to the world and send these rodents into the deepest holes of the earth … and put a stop to it,” Thomas said.
Trafficking survivor Norma Bastidas, who now works as an Operation Underground Railroad ambassador, also attended the screening. She travels to rehabilitation shelters to comfort and motivate other victims in their recovery.
Bastidas was abducted at a bus stop in Mexico City when she was 17. She was rescued shortly thereafter but fell into a trap at 19 when she took up a modeling job in Japan. Her employers pushed her to fulfill clients’ additional requests and convinced her she had consented to sexual exploitation by accepting the job. “In the moment, when they ask you to do something that takes your dignity away and you don’t have the ability to say no, that’s human trafficking,” Bastidas said.
She returned home and kept her experiences secret for 30 years. Bastidas later found out her experience was not an isolated incident, forgot her own pain and began to share her story with other victims.
Ballard thanked the audience before the screening for being brave enough to watch the film. “You see a lot of tough guys do a lot of crying in these operations because of what we see,” he said.
The 85-minute film uses actual footage of the planning and execution of several operations in Honduras, Colombia and Haiti. It even includes footage of a failed operation in Colombia, where the anti-trafficking team members were unable to obtain a judge’s signature for police to enter and make arrests. They had to call the operation off minutes before traffickers were set to meet with them. The team dejectedly returned home.
The film also shows several successful operations. The team managed to rescue all the children from a corrupt Haitian orphanage where the director sold them for $15,000 each. Ballard began investigating the orphanage after his friend’s son was kidnapped during an LDS Church service. The boy, Gardy, has yet to be found, but his father, who also attended the screening, said he could live with that fact because his son’s kidnapping led to the rescue of many other children.
After the screening, Ballard presented Heidi Miller as the new president of Operation Underground Railroad’s board of governors. Miller announced “The Abolitionists” will show at all 17 Megaplex Theatres across two states, and all revenue received will be donated back to the organization.
“Studio C” members Stacey Harkey and Mallory Everton shared their reaction to the film. “It was very eye opening. It’s very sad, but … it’s a sad that motivates you to act, something you recognize as a problem and that you can change,” Harkey said.
“I’m really glad that there are people like that out there, doing stuff like this,” Everton said. “There are a lot of evils out there in the world, and I think that we can all do a little bit more to help. The more people who know about O.U.R. Rescue, the better.”