by writer/director Alexandre Moratto
It was 2017 in São Paulo, Brazil when I decided to turn the TV on.
What I saw jolted me awake. It was the footage of a young man chained to a metal door, locked up in a dirty factory, forced to work for no pay. He was a victim of modern-day enslavement and human trafficking. I couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, in a global Alpha city like São Paulo, enslavement still existed.
I started reading every article and book on the topic and shadowed journalists who cover human trafficking. I met with over 60 survivors—immigrants and refugees, rural workers, and people from Brazil’s lowest-income communities who came to the city for better opportunities.
That’s when it became personal for me. For four years, I worked in partnership with a UNICEF-supported institute in Brazil that helps young people from São Paulo’s lowest-income communities. These young people acted in and produced my first film Socrates, including my co-writer, Thayná Mantesso, my lead actor, Christian Malheiros, and their families. I told Christian and Thayná what I was working on and they immediately agreed to come on board in what would be our second collaboration.
Next, I went to my mentor, Ramin Bahrani, who was making The White Tiger for Netflix, which deals with similar themes. He presented 7 Prisoners to Netflix and green-lit it. We needed a partner in Brazil, and we brought the project to Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God, whose company O2 was the distributor behind my first film. He came on board and we immediately began casting. We made sure to include people who actually survived modern-day enslavement. They spent time with the rest of the cast to share stories and ensure everything was treated with respect and authenticity.
There was only one big piece of the puzzle missing: who would play Luca, the man who enslaves them? The first person who came to mind is an actor I grew up watching—Rodrigo Santoro, the great Brazilian actor who also became a Hollywood regular, playing major roles in 300, Love Actually, “Lost” and “Westworld.” But it was his work in films like A Translator, for which he learned Russian, and Carandiru, in which he plays a trans sex worker, that made me want to work with him. I knew he could play this role because once he gets in character, he stays in it until the end, giving 150% of his commitment.
It was not an easy film to make, as we faced the worst floods in São Paulo’s history and the early days of a mysterious and fatal disease that came to be known as COVID-19. It was also difficult because what is shown on the screen is all too real—enslavement affects 40 million people in the world, and without knowing it, the clothes we wear, the phones we hold, and the power lines that connect us might all have been made by enslaved hands.
I hope that this film speaks to you. I hope you will see it in the theater, because even though I love streaming, nothing can replicate the enormous power of the big screen. So thank you to Netflix and Landmark for the commitment and courage to project this film.
Posted November 5, 2021