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Movie review: Gripping ‘Operation Toussaint’ shows Tim Ballard’s real-life battle against sex trafficking
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A scene from the documentary "Operation Toussaint," which follows the work of Tim Ballard and the organization he founded, Operation Underground Railroad. - photo by Provided by Operation Underground Railroad

OPERATION TOUSSAINT — 3½ stars — Tim Ballard, Katherine Ballard, Glenn Beck, Tony Robbins; not rated; in select Megaplex Theatres

“Operation Toussaint” is alternately heartbreaking, terrifying and inspiring. While never graphic or explicit, it will be difficult for many audiences to handle, sensitive or not. Yet an argument to watch Nick Nanton’s documentary is one of those rare occasions when convincing yourself to see a challenging film is not just an act of rationalization.

“Operation Toussaint” follows the efforts of Tim Ballard’s Operation Underground Railroad to crack down on child sex trafficking. Alongside a narrative that tracks a specific January 2018 operation in the Petion-Ville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, “Operation Toussaint” offers a background and overview of Ballard and his organization.

After a quick prologue sets up the Haitian operation, Nanton’s film backtracks to Utah, where Ballard gives a presentation to local media and Haitian government representatives. This transitions into a profile on Ballard himself, where we learn about how years in Homeland Security eventually transitioned into work on human trafficking cases.

For a time, Ballard was stationed near the Mexico border in his dream job, tracking terrorist activity and making use of his bilingual background. He and his wife met the offer to work against child trafficking with hesitation, but ultimately decided it was the right path to take. After a time, though, Ballard decided to set out on his own, concluding that his efforts would be more effective by working directly with the governments of the countries harboring the trafficking rings. Thus Operation Underground Railroad was born.

Part of Ballard’s rationale is that when he worked in Homeland Security, he would run up against issues when a case went outside U.S. jurisdiction. But a more sobering rationale comes from the fact that U.S. consumers make up so much of the market for child pornography, and in one of the more poignant passages of the film, Ballard profiles abusers — typified by recent high-profile examples like convicted gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle — explaining how experimentation with more mainstream pornography can escalate all the way to actual trafficking.

Elsewhere, we get bits and pieces of numerous moving stories, such as the two children Ballard went on to adopt after a rescue operation, as well as the story of a young boy named Gardy who still remains at large seven years after being kidnapped from a church in Haiti.

The subject matter is gripping enough on its own, building to the Port-au-Prince operation as a capstone, but Nanton assembles an engrossing and expert production from footage taken both during operations and behind the scenes, paired with testimonials from high-profile supporters like Glenn Beck and motivational guru Tony Robbins. Again, the unrated “Operation Toussaint” is never visually graphic or overtly explicit (its scattered profanity is bleeped out), but its discussions are nonetheless horrifying to consider, such as one scene where perpetrators brag about their conquests in front of a hidden camera.

The final product is alternately heartbreaking and uplifting, and even the film’s successes are tempered against the sense that the greater problem is still far from being quelled. Ultimately, “Operation Toussaint” feels more like a promotional film than a strictly traditional documentary, but it’s hard to argue with its message. This is a film that will stick with you.

"Operation Toussaint" is not rated; running time: 108 minutes.

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