Auds might feel they’ve been taken hostage during certain parts of “Sequestro (Kidnapping),” but Brazilian helmer Jorge W. Atalla’s docu is ultimately electrifying both in what it reveals and how it reveals it. Fly-on-the-wall shooting offers a tutorial on how to get inside a story, from the hostage negotiations to the arrests and rescues performed by Sao Paulo’s Anti-Kidnapping Police Division, which Atalla followed for four-plus years, through myriad crises and confrontations. A feature version is reportedly in the works, but reality provides the magic of this “Sequestro,” set to open theatrically Sept. 10 in New York and Los Angeles.
Front-loaded with graphics, data and ominous music, the docu takes a bit of time in setting up its thesis, but the wait is worthwhile: With the collapse of the USSR and a cutoff of Soviet funding to leftist groups around the world, Marxist factions in South America increasingly resorted to kidnapping to raise money. Where the Brazilian government and others went wrong was incarcerating the perpetrators together with an apolitical and ruthless prison population. Those who had seen kidnapping as a political act — or even an “art,” as one veteran leftist says — instructed their less high-minded prison mates, sometimes under duress, on the finer points of for-profit abduction.
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Kidnapping thus boomed in Sao Paulo, a city of 18 million people (and 500 kidnappings in 2000, when the anti-kidnap division was formed).
Atalla got the police department to cooperate with his film; he had to comply with their rules, which included the cops not being responsible for Atalla or his crew. The results are as intimate a look at crimefighting and resolution as one is likely to see in a docu, especially regarding the rescue of kidnap victims, with several of these moments captured live.
So are the arrests, which, as documented by Atalla’s fleet-footed cameraman, Arturo Querzoli, suggest a special episode of “Cops” as directed by Martin Scorsese. Sometimes, in fact, Atalla — and his invaluable editing team of Marcelo Moraes and Marcelo Bala — get overly baroque in their use of some already feverish crime footage. But this is balanced by Atalla’s interviews with kidnap victims, and the suggestion of the tedium that families are forced to contend with when one of their own goes missing.
Several cases are followed; the narrative throughline is the abduction of Jose Ibiapina de Souza, who was held for 33 days and whose case is updated throughout the film via the real-life phone calls made by the criminals to Ibiapina’s son, Alessandro. A kidnapper affecting a falsetto berates Alessandro Ibiapina with demands for more money than the young man can raise, threatening repeatedly to kill the father, to the great distress of his son.
Two of the film’s better moments are far less dramatic: One is an officer’s explanation of how one kidnap case was cracked — it’s standard police-procedural stuff but also offers the sort of look inside the investigate process the film could have used more of. The other moment is the very moving release of a traumatized hostage; he doesn’t seem to notice the cameras, but then, no one does: Atalla and his crew were either considered too insignificant to matter, given the high drama they were recording, or they pulled off some kind of a docu-disappearing act. Either way, the footage will ensure a captive audience.