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Alumni Spotlight: Jorge Atalla

Jorge Atalla received his B.A. in economics from The University of Texas in 1991, never guessing that 10 years later he would be accepting a very different accolade, that of Best Director.  His first feature length documentary, In Cane for Life (A Vide em Cana), was invited to screen at 56 film festivals and won 16 Best Documentary Awards.  His second film, Sequestro, would take him on a harrowing seven year journey into the heart of Brazil’s booming kidnapping business. 

For Jorge Atalla, the plan was always to attend university in America.  Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Atalla was already traveling abroad for summer school in New York, Scotland, and Switzerland by the age of thirteen.  Following in his father’s footsteps, a petroleum engineer who graduated from Tulsa University in Oklahoma, Atalla came to the U.S. for his bachelor’s degree in 1987.

When Atalla’s father returned home to Brazil after his time at an American university, he did so as Brazil’s first petroleum engineer.  Responsible for building the Cubatão oil refinery, one of the first oil refineries in Brazil, Atalla’s father would later move on to build his own successful business, a family controlled conglomerate of sugar, ethanol, coffee and cement industries.  Atalla came to The University of Texas knowing that his father intended him to get a degree that would prepare him to step into the family business.

Atalla says that after 20 years, he still misses his time at UT and recalls it as an era of riding his bike to class, attending football games, and making friends he has kept for more than two decades.  Though he took a few film courses at UT, Atalla focused on finding a major that would prepare him for his future in business.   “Being the eldest and only son raised in a family agri-business environment,” he explains, “it was hard for me to pursue my dream of becoming a filmmaker at the age of 18. I never even mentioned it to my father at the time.”  In economics, Atalla discovered a field that both fascinated him and satisfied his father’s expectations.  His training in economics would also help Atalla understand Brazil’s complex and, at the time, struggling economy.

After his time in Austin, Atalla traveled the world, living for a time in Spain, studying at La Sorboune in Paris, learning Japanese in Tokyo, and finally settling in Switzerland long enough to earn a master’s in business administration from Business School Lausanne.  Finally, after almost ten years abroad, Atalla returned home to work in the family business.  It was during this time, after splitting a year between work at the family’s sugar and ethanol refinery in the south of Brazil and the family’s cement business in the capital, that Atalla met and married his wife, Ecaterine.

Atalla’s wife encouraged him to pursue the love of film he’d had since he was a child, and together they moved to New York in December of 1998 to enroll Atalla in a one year intensive film program at the New York Film Academy.  His first short film, a graduation project completed a year later, won Atalla his first film award.  A few days after graduation, the inspiration for his first feature length film struck as Atalla wandered into the Angelica Theater for a screening of the Buena Vista Social Club.

As he watched that documentary “about a group of Cuban musicians once famous, but later forgotten by society,” Attalla says, “it made me remember, as a child at our sugar plantations, the hundreds of sugar cane cutters and how hard they worked, an un-documented life. I left the theatre with a fixed idea on the first film I wanted to produce and direct, went to 42nd Street Photo, purchased a camera, a microphone and 50 DVCam tapes, flew back to Brazil and started shooting.”  For the next six months, Atalla followed the sugar cane workers employed by his family’s sugar refinery business, living as a peer, an unknown with a camera recording their unseen lives.  The story captured by his time in the sugar cane fields revealed a resilient group of people, a group Attala describes as “wonderful people, with beautiful hearts and souls, with humble dreams, and with a vision of life much different from most of us.”

After the completion of In Cane for Life, Atalla went back to work at the family business, but the passionate response to the film was only beginning.  Atalla was learning to balance his business career with the whirlwind traveling schedule of an up-and-coming director when the idea for his next film materialized.  At a 2001 film festival in Miami, when Atalla heard of the kidnapping of a very famous Brazilian advertising executive, he knew that his next film would document the growing problem of kidnapping in his hometown of São Paulo.

At first, knowing that his family would not approve of his new project, Atalla began preparing for Sequestro in secret.  The violence in São Paulo had been growing steadily since Atalla left for his time at The University of Texas in 1987; by 2002, there were some 500 official kidnapping cases a year in São Paulo and an equal number of disappearances in which kidnapping was suspected.  Atalla’s first step was to obtain authorization to finance the film from the Brazilian Film Office, but from there he faced the considerably more difficult task of convincing his family and the kidnapping task force he hoped to follow to get on board with his vision.

Atalla’s vision included being embedded with the anti-kidnapping division of the São Paulo police department, a small, elite task force that did not allow film coverage of their delicate and often gruesome missions.  Knowing that access to this unit was pivotal to the story Atalla hoped to tell, he began an all-out campaign to win the confidence of the 80 men and women in the unit.  “It took a full year of daily persistence, conversations, negotiations and demonstration of trust,” Atalla admits, but finally he was allowed to begin shooting at the end of 2004.

For the next four years, Atalla began the near impossible schedule of working all day in the family business, coming home to his own family in the evenings, and shooting Sequestro in the dead of night.  During the seven years of researching, planning, and shooting the film, Attalla and his wife also welcomed three children.  Atalla remembers the years of filming as a rollercoaster ride: “Imagine working in an office from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, then going home to your small kids [who] can’t wait for their dad to arrive, and then having to leave at midnight to shoot a dangerous documentary.”

By the time the film was done, the violence he witnessed on those late night shifts with the anti-kidnapping unit had begun to traumatize Atalla.  The images he captured for Sequestro found him in his dreams, making sleep all but impossible.  By the end, though he survived what he calls a horrific emotional experience, Atalla had created a powerful work that documented both the tragedy of the crime and the heroic effort by a dedicated police force that helped bring about a drastic decrease in kidnapping in São Paulo.

Atalla says that he would not trade either experience, different though they were for the filmmaker.  “The first was a beautiful emotional ride, full of wonderful stories, dreams, where I met wonderful people,” he says. “The second was a horrific emotional experience, but both of them were exactly what I wanted to document.”  After finishing Sequestro,

Atalla was asked to direct a feature film called In the Lion’s Den about a famous 2001 kidnapping in São Paulo, and for his next project he has been invited to direct a film shot in English but set in São Paulo.

Reflecting on his path from economics student to filmmaker, Atalla contributes the education he received with teaching him the principles needed to successfully shoot, edit, and distribute his films.  A filmmaker must be prepared for the financial implications of the entire process or a project can be stalled in the editing room, unable to be completed or distributed, which happens often in the independent market.  The release of Sequestro, for instance, required special consideration as it was the only Brazilian film qualified to compete in the 2010 Oscars and the U.S. release would cost $40,000 more than the release into the Brazilian market.  As Atalla points out, there is a reason everyone calls it the “Movie Industry.”

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