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Three years after making a name for himself with his impressive debut feature Socrates, Brazilian-American filmmaker Alexandre Moratto returns with another story examining the struggles faced by those living on the margins of society in Brazil. While Socrates — which won Moratto the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards — dealt with extreme poverty and homophobia, 7 Prisoners, premiering in Venice’s new Horizons Extra section and landing on Netflix this year, explores the horrors of modern-day enslavement, following a young boy (Socrates lead Christian Malheiros) lured from the countryside to Sao Paulo to work at a junkyard. Once there, however, he finds himself under the exploitative control of its violent owner (Rodrigo Santoro), whose brutal operation also includes human trafficking.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Moratto discussed the inspiration for the film, working with the UN for his research and why he cast a real-life victim of human trafficking in a key role.
What was the initial inspiration for 7 Prisoners?
I was in post for my first film, Socrates, and working in Brazil for three months. One night I was watching TV — it was pretty late and I couldn’t sleep — and a special came on about modern-day enslavement and human trafficking in Brazil. Within two minutes, I was like, “This is interesting.” And then when you saw some of the footage…there was one worker in San Paulo who literally had a chain on his ankle. I saw that and thought, “This is a global alpha city in the 21st century.” I just couldn’t get this scene out of my mind.”
How did you research the issue of modern-day enslavement?
I dug as deep as I possibly could. I started with an Excel spreadsheet, where I would just put in every article that I could find. There are many very prominent journalists who have actually dedicated their careers to this topic. I met one of them and had a really in-depth conversation. But as I was writing the script, I still felt like I hadn’t gone far enough. A friend of mine was actually partnering with Brazil’s Department of Labor and the UN to do a week of interviews and educational courses with people who had survived human trafficking in Brazil, and she invited me to shadow her for a week. That was the most humbling experience. And the biggest culmination of this was that one of our castmembers spent six months in a sweatshop when he immigrated to Brazil.
You cast him specifically because of his experience?
I wanted people who had survived enslavement in the film, but it’s so hard to find people who are ready to face that, emotionally. But he was very ready to tackle it, and I think it was very cathartic for him.
You also cast Christian Malheiros, your star from Socrates, in the lead again.
Yeah, I wrote the role for him — I wanted to work with him again as we had such a great collaboration in Socrates. That was his first film role. I auditioned 1,000 kids, and he beat them all out — he’s just so interesting to watch. Socrates was his big breakout. He was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award, competing with Ethan Hawke and Joaquin Phoenix. From there, he got a role in Sintonia, Netflix’s Brazilian crime drama. And that show just blew up. So he’s a big rising star in Brazil now.
At what stage did Netflix come on board 7 Prisoners?
It was pretty early on. I was developing the script, and Ramin Bahrani, who has been my mentor since I was in film school, presented it to Netflix. He was doing The White Tiger with them, put it in front of them and, lo and behold, the rest is history.
Ramin was your producer on Socrates as well. How did this collaboration start?
I was 17 and in my first year of film school at UNC of the Arts, and I found out about this internship program with Ramin. He needed somebody who spoke Spanish to go out and look for nonprofessionals for some of the Latinx roles in his third film, Goodbye Solo. I lied and told him that I spoke Spanish. But I actually learned it after a couple of months, so the lie became the truth! But I was so blown away by Ramin’s films and the stories he was telling, so I just glued on to him, and he’d give me feedback on my shorts. So when it was time for me to graduate and start working on projects, I really wanted to keep collaborating, so I’d send him my scripts. And that’s how our relationship has developed and grown over the years.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sept. 2 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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