(Photo: Friends Media via The Christian Post)
"Not Today," an award-winning movie that tackles human trafficking, is set to open in several major markets across America next month, with a mission to raise awareness about one of the most critical problems the world faces today.
"What we hope is that this will be a catalyst for conversation, if we can get the story out," said Matthew Cork, lead pastor at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif., and executive producer of "Not Today," in an exclusive interview with The Christian Post.
"The people that we really believe that God has called us to work with is the Dalits – 300,000 million of them who have been in this type of slavery for over 3,000 years; and many people in America don't even know who we are."
The movie, which promises to be gripping, entertaining and ultimately redemptive, was made by Friends Media, a ministry of Friends Church, in partnership with the Dalit Freedom Network, an organization focused on improving the lives and providing education for Dalit children.
Today, there are more slaves than at any other time in human history. Roughly 27 million slaves around the world are being exploited for manual and sexual labor against their will. Women and children are the primary victims in this industry, which is estimated to make profits of over $32 billion.
One of the most exploited groups of people are the Dalits, also called "the untouchables" in India. There are close to 300,000 million of them living in India today, and they have faced over 3,000 years of oppression, degradation and discrimination.
"This group falls outside the predominant Indian social hierarchy, which subjects them to enumerated hardships, extreme discrimination and enslavement," according to a CP report based on interviews and personal accounts in India.
"'Broken,' 'outcast' and 'crushed' are all words that have been used to describe the Dalits. The name connotes a dehumanized state of being, allowing upper caste members to justify despicable actions which include forced prostitution, enslavement and perhaps the most harmful, indifference," the three-part CP report explains.
"Not Today" and organizations such as The A21 Campaign, Not for Sale Campaign, and Abolition International are seeking to capture the world's attention and motivate hearts and minds to start caring and getting involved in projects that can directly tackle the exploitation of Dalits and human slaves across the globe.
The story around the film centers on a 20-year-old American youth, Caden Wells, played by Cody Longo, who is greatly disconnected with the suffering of the world before he randomly decides to travel to Hyderabad, India, with a group of robustious friends for a vacation.
Soon upon arriving there, however, he is confronted with the grim realities the Dalits face every day. Although unwittingly at first, Caden decides to help a father who has been forced to sell his young daughter to another man, and in the process unearths the disturbing and heart-breaking world of child slavery in India's underbelly.
Caden struggles extensively with his faith throughout the story, but is encouraged by the prayers of his girlfriend and family back home in America. He realizes that he must find the mental strength and courage to do the right thing if he is to stand any chance of helping the desperate father rescue his little girl.
In his interview with CP, Pastor Cork, who has been on staff at Friends Church for 21 years and the lead pastor there for nine, revealed that the first time he really got to see how tragically Dalits live was in 2007, when he visited India to see how money donated from his church was being used there.
"At that time I went to India. And my first encounter with the Dalits and what we were doing there, building educational schools for these children so they actually have a chance to become someone in society, was at this place called Pipe Village, a concrete manufacturing sewer company," he described.
Cork explained that there was an entire community living in the discarded concrete sewer pipes, because they had no other home.
The remarkable thing, however, was that when the pastor and his team got out of the bus they were traveling in, the children ran up to him and greeted him using perfect English – while the parents could only nod their heads because they could not speak the language.
"The man who was with us walked up to me and said 'Matthew, these are your children. The bus you bought, and the school you built – we take these kids to your school. And they are getting an education and they are learning English. The next generation of these families will not live in pipes again. This is the difference you are making,'" Cork recalled.
"I was humbled and blown away because of the people and the church back home, making such a big difference."
Later at a meeting with Operation Mercy and Operation Mobilization, which work toward building educational facilities for Dalits, Cork said he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to pledge work on over 200 schools in India over the next 10 years – which would cost over $20 million.
It was a lot of money, which the pastor had little idea how to raise at the time, even with the backing of his church. But it was a project he says he knew he had to undertake.
The idea for making a movie highlighting the plight of Dalits came from a meeting with his long-time friend, Brent Martz, the creative ministries pastor at Friends Church, shortly after other Christian-based movies, like 2008's "Fireproof," were released to positive reception.
Martz already had storyboards lined up about how to turn the cause in India into a feature movie, and bringing the campaign to the big screen was an idea they both agreed could open up new doors. Martz ended up being one of the producers of the film.
Cork highlighted, however, that the whole initiative started back at the Pipe Village he visited in 2007, "where God kind of rocked me, and showed me his heart for the oppressed and the poor."
One obstacle when it came to making "Not Today," most of which was shot in India, was the Indian government, which does not like showing how Dalits really live.
As a result, many westerners either do not know about Dalits, or believe that the problem is only confined to rural areas. Cork shared, however, that the reality is very different.
"It is widespread across the country," he said about the abuse and discrimination Dalits face. "The government would try to say that there is no caste system, so there is no discrimination. But all you have to do is go there and see that that is not true. Is the percentage higher in the rural areas? Yes. But it happens out in the rural side, the city, everywhere."
The executive producer of "Not Today" said that it was nothing short of a "miracle" that the movie got made, seeing how many obstacles they encountered along the way.
"We had major challenges getting the permits. If you go online, it says 'send in your application and the script, and you'll be able to get approval to come to our country and film' – that was not the case," Cork explained.
"We had been given verbal approval. We sent our director over, Jon Van Dyke, just to make sure that everything was in order right before we got the cast."
The pastor revealed, however, that once they arrived, it took another six weeks to even get the necessary approval, providing a strain to cast and crew members.
"They first of all denied us our script," Cork said of Indian officials they had to deal with.
"They denied the title, they denied the movie, we had to rewrite it, we had to rename it, and then at all times there was a government liaison that was with us during shooting – and he would review the script before it was put on screen. They were very cautious of what was taking place and what we were going to shoot. And then police would come on site as well."
Cork revealed that of the many locations the film crew picked for filming, they were unable to shoot at 80 percent of them because of police intervention.
"It was chaos for the two weeks," the executive producer continued. "It was a spiritual battle, and a government battle. What we got on film was quite unbelievable after all we went through."
U.S.-made movies that depict certain aspects of foreign cultures in a negative light often get criticized for exposing such unflattering realities – and Cork admitted that "Not Today" will likely be met with mixed reviews in some parts of India.
"It depends on who you are," the pastor said of the potential reaction to the movie in India.
"I think that the Christian public, who will probably be the main one that will see this movie, and those wanting to bring about change will admit that that is there. Many of the Indians who have seen this, they love the film because it portrays their people in a light that is truthful and honest," Cork added.
"It wasn't just about being against the government of India, it was about trying to take this atrocity down."
The target audience for the film, Cork said, are churchgoers, particularly the young adult-college age group.
"We look at that age demographically, and we believe that they want to be mobilized to change the world," the Friends Church pastor explained. "If this movie can be the catalyst for conversation, the catalyst for us to begin our worldwide movement – that is our prayer."
"Not Today" has already won the Best Justice Film award at the Justice Film Festival in 2013, the Best of the Fest for Narrative Feature at the Richmond International Film Festival, the Best Narrative Feature for the 2012 Pan Pacific Film Festival, and the Best Breakout Performance for an Actress for Persis Karen, who plays the little Indian girl in the movie.
It has also been gaining the endorsement of a number of popular Christian artists, including Dove Award-winning and Grammy nominated singer Kari Jobe, who recorded one of the songs for the movie, "What Love Can Do" (produced by fellow Dove Award-winning artist Ed Cash).
"We all have to play a role and do our part to fight against the plague that affects 27 million people and growing," Jobe said. "It's so incredibly dark, and I feel a responsibility to do what I can. Most of these victims are girls like me, and I can't imagine what life would be like in that place."
"'Not Today' is definitely a movie that you have to see," the worship singer urged.
The movie opens in theaters on April 12. For listings, visit www.nottodaythemovie.com.