From 2005 to 2009 filmmaker Jorge W. Atalla and his crew followed all the investigations of the anti-kidnapping division of the São Paulo police department. During that time there were hundreds of kidnappings in the state of São Paulo — and 1,500 for all of Brazil. Yet by 2009 the division had reduced kidnappings in São Paulo to fewer than 70 last year.
The terse and tense yet comprehensive and detailed “Sequestro” (Kidnapping) reveals the daring and dedication of the members of the division, called the DAS, and the courage of the victims and their families. The hard-won trust that the police granted Atalla has been well-rewarded.
By the time Atalla had moved back to São Paulo in 2001, having been abroad for 14 years, kidnapping had become a dangerous reality in the city’s everyday life and had spread to other South American countries. The key point that Atalla makes is that with the fall of the Soviet Union, Latin American leftist guerrillas lost financial support and turned to kidnapping for ransom money for the next 20 years. When captured they were incarcerated with common criminals, who were inspired to follow their example in pursuing lucrative extortion, often from well-off entrepreneurs.
“Sequestro” is a tremendous feat of inspired structuring and editing. It is framed with the heart-wrenching attempts of two families caught in terrifying, drawn-out negotiations to pay ransom to free their loved ones while the DAS attempts to locate the victims. Within this frame Atalla follows DAS teams at work and also interviews former victims who tell their harrowing tales.
In general the victims were not subjected to brutal physical abuse — although one woman reports the horrors of a rape — but were put through a punishing psychological ordeal and forced to live in miserable circumstances. Victims ranged in age from 6 to 82.
Amazingly, the suspenseful “Sequestro” is a film of a remarkable number of happy endings, a tribute to the well-honed skills and knowledge that the DAS has developed since its founding in 2000.
“Sequestro” (“Kidnapping”). MPAA rating: Unrated. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.