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. SoG

    If a person is evil dont blame the religion. People use religion for their benefit. They, who do things in the name of religion whether it is be a massacre of a group who believe in something different, is wrong. No religion is superior or inferior. It is the people who define any religion. Stop ridiculing people just because they belive in something different... may it be a country which very old or a a way that people choose to live. It is your life! live your own and help others... in need! Stop the ridicule and persecution of thoughts...

    April 14, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • JJ

      People should be ridiculed and laughed at for beliving in talking snakes, that a burning bush talks to a man and gives him some commandments, that the creator of the universe impregnates a young middle eastern virgin girl, etc.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Damocles

      Yes, I will always agree that people are responsible for their actions, but I will take a stand on ignorant religious beliefs. If it is to the point that your beliefs are interferring with your ability to know right from wrong, then the belief must be held accountable at some point.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  2. SAAB

    these so called sneaky do gooders always go to India, Africa, where governments are weak, if you really believe in what you do, open up schools in middle east, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan,

    April 14, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  3. SAAB

    hey Jesus loving Christians, have you ever walked to your neighbors houses and offered their children free education? Why go halfway around the world and provide schools to them? Who is paying for those schools?

    April 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • saabs sux

      maybe because education is already free in the U.S. what a lame brain

      April 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • SAAB

      education is free my ass unless you're kidless or living in log cabin like your pal ted kaczynski, go check your property tax moron

      April 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  4. fromIndia

    Dalit Community marry very young and bear children more than they can afford without family planning. You see them in their early forties becoming grandmothers and in Sixties great grandmothers. Regardless of higher education or higher standard of living, which are a lofty ideal for someone struggling day to day, if they can plan their life, according to reality, that's a good start. In a over populated country with limited resources, and no SSN programs like in the US, people should really look-out for themselves. If religion will give them the mental stamina to take that course, instead of thoughtless decisions, I am fine with it. The problem with these foreign missionaries is they don't teach the Dalits hygiene and the concept of self-sufficiency. They import a foreign religion and end up making them as foreigners in their own country, instead of connecting to the environment they live in. The missionaries of the TWENTIETH century made millions by these schools. The early dawn of the TWENTY FIRST century, they went out of business as the middle class is opting more for corporate schools, where instruction is more towards career rather than religion. Therefore, now they target the lower classes as their audience for their schools. Hopefully, there will be more dialogue between parties, atleast

    April 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  5. praveen

    CHRISTIANS are ruling the Country – (INDIA: SONIA GANDI) and STATE – HYDERABAD, AP: YS RAJASHEKAR REDDY) from last 10,12 years.. and you guys blaming other religions for this??

    April 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • ed

      Are you living under a rock? YSR died in 2009. and he was a politician. Did what most policticians in India do...his personal faith was never visible in his governance.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Marco Polo

    Buddha said ~ "Don't blindly believe what I say. Don't believe me because others convince you of my words. Don't believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don't rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don't infer or be deceived by appearances."

    "Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion."

    "Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good."

    April 14, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Moral relativisms are the societal ambiences of temporal individualisms. We think in order to know and in knowing one progressively broadens the branches webbed psyches. God or no gods. Life without dying is still fiction. Life towards death is factual. Life after dying is but subject to philosophical generations lingering around theosophical aspirations. It is way too easy to say, "Once dead is dead". It is much harder to breech the ideologies of 'life after death'. One broods with that which they find pleasing to their mental palate. To me, 'Death's door' gives meaning to being wiped clean of one's past and given a clean slate to live anew and start over as being whatever form of Life so given by the powers that be.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  7. .

    Christ is the eternal God, Christianity is the eternal Truth, long after the last fool has been consigned to hell Christ and His true followers will be enjoying the fellowship of Holiness.

    April 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • JK

      Christianitya and Christ are not all the things you have said. Open your blind eyes
      and see the crimes these Christian Missionaries are committing all over the world.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • as always

      jk is wrong

      April 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • praveen

      Who killed innocent children in Connecticut? & Colorado..? Blame Hindu or Muslims..!!

      April 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • SAAB

      @. love to preach Jesus to others eeh!!! just take a look of what your kids have become; hiding behind dot tells me how small you are, like your Christ.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Marco Polo

      "Don't blindly believe what I say. Don't believe me because others convince you of my words. Don't believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don't rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don't infer or be deceived by appearances."

      "Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion."

      "Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good." ~ The Buddha

      April 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Broken Record

      Yeah, thanks for the comment...the whole "you will be punished for eternity for not believing in my god" thing kind of lost its affect after the 5th grade.

      April 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  8. useless

    Organized religion is organized madness. Every developed country in the world is secular and focusses on Capitalism and work-ethics. Christianity is a big hoax that has been kicked out from the West. And now spreading its evil tentacles on the gullible and poor is Third World countries.

    April 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  9. roike

    Okay everyone. This is our weekly CNN cue to bash Christianity. Yay us!!!

    April 14, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  10. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot


    April 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  11. lionlylamb

    The 'perplexities' of flimflam artistries waylay retrospectively toward crowded venerability's nuances. The Theological vespers dare dankly to aus p I c ate around hard-mindedness in retrograde psychic innuendoes. The dribbling vectors trending around and upon systemic theatrics of superfluous colloquialisms ever gathers and alas becomes lost within the old trails' histories. Capriciousness, plainly and simply dares ring the ebbs and flows of imprisoned man's ego/soul. To become born is not an equality of justice but rather a brooding chamber wherein the psychic dares dwell.

    April 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jack

      Use a thesaurus much...

      April 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • psych ward staff

      Uh oh – someone threw up their word salad again.. Clean-up on page 4 – stat.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      I'm 58 J! Too damn old to be 'theosuarizin' at such an age!

      April 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • John Kon

      Please read attrocities of christian missionaries


      April 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  12. pjstoe

    Children are being sold into slavery and people are going to make this all about their beef with religion. You have every right to be angry, bitter and even hate Christianity..... but don't get in the way of the reality of slavery in the world. You might as well be in line for the brothel the way you distract from the MAIN ISSUE here.

    April 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  14. Wow...

    Wow...it never ends....Christianity is by far the biggest lie mankind has everfostered....India is the way it is because of corruption. India predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by at least 1000 years....wow...

    I still dont understand why anyone with a 20th century education would believe such bulls hi t

    To each his own...

    April 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  15. sqeptiq

    Edith Roosevelt (Theodore's wife and a good christian woman) was wont to say of servants: "If they had our brains, they'd have our place."
    Edmund Morris "Theodore Rex" p. 450

    April 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  16. Savannah

    This Isn't India's Problem, it is Humanities problem, unless of course you are so self centered that you believe that things that don't directly affect you personally in a negative way are of no concern of yours

    April 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  17. Bob1god

    Bow down before me peasants!

    April 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  18. Dyslexic doG

    because churches are always looking to convert people to their own deluded beliefs. This is just a membership drive!

    April 14, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  19. brian

    "Anything "Christian missionary" is criminal. "

    The job of a missionary is to destroy other religions. Ask a Jew what he thinks about Christian missionaries. The Christian religion was part of the problem with slavery in this country. Some Christians actively opposed slavery but most in the South were part of the system. Even ministers owned slaves. I read in a slave narrative where a minister preached to some slave owners while their slaves stood outside in the rain. At the end of the sermon the minister said "Now you people outside, if you work hard for your masters you will go to heaven."

    April 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      April 14, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • JJ

      Christian missionaries destroy entire cultures, not just other religions and beliefs. They are a parasite that attaches itself to a host.

      April 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • iamacamera1

      What cruel nonsense you foster. The job of missionaries is to rescue people. Perhaps you would prefer to see these young children spend the rest of their lives as slaves of pompous folks like you. Maybe if you ignore them they'll go away. But then the dispossessed of the world are someone else problem.I don't see any atheist or Buddhist or Hindus trying to help these people. All I see here are fools with big mouths like yourself. You're too busy with your video games to reach out to build schools or hospitals. Just a fool and his thoughts = you.

      April 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      @iamacamera1 - when atheists help people like this they just help people ... they don't make movies about it and glorify themselves, and they don't brainwash those they help into some sort of mass delusion, voodoo bronze age cult.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • UhOk

      What utter nonsense. You blame southern Christians for slavery in the US?? It was going on long before the US was a country, the British and Dutch sold slaves to whomever would buy them. Blaming Christians for it is simply stupidity on your part. Keep drinking the kool aid...

      April 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  20. Dyslexic doG

    Christianity: a religion based on an invisible sky daddy that impregnated another mans virgin wife to recreate itself then "sacrifice" itself to itself to atone for a faulty creation it made but knew full well before hand that it's creation would be faulty.

    What a crock!

    April 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Science


      Origin of Life: Power Behind Primordial Soup Discovered


      The facts.............no gods needed !

      Does the RCC have any ? Bible thumpers too.

      Where do morals come from?

      By Kelly Murray, CNN


      Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

      Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

      Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
      bears his name as the “God particle.”


      Pope praises science, but insists God created world updated Thur October 28, 2010
      Stephen Hawking is wrong, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday – God did create the universe. The pope didn't actually mention the world-famous scientist, who argues in a book published last month that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme... \



      Heaven is 'a fairy story,' scientist Stephen Hawking says updated Tue May 17, 2011
      By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...


      April 7th, 2012

      08:32 PM ET

      The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth


      A wedge !

      April 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Bob Bales

      Christianity is a religion about a God who loved His Creation enough to sacrifice Himself to rescue them from the mess they had made through the exercise of their own free will.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • Science

      Bob Bales........................Do you have a Y ?

      Human Y Chromosome Much Older Than Previously Thought

      Mar. 4, 2013 — The discovery and analysis of an extremely rare African American Y chromosome pushes back the time of the most recent common ancestor for the Y chromosome lineage tree to 338,000 years ago. This time predates the age of the oldest known anatomically modern human fossils.


      April 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • to science and man

      source 2000 year or even more scripture written long before you were born.

      1 corinthians 18 No one should deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, he must become foolish so that he can become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, since it is written: He catches the wise in their craftiness] 20 and again, The Lord knows that the reasonings of the wise are meaningless. 21 So no one should boast in human leaders, for everything is yours—

      April 14, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Science

      It would be NICE......... but
      Maybe they should not have created the wedge !!!
      The wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Insti-tute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Insti-tute manifesto known as the Wedge Docu-ment,[1] which describes a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to defeat materialism, naturalism, evolution, and "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic


      Please watch

      The African Rift


      April 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • to science and man

      i will watch it tell me something if we are so fake why are the prophecies so real?
      Why are we so hated by many? If we offer you a pearl why do you reject it or throw
      it away? if the big bang happen tell me where did the force of action come from for them
      to collide toward one another where did those two rocks come from? where did space
      itself come from? who told the solar system and our middle start to run or program it to
      run that way? If god is so fake why do people come to you and talk to you about him? Is
      there a reason? I got god because science and god work in harmony for me and make prefect
      sense to me you'll spend a life time trying to say his false but i except him as my creator and
      creator to it all with that in mind i'll do my researches as far as god want me to go I will always keep him
      in mind. Don't waste you're time thinking and battling his fake because you'll be in a endless circle.
      read the bible I'll explain. God bless you seek him first and all things will come.

      April 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • Science

      NASA: Mars could have supported life

      Star Dust we are ?


      April 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
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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.