By Nelie Diverlus
Power: a tool often yielded to uphold exploitative systems. When power is placed in the hands of human trafficking victim Mateus in 7 Prisoners, he sells out his comrades in order to build a sustainable life for his mother. 7 Prisoners challenges us to extend beyond our ambiguous perceptions of good vs. evil and to seek out the humanity in each character’s fight for survival.
“7 Prisoners challenges us to extend beyond our ambiguous perceptions of good vs. evil and to seek out the humanity in each character’s fight for survival.”
Set in São Paulo, Brazil, this film centres around a cohort of impressionable men hoping to find work. They are conned into a façade of a workplace, of which they believe will aid them in creating a sustainable life for themselves and their families. Instead, they are met with the brutal reality of a cruel junkyard, in which they must exploit their work for pay, as well as the ensured protection of their loved ones. Protagonist Mateus uses this as an opportunity to progress past his comrades and secure money to send back to his unwell mother. Through this story of vicious manipulation, this film brilliantly teaches us about oppressive systems, and how they rely on sacrifice to preserve its power.
Mateus clearly serves as an example of the conflict between wanting to do what is right or using exploitative methods of rising to the top. When faced with the difficult decision of choosing between comradery, or his mother. While this is a choice that no one should ever have to make, one can understand how systems of power always know how to go after the most vulnerable. Luca represents the larger system at hand – a system of unwilling sacrifice, betrayal and overall cruelty.
Director Alexandre Moratto cleverly centres the horrors of human trafficking in this enticing thriller. Diving into his Brazilian heritage, Moratto once again places this nation at the centre of this story (his other Brazilian work being his first feature film, Socrates). Through his exploration of his heritage through filmmaking, Muratto marvellously introduces us to Brazilian cinema – a world of films rarely ever discussed in North America.
The film’s pace is rather quick, considering the high stakes. The main use of a handheld camera establishes a sense of urgency within an already tension-filled film. The handheld camera also gives us the illusion that the film is always in motion – due to the need to escape this prison-adjacent system and provide for their loved ones keeps all of the captured victims in constant motion. Through the thick tension, our senses remain engaged, holding on for hope that all of the victims are able to escape this oppressive, brutal system.
"The main use of a handheld camera establishes a sense of urgency within an already tension-filled film.”
The brown and yellow hues excellently highlight race and how it is a disproportionate factor of the victims’ treatment. Luca is notably white or white-passing, as well as the people we see him surrounded by, and the choice to capture young Black and Brown men heavily reinstates the racial undertones around human trafficking.
“The choice to capture young Black and Brown men heavily reinstates the racial undertones surrounding human trafficking.”
Although the story is rather heavy to observe, 7 Prisoners remains worth highlighting. This film innovatively tells the often-neglected stories of human trafficking amongst Black and Brown men, informing us of systems in place to threaten their livelihood. Through themes of betrayal and power, this film also serves us a harsh truth; oppressive systems thrive on the existence of exploitation.
Editor’s Note: 7 Prisoners screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘21, as part of the TIFF DOCS programme.