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Q&A with Call + Response director Justin Dillon

Justin Dillon.

Musician Justin Dillon had never made a film before, but he felt he had to do something about the horrific reality of human trafficking. Thus was born Call + Response, a part-documentary, part-concert film that opens Friday, October 10 at the Starz FilmCenter in the Tivoli Student Union and screens daily through Sunday, October 12 (read our full event listing here). Dillon will be present at the 7 p.m. October 10 screening at Starz. Westword caught up with him a few weeks ago, the last time he was in Denver. Below, find the intriguing results.

Westword (Amber Taufen): So what brings you to Denver?

Justin Dillon: I am doing some meetings. The film’s opening here, so I’m doing a pre-screening for justice groups and nonprofits, people like that who would benefit when the film comes out. I’m showing it to a number of influentials and leaders in government, nonprofits, trying to get their support.

WW: It's a very powerful film.

JD: It's not a popcorn flick. It’s getting some great reviews from music magazines. Also from... we showed it to Capitol Hill, State Department, the UN, everybody loves it -- and there’s some reasons for loving it, because it’s going to help their work, too. I think they dig it because it’s an artistic piece, but they also see it as a useful tool. It’s nice when a film can be both informational but also be strategic for someone. That’s part of why the fim was made. We need more pieces, we need to tell a story right now that this is going on. I'm getting to show it to people that were in the film. Julia Ormand, Ashley Judd: They were all supportive. They had no idea what they were doing at the time.

WW: And this is your first filmmaking venture?

JD: I don’t think I was trying to actually make a film, necessarily. I was trying to make something happen. I know that sounds very artsy, but as a musician I was trying to connect music to the issue and it ended up that the best way to do that was to finish it out as a film. I think as far as... once I realized what I wanted it to be, I was trying to go for a musical documentary.

The subject matter of human trafficking is so difficult. I think an hour and a half of that, it’d be too much for me. We’re so early on in this fight that the success stories are pretty outnumbered by the tragedies, so it’d be a difficult documentary to make without music. And for me personally, it’s a little bit of my own story. It’s more about what interests me, which is music, and how can I somehow connect that to an issue that I care about. It was going through and finding... not just filming performances of artists that I enjoy, but looking for the real connection points where something I care about actually does connect to the thing that I love.

The whole concept of slavery and music are totally intertwined in American music, we wouldn’t have a lot of the things that we have today if it hadn’t been for slavery in America. So I think that once I found that thread, which was the last thread I found, after finding human-trafficking stories and music and interviews, how do I wind all this together? Incredible interviews, undercover footage and stellar performances. It was when I decided to go... I have to run my thread through this whole thing. How does this issue touch me that all of these things came together and turned into a musical that has an arc? Several amazing performances didn’t make it in the film because they didn’t quite get the arc.

WW: Whose performances?

JD: Cobra Kids. This incredible performance, and it just kills me because it didn’t quite fit the arc. It was a challenge, for sure, to figure out how to spread this thing out, because to my knowledge there’s no analog to it, to have live performance footage, documentary and this underground footage.

WW: Tell me about your choice to make music such an integral part of this film.

JD: I wanted too much, as always, but I wanted you to feel that after watching a documentary -- to feel as inspired and uplifted as after a concert, because usually it’s like, fuck, this sucks. My hope was that you’d be able to get that feeling of… I may approach music differently, but when I walk away from a concert or musical performance, I want to go play music or look at art or do something human. That’s what I wanted people to feel after watching a documentary.

WW: Tell me about [former child soldier and current African hip-hop celebrity] Emanuel Jal.

JD: He’s the real deal. He’s like this artist that, he was one of the lost boys of Sudan. He walked, like, 1,000 miles to Ethiopia. What’s interesting with him, when he told us that, we set up a whole interview and the brother wasn’t talking -- he was not giving it up, and we realized that we were trying to get him to tell his story in a way that he’s not used to. He will get used to it, but the way that he chose to tell his story was through music.

WW: How did you get connected with him in the first place?

JD: I heard about him, and child soldiers is one aspect of slavery the film deals with. Someone told me about him, that he’s this rising hip-hop star in Kenya. I checked him out, and his music is legitimate. We’re not connecting him to the film just because he’s got a great story. I was talking to him at the same time I was talking to Moby, and I thought it would be kind of cool to put them together. I sent Moby a very quick e-mail: "Would you be interested in doing a duet with a former child soldier?" So he went after it. They'd never met. They met on set and worked out the song and performed it.

WW: It was a great performance. And Matisyahu's performance of "Redemption Song" was just awesome.

JD: I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep it in the film! I can’t get the Marleys to sign off on it. It kills me, because that was the last song that we filmed and it was such an incredible moment, because he had already done his songs and he was getting ready to take off, and I said, "We’ve still got some more film in the camera. Could you do 'Redemption Song?'" And he was like, "I've never done 'Redemption Song' before," and he did. It was just incredible. You never know.

WW: How did you go about selecting the voices for this film?

JD: The musicians were just kind of a careful search, and I asked just about everyone. And with the musicians that agreed to be in something, they didn’t even know what it was at the time. I’d go through their catalogs and see if I could find a song that would somehow fit as a soundtrack piece to a film like this -- not just obvious double meanings, but something that had a hook that felt soulish and would fit in a film about human trafficking. Sometimes it’d take a long time to get through to them, but eventually you’d see this e-mail or get this phone call. Any time it actually got through to the artist, it was a go.

It’s hard to get through the firewalls. You’ve got to go through back doors and do anything you can, but when you get there and get to present your case, it’s easy. I really had to kind of go to them. It looks like it’s all filmed in one place, but it’s actually filmed in, like, seven recording studios around the world. So I’d pack up the set, fly it to Austin, New York, set it up inside the studio. It’s funny, because once they’re all kind of strung out and laid out in the film, it looks completely thought through, and it definitely wasn’t that way.

It’s all music I loved. I listen to it and how excellent the performances were. When the artist got there, I’d talk to them and talk about the issue, and every one of them had done their homework. Some of them broke down crying during the performances. Which is weird, because it’s this very sterile environment with lights and crews and stuff, but some of them were really present.

As far as the people in the film, I just went to who was already talking about the issue -- some poiticos, some journalists -- and they all kind of have different ideas. They have one idea, end it, but they approach it in different ways. Some are about justice, some are about political will, some are about campaigning and raising a critical mass, some are about emotionally feeling for the kids. Everyone has kind of a different take on it, and I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the story firsthand, but also make it as broad as possible. I’ll always get someone in screenings who's like, "What about here, what about that?" And I’m like, that’s your job.

WW: Slavery is clearly a worldwide problem, but what would you say to people here in the United States who don’t believe that it affects them?

JD: I would say look in your closet and look in your cupboard and look in your driveway and you own slave-made products. It touches you every single day. Pick up half the cell phones in the world and you’re touching something that’s been tainted by slavery. We live in a world where we think that everything is ethically sourced, but we also want it cheap, and there’s no such thing. We’re not talking about fair wages. We’re talking about people who are being forced to work. They’re not given any pay for it and they’re going to be either hurt or killed if they try to walk away. And that not only happens abroad but it happens here domestically, with people being forced into service industries, sex industries, here in the United States.

Once you put the lens on, one of the analogs, touch zones, is to go from blurry to fine. How do we put a lens on and get over the idea that slavery’s not something just for our eighth-grade history books? How do we realize that it has affected our culture, but it’s affecting our economy now today? Recognize that we ourselves, as an emerging empire 150 years ago, rose on the backs of slaves. That’s a dirty part of our story as an empire, and we did something about it, and one of the most brilliant moments in our history is when our favorite President, Abraham Lincoln, stood against it and stood up for civil rights. That’s why he’s hailed as this amazing president. But we have to recognize the fact that emerging empires typically don’t pay attention to human rights, and there are emerging empires everywhere. And because of globalization, we’re benefiting off those emerging empires. So you can’t say it doesn’t touch you.

WW: Was there any footage that didn’t make it into the film that you’d like to discuss?

JD: There’s a brilliant Cold War Kids song that didn’t make it in. There is a brilliant song by the Scrolls, made up from members of Nickel Creek and Glenn Phillips -- this little L.A. group that were just getting started, and now they’re putting their record out. In the film, they do a Radiohead song, which fortunately I did get clearance for just a few days ago. Rocco DeLuca, they’ll be in the DVD and online, but they just didn’t cut. It’s painful. You can’t anticipate. Everyone told me it’s gonna hurt. It’s like pulling nails.

WW: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?

JD: I think, we’re calling it open source activism -- the idea that we create a platform and you write your own code on top of it. You make the "activism" better because of who you are and what you bring to it. I know that sounds really fluffy and platitudinal, if that’s a word, but that’s just because it’s a new idea. It may stick, it may not. I say that because this issue is global -- because it doesn’t have a category yet. It’s not immigration, it’s not prostitution, it’s not even old slavery. What is it? We’re still building a box for it in other people’s minds.

Things happen fast now. I often think how far we had to come in civil rights here in America. If that had happened during the information age or dot-com era. Would it have not happened -- gotten squelched? It’s my belief that we’re at the beginning of one of the most important human rights issues of our time. How are we going to handle it? I think the only way to handle something so complex, is to get everyone to actually participate. And I felt that before I even started making this film.

The film really is a living metaphor of that idea, because the whole film is made out of donations. Everybody donated their time. I didn’t get paid, hardly anyone else got paid. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people and groups that donated film, lights, everything. It really is a village soup, and it represents the will of people who want to see something change in this. Why can’t a movement work like that, too? Why can’t people just do what they’re good at? Why can’t activism look like that, where people just go, "I’m good at this, I’m good at that"?

Now we have a moment: What are we going to do with it? Because moments come and go. History only remembers the one that worked. We’ve put an incredible amount of energy and resources to put the film out into theaters. We had offers to go straight to DVD by large distributors, and we’re betting it all on theaters, because we want people to have an experience. I’ve seen people see this film in community. Usually people you don’t know, it’s a different energy, and that energy, that moment, is what I’m trying to capture.

That next step is we’ve built an incredible online platform at and All the money is going into small, finishable projects all around the world. Everyone gets to participate and decide where that money goes and how it works. How to get involved with our hands. We’re starting -- this is going to sound a little presumptuous. We’re starting a slave-free brand that’s much alike to fair trade or green. We’re building a definitive brand and creating a label that is inspiring them to investigate -- and clean up, if necessary -- their product chains, to validate that for this cell phone, these glasses, these shoes, slavery wasn’t used. We have to look beyond top links -- when you start going into how’d the cotton get here, raw materials, it gets real murky really quick. So we’re building the brand and the brand is going to be owned by the consumers. So we’re not giving it to the producers first. It’s total carrot and no sticks. We’re going to producers and saying, we’re going to build value and you’re going to want it. Producers will see it and say, that’s worth us investing x-amount of money to investigate our chains. That’s part of it, using our consumerism as leverage and a fulcrum.

We’re not beating up corporations, because there’s blood on all our hands. We’re just going to figure out ways to sit down and work together. You can use your consumerism as a stick, too. We’re having people do pledges online, saying I support this, whatever it is. We’re meeting with several large corporations that already want to jump in, because it’s good for them and we can make that work. I think you can pull it together, I’m not being Pollyanna about it. We’re already setting up a global consultancy, but it really is coming out of the film. That’s what’s so cool about it. When a Gap or Starbucks says, we want to do this, they’ll be able to work with this consultancy all over the world.

I just want to put the power back into the people’s hands, so that they make it happen, not just subcontract to NGOs and celebrities. We can’t wait for governments to jump in. You take it and run with it and lift it up and powerful people will jump in afterwards. The private sector can move far more quickly than the government. And I’ve met people in the government who are great about this stuff, but this needs to become an electable issue. I’m glad both candidates are talking about it. It’s clearly something that is important as a human-rights issue.

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen