If Sequestrada were a documentary, it might be a success. Onscreen titles explain the plight of Brazil’s indigenous tribes, who have been displaced by the construction of river dams since at least 1989. Writers/directors Sabrina McCormick and Soopum Sohn give a few statistics regarding these dams’ negative effect on not just the tribes but also on climate change. The movie ends with a URL to visit to support the tribes’ protests and action against Brazil’s government. It features characters who are real-life members of the Arara tribe, non-actors that McCormick and Sohn shoot in a loose, consumer-grade HD camera style. McCormick has worked on documentaries like 2014’s The Years of Living Dangerously series, and the film feels just as well researched as any doc. The problem is, McCormick and Sohn use their material not for documentary purposes but as background for a dramatic thriller, an approach that admirably tries to make the real-life issues of the film connect emotionally, but ultimately fails.
That’s a shame, because the movie does have a decent story to work with. Sequestrada revolves around an ensemble of characters of different social and ethnic backgrounds, making a point of showing the effect of the dams’ construction on all walks of life. Arara teen Kamodijara (Kamodijara Xipia de Ferreira) is separated from her family while on a shopping trip to Altamira, sending her Father (Cristiano G. Nascimento) into a frenzy. After Kamodijara is trafficked to a madam, she’s sold to a local member of the government organization FUNAI, Roberto (Marcelo Olinto).
A series of circumstances causes Father to believe the American representative of a firm investing in the dam, Thomas (Tim Blake Nelson), is the man who took his daughter, a belief that Roberto encourages, seeing it as his opportunity to weaken foreign interests in his government’s swindle. Thomas is taken by Father to the Arara’s land, strung up and tortured for something he didn’t do directly but is tangentially connected to. Sequestrada means “kidnapped” in Portuguese, and the significance of that title is fairly obvious, both in its literal meaning as well as the subtext of the larger political issue—people, land, and the environment are being taken against their will.
The film’s plot has the makings of a decent thriller, and it’s clear that McCormick and Sohn are aiming to stand alongside films like Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) or Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005). Those movies pair their political messages with fictional plots that are propulsive, dramatic, and emotional, using genre tropes to bolster their characters. Sequestrada is devoid of all of these elements, its story and characters presented in the blandest possible way. Part of that is undoubtedly the clash between untrained and professional actors, as the contrast between, for instance, Nascimento’s and Nelson’s performances is night and day. The language barrier doesn’t help, either, with some characters uncomfortably speaking broken English and their Portuguese being awkwardly translated into subtitles, as if through an algorithm. Using untrained real-life people to play themselves means that most of the film is clearly improvised, or at least written on the fly on location. This causes a lack of dramatic intent in every scene, leaving most moments feeling aimless even if the overall message is clear.
McCormick and Sohn have extensive backgrounds in the academic world, and that’s likely why Sequestrada feels less like a narrative film and more like a soulless lecture. The movie begins with some documentary footage of the Arara tribe and their daily life, and it’s the most engaging part of the film. The directors keep the frank and unobtrusive shooting style of this brief section for the rest of the movie, resulting in an overall bland look that, when combined with the clearly fictional scenes, becomes distancing. The score by Marco Antonio Guimares doesn’t help any, sounding too reminiscent of the muzak scores that used to accompany educational movies shown in classrooms. The usage of Max Richter’s stirring “On The Nature of Daylight” at the end of the movie feels like a cheap ploy for sentiment, and is so unearned it feels more like temp score than a dramatic choice.
There’s nuance to the characters and situations that the directors won’t or can’t explore, leaving things like Roberto’s possible pedophilia in kidnapping Kamodijara a bizarre, uncomfortably unresolved element. Even a great actor like Nelson (who is also a producer on the film) is left adrift, delivering lines like “Oh no, the mosquitos!” that land as unintentionally hilarious. Unlike the great political thrillers, Sequestrada does a disservice to its subject by presenting it with all the emotion of a PowerPoint presentation. Perhaps visiting the URL link at the end of the film would be a more rousing way to learn about the issues.