The Ninth Annual Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival has begun, although it is unfortunately virtual this year. The Festival and Summit will present talks, panels, and films about whistleblowing from July 28 to August 1. You can purchase tickets to the Summit and see the more than 40 films in the Film Festival here.
Director Nick Nanton’s film Operation Triple Take takes a sometimes simplistic and self-aggrandizing look into the horrific world of child sex trafficking in Columbia. It documents the founding of a non-profit organization called Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) by Timothy Ballard, a former special agent for Homeland Security and CIA analyst. The film contains chilling hidden camera footage of real undercover interactions with child traffickers and pedophiles. The film’s content is horrifically fascinating and may open some viewers’ eyes to the massive world of primarily American sex-tourism driven child slavery. But while the film’s content and the work that OUR is doing is admirable and needs more exposure, the way the film uses the footage can be problematic. The film gives far too much screen time to interviews with rescuers rationalizing and moralizing their behavior instead of examining and explaining the vast, systematic, and fundamental economic problems that cannot be solved with a series of sting operations.
What OUR does for people all over the world is truly commendable and heroic. The footage operatives captured is totally and completely riveting, giving the film a unique perspective into the terrifying world they document. However, the film doesn’t adequately explain the good OUR does as a whole and instead spends its time heroizing the American team of operators who carry out the sting operations. Time that could have been spent on speaking with survivors and acquiring an unbiased point of view is instead spent on dramatic shots of armed white operators doing dramatic things overlaid with dramatic music. The OUR operatives seem to have stunningly little awareness for how much they come out looking like white saviors. What’s more, Nanton unapologetically paints them as such.
Documentaries have a responsibility to attempt to tell accurate, complex, and unbiased stories about the world. This film, unfortunately, settles for being more of a propaganda piece about OUR and its leaders. Significant screen time is spent on the experiences of the OUR leaders, while almost none is given to the survivors. Not a single female survivor is interviewed in the film, minor or adult. This lack of insight from the survivors is perhaps the most glaring flaw in the film. The documentary crew never interviewed the people who would be able to give the most information about the world of sex trafficking. While one adult male survivor is interviewed, his responses are so cut and pasted that it is hard to understand what he is saying.
Instead of letting the survivors speak for themselves, the OUR leaders and operators routinely put words in their mouths. After the triple sting operation when the rescued children are watching the Americans leave, Ballard’s voice recounts that one of his operators said to him: “Tim, do you hear that? That is the sound of freedom.” The Attorney general of Utah, Sean Reyes, somehow also involved in the sting operation, comes on camera to say that: “[The children] were screaming in joy, and exultation, and pure happiness. Saying thank you Americans, and we love you Americans, and God bless America.” The film provides no evidence those were the survivor’s opinions. Later, Reyes says, “I was most proud to be American that day.” It’s hard to understand what being American has to do with rescuing children from sex slavery.
There are a few moments when the film could have addressed the issue of systematic child sex slavery in Columbia, perhaps explaining how the traffickers’ networks are connected to larger criminal organizations in the country. The film shies away from contextualizing the problem, choosing to focus narrowly on OUR’s Columbian triple sting operation. The film ignores the inconvenient truth that the same trafficking will only grow back in the same areas OUR rooted it out in, just with new traffickers and new children. The documentary leaves you thinking that this is a problem OUR has fully dealt with, a potentially harmful conclusion.
I do not doubt that this film was made with good intentions. OUR leaders and operatives are doing important work and saving lives. However, this documentary comes off either as a propaganda tool for OUR, or a not well thought out documentary that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Operation Triple Take is certainly worth watching to witness some of the most shocking and horrifying footage about the sex trade I have ever seen. Still, it should be viewed with the prejudices and position of its creators in mind.