TIFF 2021: Alexandre Moratto tells the brutal story of human trafficking, enslavement in Netflix's '7 Prisoners'

Brazilian-American filmmaker Alexandre Moratto brought his poignant, compelling and heartbreaking film 7 Prisoners to the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which shines a light on modern-day human trafficking and enslavement (releasing on Netflix later this year).

The conception for this story started when Moratto turned on the TV one evening, while doing post-production for his brilliant 2018 film Socrates in São Paulo, and saw a special about human trafficking and modern day enslavement in Brazil.

“I was really shocked because I saw some footage of people actually, literally chained, they had chains to their ankles,” Moratto told Yahoo Canada. “This is an alpha city in the 21st century, it's the city that my family's from and I've lived there several times growing up and over the years, and for work, and I couldn't believe what I saw.”

From that moment, the filmmaker completely dove into the topic, learning as much as he could as he developed the story of 7 Prisoners. This included a “humbling” experience for Moratto when he actually spoke to people who had survived human trafficking.

“I read a lot of articles, I spoke with some journalists who had covered the topic and had been on actual labour raids,” he said.

“A friend of mine had partnered with the UN [United Nations] and Brazil's department of labour to interview people who had survived human trafficking. She invited me to shadow her for a week, so I was able to speak with and meet with people one-on-one, face-to-face and hear their stories.”

Christian Malheiros and Rodrigo Santoro in.
Christian Malheiros and Rodrigo Santoro in. "7 Prisoners" (Courtesy of TIFF)

The lead character Mateus, played by Christian Malheiros, is among a group of young men who believe they are going to São Paulo for work, Mateus planning to use the money he earns to provide for his family. They end up in a junkyard where they are actually working to pay off their “debts” before they can be freed of this nightmare controlled by the corrupt, menacing Luca, played by Rodrigo Santoro (300, Westworld).

Malheiros was also the lead of Moratto’s film Socrates, the first movie role for the actor, and the filmmaker wrote the script with him in mind.

“He's so good, so talented, charismatic and interesting to watch, and also just a really nice person, born and raised in the neighbourhoods where we shot that film, and so it felt like the right decision to work with him again,” Moratto said.

“It was so exciting because for his first film, he was the first and still only Brazilian to ever get a Spirit Award nomination, and he's 18 and competing with Joaquin Phoenix and Ethan Hawke.”

The marriage of Malheiros' and iconic actor Santoro as Luca that draws you into the story and these characters, with so much emotion and strength in their performances.

Moratto grew up watching Santoro and ultimately, the filmmaker has always wanted to work with him.

“I always just thought he had so much depth and a range of roles,” the Moratto said. “He can play the heartthrob leading man, we know very well, he can also play a trans sex worker like he does in Carandiru.”

“He stayed in character the entire time...and I didn't realize how fully he was in character until the wrap party because he dropped his voice several octaves, for several months, and I didn't notice.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 13: Alexandre Moratto attends Netflix's
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 13: Alexandre Moratto attends Netflix's "7 Prisoners" Toronto International Film Festival red carpet at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Ryan Emberley/Getty Images for Netflix)

Creating a 'sense of imprisonment'

In 7 Prisoners, as these young men are stuck to the confines of the junkyard and Luca’s control, Moratto is able to make the audience feel trapped themselves, creating a visually claustrophobic space.

“The film mostly takes place in one location, about 70 per cent is in the junkyard,...my production designer actually built it from the ground up because you can't shoot in a live location, they're constructing and separating metal, and that's too much noise,” the filmmaker explained.

“They would put up some fences and we would sometimes have that covering the camera, and just give it different layers,...even in the foreground or in the background, to create that sense of imprisonment.”

Additionally, the film plays with a series of tones with lighting to evoke a really dynamic, but also quite dark atmosphere, which contributes to that feeling of “being trapped.”

Moratto definitely understands how to build tension with his characters as the audience walks through this battle of power in a story that is painfully realistic.