Sequestrada: A New Film by a Temple University Press author Sabrina McCormick

This week in North Philly Notes, Sabrina McCormick, author of Mobilizing Science, promotes the Sequestrada, the film she co-wrote and co-directed with Soopum Sohn, about the devastation of the Brazilian Amazon. Based in part on her research about the anti-dam movement in Brazil—the subject of Mobilizing ScienceSequestrada stars Tim Blake Nelson and Gretchen Mol. The film opens November 15 at the Village East Cinema in New York, followed by a VOD Release on Tuesday, December 17.

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Synopsis:

Sequestrada follows Kamodjara and her father, Cristiano, members of the Arara, an Amazonian indigenous tribe. When they leave their reservation to protest a dam that will displace their people, Kamodjara is separated from her family and kidnapped by traffickers.

Roberto, an indigenous agency bureaucrat overseeing a report that could change everything, is under pressure to support the dam’s construction. Thomas, an American investor in the dam, makes his way to Brazil to sway Roberto’s opinion. The film tells the story of how these three lives intertwine against a backdrop of geopolitics and environmental disaster.

Sequestrada was shot on location in Brazil and is based on the real-life event of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which is displacing the Arara—who have lived along the Amazon River for countless generations. The film, which had its world premiere at the Beijing Film Festival last April, deftly incorporates the experiences of local non-professional actors to tell a gripping local story of global consequences.

Artist’s Statement:

Sabrina had been doing research in Brazil for fifteen years and had made her first documentary about people displaced by large dams. She had received funding to go to the Amazon where the world’s third largest dam was being built and contested by indigenous groups who were illegally affected. We mapped out a plot. Sabrina had worked with organizations contesting dams for a long time and we planned to meet with a few of them based near Belo Monte to find out more of what the past thirty years had been like, beginning with Sting protesting the dam and a Kayapo woman slashing a government official in 1984.

Then we left for Altamira, ourselves. The last plane to the Amazon was full of men. Sabrina and a flight attendant were the only women. The men were all workers going to the Belo Monte Dam. When it landed in Altamira and the doors opened, we felt the sauna of the Amazon.

Altamira is a small town where indigenous tribes visit to buy flip flops, t-shirts, and supermarket junk food. We approached a group that we learned were Arara. We spent about three days to see if they wanted to be on camera. Then the whole Arara tribe disappeared. They re-appeared with a huge bag of live turtles. They invited Sabrina to sit in the local indigenous housing and eat a turtle they had just cooked. Then they started to open up. We learned they have a system where a chief (cacique) decides everything, so we mainly tried to speak to him. He was a quiet, young man. Later, we found he had only been cacique for one year. There was another man with thick glasses, who had been watching us. We talked to him. It turned out that he had been the chief for many years before this young man.

When he decided we were not dangerous, he stopped being a quiet man. We created a character for him so he could speak about the Arara tribe and the Belo Monte dam. The last day of the shoot, he asked Soopum if he could try his hat. He wore Soopum’s hat and was silent for long time, smiling. He seemed proud and happy. But it was Soopum’s only hat and the Equator sun made Soopum’s black hair so hot, that he really needed the hat. Sabrina didn’t want to give up her hat, either. Soopum politely asked for the hat back. He and tribe members thanked us making this film. We hugged the Arara and parted ways.

Sabrina guided the storyline exploring how government corruption undergirded the illegal construction of massive infrastructure, damaging lives and releasing methane from the degradation of flora and fauna. Soopum added fictional plot lines with traditional film language under given location and situations. Together, they captured true moments with the actors when they were living normally. We wrote together based on footage and the tribe members writing with us such that each character’s life and the fictional plot became interwoven. We constructed scenes with them, explaining where we thought the storyline was going and recording their reactions, modifying the plot with their perspectives and lines from their personal experiences.

With that approach, we fused real and imagined worlds in multiple layers, the real effects the dam has on climate change and the lives of indigenous people who live nearby, along with a narrative of imagined characters who reflect the stories of how Belo Monte came to be what it is today.

About Sabrina McCormick’s book, Mobilizing Science

Moblizing Science sm compMobilizing Science theoretically and empirically explores the rise of a new kind of social movement—one that attempts to empower citizens through the use of expert scientific research. Sabrina McCormick advances theories of social movements, development, and science and technology studies by examining how these fields intersect in cases around the globe.

McCormick grounds her argument in two very different case studies: the anti-dam movement in Brazil and the environmental breast cancer prevention movement in the U.S. These, and many other cases, show that the scientization of society, where expert knowledge is inculcated in multiple institutions and lay people are marginalized, give rise to these new types of movements. While activists who consequently engage in science often instigate new methods that result in new findings and scientific tools, these movements still often fail due to superficial participatory institutions and tightly knit corporate/government relationships.

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