You’re sitting in your living room when the call comes. It’s a crackle, then a bright tone, then a recorded voice asking if you’ll accept the charges. You agree, and instantly the other end explodes with an angry rasp yelling at you about money and your loved one’s life. If you don’t follow through with the amount they want, they’ll cut off another body part.
This is the startling opening to Sequestro, a documentary getting its hands dirty in the big business of disappearances in Brazil. Following the special police force assigned to the epidemic and delivering the heart-shaking details of the families dealing with a father, a mother, a brother, a sister who is in the hands of kidnappers, the film is an insightful look at something nightmarish that exists in everyday life in South America.
Director Jorge Wolney Atalla has two tones flowing smoothly through his third film. One comes naturally, and the other comes from the social expectations of the viewer. The imagery on screen is treated with the utmost objective care, with the dry nature that any documentary subject demands. The compelling nature of forced extortion and the great fear induced by it stands on its own, so while the film feels clinical, it also feels horrifying.
Letting the subject matter speak for itself shows the restraint Atalla and company displayed in order to bring a calm voice to a sensitive topic. In doing so, the film follows a few key figures: a family whose father has been taken and who cannot even think to pay the exorbitant amount requested, a policeman who is close to retirement, and the unit dedicated to driving out kidnappers and getting them behind bars. There are some triumphs. There are some failures. Both are bolstered by the talking-head commentary of actual kidnapping victims speaking about their personal experiences – the kind of stories that expose the cruelty inherent in the act alongside the banality of what sitting in darkness on Day 46 of your capture must feel like. Some subjects are still so afraid of the system that they speak anonymously and others speak matter-of-factly about being shoved into a car, blindfolded and forced to speak to a family member from the dark end of a telephone.
The strange thing about the film is that no single figure emerges as the most interesting. In fact, the only true constant of the film is the sweetly robotic voice of the collect phone call recording, a presence which acts like the theme song of a horror icon – alerting the audience to another excruciating moment.
If there is a flaw in the documentary, it’s that the intimacy of it makes it difficult to understand the scope of the problem. On the one hand, it feels like life in Sao Paolo must be a constant stream of people getting stuffed into trunks, and on the other, it doesn’t give a very clear idea of how large the problem truly is. It’s oddly deficient in creating a context for how this really effects the day-to-day life. There’s a slick infographic opening that shows the fall of Soviet Russia (and the subsequent lack of funding for Leftist groups in the region) leading to a rise in kidnapping as fundraiser, but even the startling figures don’t really create the frame that the picture needs to sit in to be completely successful.
That being said, the film is an unrelenting yet logical conversation that upsets and refuses to rest on triumphs or tragedies. Some kidnappers are brought to justice, some victims are recovered unharmed, but in the end, that barely registers in the face of the epidemic. At the end of the day, it’s the audience that is left on the other end of the phone waiting to find out if their father or mother or brother or sister has been killed and how much money the gruff voice is demanding this time.
The Upside: A compelling subject given careful consideration; a difficult story told with open eyes.
The Downside: A certain lack of context that doesn’t wholly take away from the story being told.
On the Side: During the four years of filming, close to 1,500 people were kidnapped in Brazil. For even more surprising context, that number would be somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 for the same time in the United States depending on which source is used. The kidnapping problem is not a world away.