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.

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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. There. Are. No. Gods!

    Garbage, the great white American christian hero tries to save the world again. And succeeds! Yet there are starving and poor in America who are ignored. When will the religious wake up to the hypocrisy of their so called good deeds? Your religion and belief in gods are a sham, there are no gods and you know it!

    April 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • poopie

      Dude, shut the hell up

      April 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Lil poopie

      Yeah, dude. Shuts it.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      You really think you can talk sense to people who believe in talking plants and animals, zombies, and people made of mud? They can barely comprehend the cobbled history of their own dogma.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • JJ

      Christians have already badgered everyone is the US so they need new converts into their cult and army. They will dangle food and shelter to entice you into their web and once ensnared....will move onto other prey.

      April 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Cassarit

    Maybe they should do an article on the 200 million wage slas living right here in America.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  3. SAAB

    when churches are going to make movies on gays and lasbuans in this country? They are being treated as DALITS in America by Christian conservatives anyway; clean up your own backyard first goons.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  4. Ted

    As usual, we have a church trying to tie itself to some good deed (in this case, of exposing trafficking) to sneak in its insidious and sinister dogma, and rake in some dough to fund itself.

    And yes, non-secular organizations exist that work against the same evils, Amnesty International being one fine example. No church and no disgusting dogma required.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  5. Bryan

    This is good work by his group. India is very is a very messed up place. Not hard to see how there's still slavery considering the coolies that offered to be used as slaves in South Africa, Kenya, South America, etc after slavery ended. Plus, Indian elites don't care about their fellow Indians or building India. They are all go live in the UK or US and look down on their native land.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • SAAB

      India is a very messed up place, but not f ucked up place, people leave in peace, no suicide bombs like muslim countries or gun violence like here, look in a mirror, do you see Paul Newman? NOT.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Suneetha

      India is messed up because India don't meet the standards set by Westerners! Grow up! The largest democracy with second largest population, where dialect changes every 1000 miles. Has Neighbours like Pakistan and China! whats your yardstick???

      April 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Darwin

    JESUS never said a word against slavery. His disciples never condemned slavery. Christians for 1800 years bought, sold, and abused slaves. For 200 years, before the Civil War, THOUSANDS of Southern preachers stood up at pulpits every Sunday and told their congregation how the BIBLE APPROVES OF SLAVERY, and that Black people are only a bit above mon keys in intelligence. The bottom line is, GOD has had more than 5000 years to eliminate slavery from our world, which he could do with a single snap of his omnipotent fingers. I'm waiting.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Harry

      Jesus actually said that slaves should be the best slaves they could be for their masters, even if the master is cruel. I guess that means the girl has to be the best prostitute she can be so as to obey Jesus.

      The Bible: too much bad advice to be divine.

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

      Right on, Darwin. I'm waiting too.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  7. JATT Punjabi

    Christians we don't want your religion!

    Go take it to Africa or somewhere where they are willing to convert!

    April 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • Bryan

      Considering how dumb Hinduism is, Christianity would be a step up from cow worshipping. Plus, hopefully they'll teach you how to shower and use deodorant.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  8. JATT Punjabi

    Church, Christians GET OUT OF INDIA!!

    Stop trying to convert!

    April 14, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • lobo


      April 14, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • JJ

      Christians stealing slaves from others and re-enslaving them into their cult.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Blake Harllee

      Yeah! Stop trying to educate and support the incredibly impoverished! Are you kidding?

      April 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • JohnKon

      100%agreed we need through out of this world these organized criminals.

      Yes this is a propaganda to convert more DALITS into christian crusaders.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • jonny

      if it wasn't in the scriptures we wouldn't, but Jesus our lord and savior told us to do it read it it's there mark 16:15, mattew 28:19-20 god bless you and don't be blind see the truth and the purpose of why you're here. This life isn't the only life.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  9. tony

    Physics changes our poor understanding of things

    April 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  10. joshua

    see video called kakamega revival on youtube and you will see real christianity.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  11. tony

    Religious groups always pick sympathetic subjects to hold collections for.

    If the churches in the US united to get the 9th commandment legally enforced against politicians running for office, we'd really be getting somewhere.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • jim

      Have you always been a pos ?

      April 14, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  12. panorain

    Granted the Catholic Church provided most of the schools and academies to the Western World for the past 2,000 years. However they also destroyed the Greek Academies, Pagan Cults and Gladiator Schools in the process. Similarly they also saved the Greek manuscripts of Plato, Socrates, Homer blah blah blah. But why shouldn't they. And why should modern atheists have to appreciate that? Oh... and the Church also collected alms, fed the poor, providing moral ethics and education all around. But so what! Did you know the Church told Galaleo to shut up? Yes they did. And do you know what he told them right before he died? "How can we dance when our world is turning? How can we sleep when our beds are burning?"

    April 14, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • lobo

      There was a time when the intelligent, literate people were the religious leaders and it made sense for the uneducated illiterate masses to follow them. The problem is they never advanced more than the bronze age and the world has moved on.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  13. factoidlover

    I commend the spotlight on slavery. It is evil personified. Whether a person sells a child into to slavery or sells his/her morality to celestial dictator willing to "break to make useful," slavery is an evil we should fight.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • janemutiny

      Beautiful. Thank you.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  14. Denise Modlin

    I think I would like to see this movie. It sounds like it would be a very heartfelt one . Even if I havent seen it I think everone of us should.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  15. joshua

    For one to reach true to believe about God and Jesus you must put religion and government aside worldwide and grab a Bible read John and you will see why. it is all about a relationship with Jesus Espiritual and real not religion as God hates religion isaiah 1. if you read this isaiah 26:19 & 1 thesalonian 4:13-15 & daniel 12:1-6 and habbacuk 3 & isaiah 24 and joel 2 you will see God will destroy earth and has Sent his Son that whoever believes in Him relationship with Him in Holiness hebrew 12:14 than will have the opportunity of entering eternity and everything will be restored the way it was at the beginning before adam and eve sinned. Than suffering and all type of evil will be abolished forever and no more suffering. seek a true relationship with Jesus that is true christianity and many will wished not to be born because they using the name of Jesus for personal greed and causing suffering to others. prophet dr owour is calling all churches and priest and governments to repentance because time is over. so please seek God with your heart and dont generalize christianity. God bless.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • JohnKon

      As Gandhi once said 'You chritians are so unlike Jesus'. It is true and why don't make film on the attrocities church and cristianity commited all over the world. Killing innocenet, raping ,slavery, stealing lands. Wow ! what a religion with double standard. THERE NEEDS TO BE GLOBAL FIGHT AGAINST THESE CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES who engaged in forceful conversions.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Seyedibar

      You religion is fiction and has been widely disproven using physics, geology, biology, etymology, psychology, anthropology, and archaeology. There is nothing left in the bible worth worshiping.

      April 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  16. timelord7202


    The Bible, in the passages that don't condone slavery, support it – but the whole book is meant to keep its readers "in their place". Why else would it say that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven? To placate and appease – the writers probably realized there may be no such place and the goal to religion is to exploit emotional responses, to the benefit of those who created the texts.

    If everybody was conscientious of everyone else, we would see crime drop faster than what would happen in any police- or military-ran state.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  17. robjh1

    The movie looks good and with a powerful message. So far away to find and learn of a message of hope. A message of hope for all at home and abroad.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • timelord7202

      Forget hope – which is playing with emotional strings.

      Without action, any dream or hope is pointless.

      April 14, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  18. tony

    Your collection plate coordinator is sending his monthly report from the Bahamas office.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  19. Donnie the Lion

    This is an area where churches can make a positive difference......I am not a deeply religious person, but I commend them for their efforts.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • timelord7202

      So do I, despite my clinical responses. Slavery is horrible, whether in direct form or in an obfuscated form... what's the value we place on work, again? And what types of work?

      April 14, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  20. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn told me she'll be your "prayer coordinator" for free, so hey, lemme know.

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

      LOL upset much over what u don't believe in haha!!!

      April 14, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Austin

      Is that really necessary? Coming from a guy named "MagicPanties" no less....

      April 14, 2013 at 11:50 am |
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About this blog

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.