You've Got Bad Partners
In São Paulo, kidnapping is an established business—lucrative and hectic. From 2005 through 2009, a film crew followed the police department’s anti-kidnapping division, riding along to locate captivity houses, listening in on phone calls, observing horrified victims, level-headed inspectors, and busted criminals. The cases are similar—someone is snatched, ransom is demanded, cops demonstrate their hard-earned expertise. But throughout Jorge W. Atalla’s Sequestro (Kidnapping), it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next.
Established in 2001,the Divisão Anti-Sequestro (DAS) is populated by officers who look alternately dedicated and exhausted. They’ve seen too many cases that turned out badly, but still, they expect to track down offenders and recover victims. The kidnappings evince no patterns, save for desperation: most of the perpetrators are poor, in pursuit of money to live on (one here asks for just $300 U.S.). Victims’ relatives take phone calls, demand proof of life, try to hang onto their fast-fading sense of coherence. For, the film suggests, the overriding effect of kidnapping is loss—of confidence, security, and logic—for individuals, families, and communities.
A timeline slides over the screen early in the film, with headlines and daunting numbers indicating the evolution of the industry (here deemed “Kidnapping, International”), the increasing numbers of people taken, ransoms paid paid, days in captivity. At first, the practice was overtly “political,” in the sense that guerrillas were looking to finance rebellions. But it appears that Brazil’s effort to repress the business in 2001, by putting the politically inclined offenders in prison alongside “common criminals,” led directly to a boom, as the common criminals learned how to commit kidnappings, and even started passing around how-to manuals. It wasn’t long before the numbers of cases surged, and the DAS became necessary.
The film’s focus on loss is rendered in numbers (during the four years of the film’s production, a title card tells you, 376 people were kidnapped in the state, and over 15,000 in nation), but also in vividly emotional displays. Recovered victims appear in interview frames, their backgrounds blank and their faces shadowed, some still visibly distraught as they recount their ordeals. But recordings of phone conversations are immediate and harrowing, sounding over black screens, voices pitched high and words grinding together. When the son of one victim cries that he can’t raise the amount of money requires, the kidnapper yells, “You’ll get your father back in pieces, you son of a bitch!” A cop adds, “Keep calm, trust us.” The relationships developed during each crisis—sometimes going on for weeks or months, sometimes done with, one way or another, quickly—are intense, difficult, and dramatic.
A former member of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement of Chile (MIR) convicted in the 1989 kidnapping of Brazilian mogul Abilio Diniz, Raimundo Roselio describes his thinking. Seated inside a cage, he explains, “Kidnapping is a kind of crime that defies the logic of pressure. There can be no pressure.” This seems right for the criminal with a sense of mission, whose ideal state is utter control—or the appearance of same. Now, however, the criminals seem less organized (several are picked up at home, roused in their underwear): they rely on hysteria and panic.
Moreover, the victims are always susceptible to pressure. Alessandro, son of the kidnapped José Ibiapina, seems the very embodiment of pressure, worrying and crying out. “You need to be strong,” says the officer. “It’s not wrong to get emotional,” he adds, “Sometimes it’s good. In fact, it can be detrimental to be too cold.” Alessandro’s face suggests he’s not quite ready to calculate a performance.
DAS inspector Rafael Correa Lodi, on the other hand, is adept, changing his tone and affect depending on each situation. Gentle with victims, cajoling or aggressive with criminals, he’s quick to adjust. “Outside,” he tells one offender whose associates remain at large, “You’re an animal. You get a gun and become an animal. Now you’re jerking me around, because your word is worth crap. That’s your problem: you’ve got bad partners.” The captured lawbreaker agrees, “These guys are sons of bitches.” Lodi’s made an inroad, maybe. And, he insists, “I want my victim freed.”
This attitude, that the cases belong to particular cops, helps to structure the film. While Officer Carlos Castigliani cautions, “You have to know how to separate the cop from the man and the friend of the family because you end up getting too involved,” the cops’ investments are visible throughout. The film invites you to feel along with them, the camera running along behind them in dark alleys and corridors (as in Cops) and a sentimental score accompanying the rescue of some victims. Still, some cases don’t end well: one of the interviewed victims describes her rape and her permanent dis-ease: “I can’t understand what goes on in the mind of a rapist,” she says, “More than violence, it’s subjugation, it destroys a person’s fabric. You feel guilty for having pleasured someone.” And a kidnapper remembers that “his” victim was killed. Though her ransom was paid, he says, “She saw me when I abducted her, she died, strangled in a chokehold,” as if he had no part in the murder.
The film frames these individual traumas with an insistent political and social critique. The industry is a function of poverty and hopelessness, the victims vulnerable and diverse. As Sequestro argues, solutions, like the problem, must be systemic.