Film Review: Sequestro

Firsthand account of a São Paulo police unit that tries to deal with a rash of kidnappings.

If the bald facts about kidnapping in Brazil don't scare you, Sequestro (Portuguese for kidnapping) certainly will. Shot over a five-year period, the documentary follows members of a police Anti-Kidnapping Division (DAS) as they pursue leads, interrogate suspects, and at times break cases. Given unprecedented access by authorities, the filmmakers are steps behind the cops as they set up stakeouts, chase suspects, and either rescue victims or uncover corpses. Whether the documentary explains or simply exploits the subject is another matter.

Viewers familiar with “Cops” and similar reality-based police shows already know Sequestro's style: grainy footage from handheld camcorders, frequent jump cuts, distorted sound. Writer, director and producer Jorge W. Atalla piles on a moody, ominous score and animated graphics that detail the almost exponential increase in abductions over recent years—from four in 1986 to over 500 in 2001. Atalla estimates that only one out of every three kidnappings is reported to the police, but statistics throughout Sequestro are alarmingly fluid. Numbers of all kinds—ages, ransom amounts, prisoners, and so on—change so frequently that they are hard to trust.

Interviews show how leftists settled on kidnapping as a means of replacing sources of financing at the end of the Soviet empire. Members of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement of Chile wryly note that prison gave them an opportunity to teach common criminals better ways to plot abductions. The result was a rapid rise in both kidnappings and fatalities.

The bulk of the footage centers on actual cases, past and present. For some, Atalla and his crew are with the cops from the first ransom call to arrests. More typically, the filmmakers drop in and out of cases, responding to the chance something positive was going to happen. Anchoring the film is the case of José Ibiapina de Souza, a 66-year-old businessman who is freed after 38 days in captivity. His anguished son Alessandro and wife Maria are deeply affecting, while Rafael Lodi, the DAS agent assigned to their case, emerges as a genuine hero.

Testimony from released victims is heartrending at times, and few viewers could fail to be moved by footage of cops freeing hostages from primitive cells. But as the cases add up, Sequestro loses both focus and momentum. It's as if Atalla couldn't bear to part with his material, whether or not it added to his narrative. At the same time, he doesn't offer enough of a social or cultural setting for his events—let alone a hint of a solution.

Atalla is an impassioned filmmaker, but not a very imaginative one. Cops break through a lot of doors in Sequestro, and crooks seem to compete with each other over who can make up the flimsiest alibi. But there's almost no sense of the geography and culture of São Paulo, of how and where people live and why they turn to crime. Taken out of context, one shot of a sobbing hostage is much like another. Although Atalla surely couldn't have intended to desensitize viewers, Sequestro comes very close to exhausting them.