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Church gets more drama than it bargained for in film
First time actress Persis Karen plays Annika in the movie 'Not Today.'
April 13th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Church gets more drama than it bargained for in film

By Alan Duke, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) - 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.

Still, the church couldn't avoid the controversies that seem routine in Hollywood productions — including a lawsuit over pay.

The idea for the film 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 worshiped 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.

Why a church would make a movie

"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."

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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 John Schneider (TV's "Dukes of Hazard"), Cody Longo (Nickelodeon's "Hollywood Heights") and Cassie Scerbo (ABC Family's "Make It or Break It").

The 7-year-old sex slave

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.

CNN Belief: The new Christian abolition movement

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.

A real change for the actors

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," Longo said. "The fact that we shot in the actual slums and actual brothels that had been raided before created this truth."

Cinematographer Abe Martinez and Director Jon Van Dyke review the footage in Hyderabad, India.

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 meant 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.”

A split and a lawsuit

As the movie opened this weekend a lawsuit about the production and compensation was making its way through the courts. The film's director, Jon Van Dyke, filed a federal lawsuit alleging fraud by church leaders who he claims cheated him out of his pay.

In his lawsuit Van Dyke tells of internal bickering, cheating and outright fraud.

Director Jon Van Dyke and Persis Karen review steady cam footage – Mumbai, India.

Van Dyke was director of the Friends Church media department when he wrote the screenplay, but his boss, Creative Arts Pastor Brent Martz (you met him earlier in this story) threatened to fire him if he didn't give him 50% co-writer credit, the lawsuit said. "He had not made any copyrightable (or other substantive) contributions to the screenplay," it said.

The suit also contends Van Dyke has never been paid for directing the movie, a job he did while still the church's media director. He spent 10 weeks in India where most of the movie was shot on location. The suit demands either overtime pay or a share of the film's profits.

The profits are intended to fund hundreds of schools for the Dalit caste in India, according to Martz. Van Dyke's lawsuit claims the budget was "significantly inflated to include numerous illegitimate and improper expenses" in an effort to dilute profits.

When Van Dyke raised these concerns last August, "he was unceremoniously terminated," the suit said.

An attorney for the church responded to the suit in a statement to CNN.

"While we understand that members of the church body will have disagreements, I can say that we are sad that Jon chose to file a lawsuit," Friends' lawyer John Cone said.

"Friends Church offered Jon both mediation and binding arbitration to address his concerns. Jon and the church also signed an agreement in which they consented to resolve any disputes between them through binding arbitration. Nevertheless, we have faith in the judicial process. And if that is where this matter is resolved then we are confident that the court will make a fair and wise decision,” the statement said.

End Result

There is no doubt despite the lawsuit, the actors and crew - including Van Dyke and Martz - put a lot of hard work into the passion project.

As a film, it wanders into familiar territory other faith-based films find themselves in. Critics will likely call the film “preachy.”

And that is because it is. And that in many ways is the point.

The film carries a powerful message about the global slave trade and has a call to action for viewers to help fight it. The cast, script and production style should appeal to young adults looking for direction in their lives.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories,

While the suit carries on and viewers settle in for a healthy dose of “activismtainment” the church will be in prayer. 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."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: California • Christianity • Church • Courts • Movies • United States

soundoff (391 Responses)
  1. A Conversation

    Reading these posts is like living in the twilight zone. The Christian churches fighting slavery are fighting slavery because it is wrong–not be because it wants money from the people they are helping to set free–does anyone actually believe that third-world, uneducated chilren are going to be able to contribute financialy to the Christian chruch once they are freed? If you believe that, and I tell you this as as loving a person as I can be, your are morons. I'm talking to you Churchslave.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Suneetha

      Yes, definitely not for money. But can church guarantee that they will not end up converting Hindus read 'Dalits' into Christianity? Church can still work on betterment of people of 'other' religions.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Srinivas

      The main issue is poverty. Any action to address this should be welcomed. But how converting the religion solves their poverty. After the initial euphoria and generous freebies were over, the people continue to be as poor as they were before conversion. In addition, they succeeded in destabilizing the area as the people who got converted and those who didn't start fighting over religion. You were wrong about money. They may not be making money in India, but in the name of conversion they are collecting huge amount of charitable money in US and running a whose enterprise. This movie is part of that enterprise.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  2. Alicia

    It looks like a touching movie... and I shall go watch it 🙂

    April 14, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Alicia's Mom

      Now Alicia, what have I told you about touching yourself it the movies?

      April 14, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  3. Mopedo

    White people who took advantage of native people(native Americans) hospitality and stole their lands and distributed the land which was not theirs amongst the white people and then almost made the native americans extinct and converted the rest to the terrible religion called Chrsitainity. Then they used free slave labor from Africa to work on their land and made huge profits exporting cheap stuff to Europeans. Note all this was done with the full approval of the church which said that this Christain God wanted black people to be sub humans. They even converted the slaves to this terrible religion called Christianity. This is just America, Christains from Europe also exploited the colonies like India and made them extraordinarily poor. In every society the root of all problems is poverty, most of the social evils like selling kids, exploitation of the lower classes and caste system are not easy to solve without exterminating poverty. Christainity did not spread among slaves of america, or people of latin america or even Europe by prayer or peacefully. It was thru force starting from the times of the Romans who converted Europeans who had only one choice death or conversion. It is funny to see Christains who have commited so much evil try to act like they feel sorry for Dalits. If u truly do, renounce ur terrible religion and do it for the true love of Dalits. Ur jesus is dead and nobody has seen that fool in a long time.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • A Conversation

      So what are you doing about slavery? Do you doubt it exists? Or do you just like to complain about the motives of people who are helping?

      April 14, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Just sayin....

      You seem to lump together the entire religion's history with every current Christian. I am not a Christian, nor am I even religious, but it is terrible logic to say that because people associated with the same religion did evil in the past that current Christian's cannot try to help others. Shouldn't modern Christians want to help even more, given their religion's sordid past? Shoudn't we even expect more of them? You seem to use this article as an excuse to blast Christianity. While you may have a couple valid points, you cannot discount the work these people are trying to do completely, just because they are Christian. We are not responsible for our ancestors, we can only do the good we can right now. We do need to acknowledge our past – that is legitimate – but you cannot stereotype an entire religion. Some would call that racism, which you seem to expound against at length in your post.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Dude

      Hey Mopedo,

      Not too sure about your history here but the movie is made by a Friends church, AKA, a Quaker church. Quakers were known for their fair treatment of Indians when most were taking advantage of them. They also were against slavery before it was ever a major issue in America. Quakers were part of the beginning of freeing the slaves in England right before Wilberforce came on the scene. Quakers uphold the value of Peace, desiring to help those who are enslaved. You can wiki all this if you are interested in it. Its public info.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  4. Peter

    Yes money is at the heart of it. Without money the story cannot be told. Without money there is no outrage. Without the lack of money there is no justice.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Che

      yeah....and those limo's ain't free either

      April 14, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  5. Seyedibar

    I'm sure it will turn out like all Christian art/film/music: cliche, illogical, devoid of honest emotion, and painful to experience.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  6. Jessica

    I'm looking forward to seeing this film, and I hope it will motivate people to help put a stop to slavery in the world today.

    At the same time, how unsurprising that CNN would find a way to highlight the negative here. If it has to do with the Christian faith, you can count on CNN to be at least somewhat critical, skeptical, or disrespectful.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • pig in a poke

      If it wasn't for the "negative" there wouldn't be a story, CNN isn't in the business of advocating for or advertising in their news stories.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  7. John Kon

    Chriatianity and church are most henous orgnanized criminals on the planet. These guys only aim is convert other religions cultures into papal loyals. Christian thugs engaged in moste terrible crimes in US during slavery and kiilled native indians. They committed all these crimes and goes to INDIA and perpetrates that HINDUISM is doing oppression against DALITS.This is outrageous double standard. Look at the GOP and their christian thugs that are doing non-coopreation to the President.

    We need a global fight against these cowards engaged in forceful conversions in the name of charity.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • A Conversation

      So how many slaves do you own (since you seem to be in contrast to those trying to stop it)?

      April 14, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Dude

      John Kon,

      I responded to another guy above who brought up similar issues. Read below:

      Not too sure about your history here but the movie is made by a Friends church, AKA, a Quaker church. Quakers were known for their fair treatment of Indians when most were taking advantage of them. They also were against slavery before it was ever a major issue in America. Quakers did not own slaves. Quakers were part of the beginning of freeing the slaves in England right before Wilberforce came on the scene. Quakers uphold the value of Peace, desiring to help those who are enslaved. You can wiki all this if you are interested in it. Its public info.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  8. Saul

    Love for money is the root of all evil. The bankers are responsible for most of our problems. Just study the history of the banks and they are behing all the evil in the world. The Rothchild family financed and cause lots of wars and they financed both sides. We are slaves of the Federal Reserve banks which are not Federal and are not a reserve. They are just private banks exploring the nation.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Seyedibar

      Hold it. Saul's singlehandedly uncovered a vast conspiracy: that rich people get their way.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • A Conversation

      @Seyedibar...best post of the day!

      April 14, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  9. tony

    Now I'm wondering if tax-exempt businesses like churches, have to publish anything?

    April 14, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • the government

      Yes give me some more money so I can waste it. Why let more of it be in the hands of any private citiczen?

      April 14, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  10. tony

    Nothing to stop the church publishing a full public disclosure of the expenses it paid.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  11. ChurchSlave

    Yes – The Church needs to expand its flock (..... slaves ...) and so it supposedly emancipates slaves. Evangelical Christianity, Jehadi Islam and Communism are all slave traders – they pick your pockets, leash your mind, steal your soul and ultimately make you an automaton. Church and emancipation is a sick joke.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  12. AtheistSteve

    Critics will find the film "preachy"...Ya think?
    And what exactly did the production crew prayer committee contribute to the overall film? What part of making the movie couldn't have been accomplished without their assisitance?

    April 14, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Edwin

      The movie is not specifically about human slavery, but about how God moves people to do good. In that sense, the movie is about prayer.

      I agree that a movie simply about human trafficking would have been more compelling to a general audience, but the church had a different movie in mind. This is what they wanted – their artistic vision. If it does not suit your needs, don't watch it.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Loves God...

      @Athestist Steve....when you pray to the Creator of the Universe who has everything in his control it can obviously change things. There is a very REAL fight being waged between good and evil everyday. Evidence of this in our world in ever increasing measure- war, children being exploited, crime, etc. and it is getting worse daily. I will pray for you to know the truth and to be saved as well. Do you want to die believing there is no god and find out after death there is? God is very real and when you have a relationship with him and pray you experience the changes that only He can give. Please reference John 3:16 and Romans 8:28 on the online Bible.
      I will pray for all involved in the film's making as well as these children and country.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • tony

      More people have prayed for guns to be banned in the US than pray for the 2nd Amendment. Let's just check and see how prayer is doing on that score.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • tony

      Your collection plate coordinator is sending his monthly report from the churches private corporate cruise ship.
      (that's actually the case for scientology – simlalr for mormonism and catholocism – e.g SS Vatican 🙂

      April 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    April 14, 2013 at 7:45 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      April 15, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie!

      April 15, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  14. lil Annika

    I am now in a catholic nunnery and have become the favorite of the muther superior and all the rest of them are not allowed to touch me.

    April 14, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • ..

      Quakers aren't catholic you moron.

      April 14, 2013 at 8:23 am |
  15. Bob1god

    What? I thought I new everything!

    April 14, 2013 at 2:57 am |
    • self shock

      I no!

      April 14, 2013 at 3:05 am |
  16. Mikage

    Brilliantly written.

    April 14, 2013 at 1:56 am |
    • self shock

      Mikage, who are you working for? What is this about?

      April 14, 2013 at 2:56 am |
  17. SAAB

    Bad news for the churches, those days of converting Dalits to christians in developing countries are over.

    April 13, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
    • pig in a poke

      I don't think conversion is the intention of the movie.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  18. dukea

    Cello, I carefully did not put a spoiler in my story. But you can expect a satisfying ending when you see the film.

    April 13, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  19. Leah

    Our hearts go out to the Dalits as we read this. How can we help these little children?

    April 13, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Christian Dork

      Leah, pray for them. Pray hard. Is the very least you can possibly do and they will love you for it.

      April 13, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Julie

      Leah if you go to the film's website NotTodaytheMovie.com you can click on the tab at the top of the site that says "resources" and it will take you to various ways you can help, and several partner organizations who are working to stop human trafficking.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  20. Cello

    Looks like a great movie about the power of faith and prayer.

    April 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • Cello

      What happened to lil Annika? Is she rescued?

      April 13, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Christian Dork

      Cello, please pray for Annika. Pray so much it make you bleed from the ears. That is what God needs in order to help. Prayers from you.

      April 13, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • dukea

      Cello, I carefully did not put a spoiler in my story. But you can expect a satisfying ending when you see the film.

      April 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.