An Environmental Thriller
“Sequestrada” is an environmental thriller about American investors building an illegal dam in the Amazon. 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 us a few statistics about the dams’ negative effect on not just the tribes but also on climate change. We meet characters who are real-life members of the Arara tribe, non-actors that are filmed in a loose, consumer-grade HD camera style. McCormick has worked on documentaries and this film feels just as well researched as any documentary. The directors use their material not for documentary purposes but the background for a dramatic thriller attempting to make the real-life issues of the film connect emotionally.
The film revolves around an ensemble of characters of different social and ethnic backgrounds as it shows the effect of the dams’ construction on everyone. Arara teen Kamodijara (Kamodijara Xipia de Ferreira) is separated from her family while on a shopping trip to Altamira, causing her father (Cristiano G. Nascimento) to worry greatly. 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 the father to believe the American representative of a firm investing in the dam, Thomas (Tim Blake Nelson), is the man who took his daughter and Roberto encourages this as an opportunity to weaken foreign interests in his government’s swindle. Thomas is taken by the father to the Arara’s land where he is strung up and tortured for something he didn’t do directly but is tangentially connected. The word “sequestrada” means “kidnapped” in Portuguese, and we immediately see the significance of the title, both in its literal meaning as well as the subtext of the larger political issue when people, land, and the environment are being taken against their will.
However, the story and characters presented blandly. Part of that is due to the clash between untrained and professional actors and the language barrier. Using untrained real-life people to play themselves means that most of the film is improvised, or least written as the film is being made on location. There is a lack of dramatic intent in every scene; most moments feel aimless even if the overall message is clear. The film feels less like a narrative film and more like a lecture.
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. Nonetheless, I recommend the film and found it interesting in parts and I realize the potential that was missed.