'Not Today' is a church's filmmaking debut
When a film's credits list "prayer coordinator" before the hair/makeup and wardrobe teams, you might guess it is a faith-based production.
"Not Today," which premieres on 50 screens in 20 U.S. cities this weekend, was not funded by Hollywood investors but with $1.6 million from the collection plate at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California.
The idea began during a trip to India where the church began building schools for the Dalit class -- considered the lowest in India's caste system -- in 2002. It's a project that fits Friends Church's Quaker tradition, said Creative Arts Pastor Brent Martz. President Richard Nixon's parents worshipped at the church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.
"Our hearts were totally ripped open for the Dalit people," Martz said. Social rules and poverty make their children vulnerable to human-trafficking in labor and sex.
Instead of a typical church fundraiser -- perhaps a bake sale -- Friends Church's leadership proposed a feature film shot on location on two sides of the globe and with a powerful message about the $32 billion world slave trade. Film profits will go toward the $20 million needed to build 200 schools for Dalit children.
"Media is the language of our culture, so what better way to communicate a story of a huge global tragedy like human trafficking than with a film," Martz said. "What better way to motivate a church audience that can sometimes be sheltered and not want to walk into situations or topics like human trafficking but with a story, a story that they can hear, that they would understand, that would compel them to get involved."
The story is also about the power of faith and prayer in changing lives. More than coincidentally, making the movie changed the lives of those involved.
The cast includes veteran Hollywood actors, including John Schneider (TV's "Dukes of Hazard"), Cody Longo (Nickelodeon's "Hollywood Heights") and Cassie Scerbo (ABC Family's "Make It or Break It").
But the most memorable performance comes from Persis Karen, who played Annika, a 7-year-old girl sold into slavery in Hyderabad, India.
Like her character, Persis is in the Dalit class. But unlike Annika, she attends one of the 40 Friends Church schools. Until she was chosen for the role, Persis had never seen a movie or left her village, Martz said. "She grew from day to day during the shoot."
Persis, whose big brown eyes proved to be a powerful cinematic force, won the award for best breakout performance by an actress at the Monaco Charity Film Festival in 2012. She now aspires to be an actress.
Longo called her "my little angel."
Annika's story is not unusual. She and her father live on the streets of Hyderabad trying to survive by entertaining tourists with a ragged puppet and her songs. Her survival seems uncertain when they cross paths with Cade Welles, the 20-year-old played by Longo. He drives an orange Lamborghini back in Southern California but travels with friends to party in India.
But Welles' partying is interrupted by the reality of the Dalits' suffering and the horrors of the slave trade.
"Get a job, feed your own kid," Welles tells Annika's father when he asked for help for the starving child.
But back home, Welles' mother is praying "that God would get ahold of him and shake him up" during his trip. The power of her prayer is seen as Welles' eyes eventually open to Annika's suffering. He begins praying that he can find the child again so he can help her. He finds the father, only to learn he just sold his daughter.
"What kind of man buys a child," he said. "What kind of father sells his daughter?"
Her father said he had no other choice, and he believed Annika was on her way to work in a rich household, not a brothel in Mumbai.
When he calls home to his girlfriend, played by Cassie Scerbo, she tells him "You have to trust in God. Sometimes we have to be broken to be useful."
The rest of the film is a frantic search through the slums of several cities for Annika, punctuated by intense prayers and frustration.
John Schneider plays Welles' stepfather who is there to provide the crucial advice and help needed at the end. "I do believe that God will make a better way," he said.
"What makes this film so special is there's so much truth in it," said Longo. "The fact that we shot in the actual slums and actual brothels that had been raided before created this truth."
The lack of millions of dollars to build soundstage sets forced the production into the streets of India's slums for 21 days of shooting but guaranteed authenticity.
It also mean that Longo experienced the same thing his character did -- traveling to India and being shocked by its reality.
"It changed my life," he said. "It took me from the bubble we live in. We become accustomed to this little bubble and nobody realizes until we get the opportunity to see what is going on elsewhere in the world."
The movie was shot in August and September of 2010, when "I was struggling at that point in my life a little bit with my faith and which direction to go," Longo said. "I feel like God placed this in my life at the perfect time and he's also releasing it at an incredible time and at the perfect place."
That's where the film's prayer coordinator comes in.
"For us at the church, having people praying from the very beginning of this project and even up to today and this opening weekend has been a huge part of it," Martz said. "We believe that God led us into making this film and He's ultimately responsible for it, and so every bit of this journey has been covered through this prayer team, and they've been so faithful to pray for all us during the writing and during the production and during the post-production and now during the marketing and PR."
God is not listed as an executive producer in the closing credits, but perhaps he should be.
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