Worldwide, some 2.4 million people are believed to be victims of human trafficking. Of those who find themselves caught in this ugly industry, most are sexually exploited women powerless to escape the world they’ve entered.
“What a wonderful gift it would be,” says David Koechner, “if it was just common knowledge that all you had to do is call one number and you’re out. Right now I would think anyone who is stuck there, [if] they call 911, they think: I’m probably going to get arrested. Not: I’m going to get taken care of.”
The 54-year-old actor, widely recognized for his roles in comedies such as The Office and Anchorman, departed from his usual on-screen persona to be in the film Priceless, in theaters this Friday. The film is a collaboration by Australian-American artists Joel and Ben Smallbone. The story centers on James (played by Joel Smallbone), a man who accepts a one-time job of driving a truck cross-country, only to discover its contents are two women being smuggled as part of a trafficking ring.
Joel is the lead singer of the Christian pop group For King & Country, performing alongside his brother, Luke Smallbone. The Australian-American duo rose to prominence in 2011 when their single “Busted Heart (Hold On To Me)” went to number three on Billboard’s Christian songs chart. The brothers were born in Sydney, Australia but later moved to Nashville, Tennessee with their family. That’s where their careers as Christian musicians would later take off.
“Australia is very post-religious,” says Joel. “But we grew up very faith-based and we feel like we’ve been the beneficiaries of that.”
Trying to reverse degrading societal attitudes toward women has been an important aspect of the band’s ethos. Luke had gotten married around the time he and his brother started performing; relationships, love, commitment, fidelity, were all things that weighed on Joel’s mind as their careers started to come together.
“We started sharing from the stage a very short, simple message charging men to be chivalrous,” Joel explains.
Priceless marks Joel’s first film collaboration with his other brother, Ben Smallbone, who directed the film. Ben had worked on a documentary about a former pimp who turned around and went on to rescue people who were being trafficked. The brothers became interested in taking on a project that combined the band’s message about respect for women with the larger phenomena of human trafficking.
“The simple question going into the film was: if a woman is priceless, if every human life is priceless, what’s the antithesis of that? Well, it’s that someone can be bought, that love can be bought, that pleasure can be bought,” says Joel. “This idea of trafficking—it’s cause and effect, it’s supply and demand. You get rid of the demand, the supply goes away, naturally. So there was a charge in the film for every man, saying: hey, who are we? Let’s love well and ask ourselves some internal questions.”
David Koechner was drawn to Priceless, not only because of the spotlight it casts on the subject of human trafficking, but also because it conveys just how trapped many of the women involved become.
“I think that’s the misconception: well, it was their choice, that’s what they want to do,” he says. “Often times it’s not. They are literally slaves sold into this lifestyle. So, if anything, if we bring awareness to that, it’s a great thing.”
Koechner, a father with three daughters, was horrified by the stories he read while researching the topic in the lead-up to shooting the film.
“If you look it up, even if you just look up sex trafficking in Los Angeles, you will be assaulted with multiple stories of what goes on in this world and it will turn your stomach,” he says. As a Los Angeles resident, he says he is pleased with initiatives like the Blue Campaign, which in late September began working in tandem with Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to specifically address the issue of human trafficking.
The Smallbones want the film not only to make people aware of the issue, but to give them a means to act.
“I remember the first time I saw Braveheart, for instance, I wanted to dress up like a Scotsman and swing a sword,” says Joel, of a movie’s power to inspire action and influence behavior. For this reason, the filmmakers wanted to include a way for viewers to engage with the film’s message. In addition to including information on how to contribute to relief at the end of the film, the Smallbones have also partnered with others to build a safe-house for individuals fleeing prostitution. There is also a hotline individuals can call to find assistance in getting out.
“There’s only so much you can do in an hour and 35 minutes—or 37 minutes, in this case,” says Joel. “So you have to just start a conversation. We hope we can start a conversation so people can take it and go in that direction.”
Priceless opens in theaters October 14.