Jul 10, 2023 - News

Hit film "Sound of Freedom" puts spotlight on controversial anti-trafficking nonprofit

Tim Ballard stands in front of a screen that reads "Sound of Freedom."

Tim Ballard at the "Sound of Freedom" premier in Vineyard, Utah. Photo: Fred Hayes/Getty Images for Angel Studios

Operation Underground Railroad, a controversial anti-sex-trafficking group founded in Utah, is the subject of celebration and scrutiny as a movie about its widely promoted rescue operations opens to big box office returns.

Driving the news: "The Sound of Freedom," which stars actor Jim Caviezel as OUR founder Tim Ballard, opened July 4 to what its studio and fans described as an upset, earning $14.2 million to "Indiana Jones'" $11.7 million the same day.

  • Reality check: "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" had been out since the previous weekend, and $2.6 million of "Sound of Freedom's" opening-day earnings came from a crowdfunding ticket campaign, Indiewire reported.

Why it matters: The film, produced by Provo-based Angel Studios, is likely to bolster the immense political and fundraising support OUR enjoys from the political and religious right, especially in Utah.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is one of the group's most visible political champions.

The intrigue: News investigations, human trafficking watchdogs and participants in the group's raids have challenged its claims and tactics, alleging OUR exaggerated its successes to raise money.

  • Some police departments claimed by OUR as "partners" in human trafficking arrests received "modest" grants as little as a few hundred dollars for training or equipment, according to Vice, which has reported extensively on the group.
  • In 2020, OUR was under criminal investigation after Davis County prosecutor Troy Rawlings alleged that a local nonprofit falsely claimed involvement in the county's sex crime cases. But in May, the Deseret News reported the case was closed after Rawlings said he did "not believe that the decision to pursue charges against O.U.R. … is prudent."

OUR did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

What they're saying: "To know thousands of adults will absorb ‘Sound of Freedom,’ this vigilante fever dream, and come away thinking themselves better informed on a hidden civilizational crisis … well, it’s profoundly depressing," wrote Miles Klee in a review for Rolling Stone.

The big picture: Anti-trafficking campaigns have exploded in recent years, along with exaggerated claims of child sex trafficking, The Atlantic reported.

  • Conservative groups in particular have warned of child trafficking in conjunction with messaging on crime, immigration and race, gender roles and even masking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Catch up quick: As recently as 2018, OUR enlisted non-tactical professionals on international raids: a real-estate investor, a Crossfit instructor, a mommy-blogger, an actress and politicians all joined OUR's "jumps," with cameras rolling.

The latest: Last week, critics of Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline raised objections on social media after she posted that schools "are aiding and abetting human trafficking" by "brainwashing" children about LGBTQ+ identities.

What we're watching: Ticket sales stayed relatively strong over the weekend, though most of its $40 million so far came before last Friday, according to Box Office Mojo.

  • It was the weekend's third-highest-grossing movie, behind "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones."
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