|Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)
2007 - Unrated - 85 Mins.
|Director: Jason Kohn
|Producer: Jason Kohn, Joey Frank, Jared Goldman, Julia DePietro
|Written By: Jason Kohn
|Review by: David Rolston
|Official Site: www.mandabala.com/
In the slow burn 2007 documentary Manda Bala (“Send a Bullet”), director Jason Kohn interweaves a number of storylines to paint a sobering portrait of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The film brings together an unlikely cast of characters: the owner of the world’s largest Frog farm; a software entrepreneur who describes in clinical detail how he was robbed in broad daylight by a bandit so brazen he stopped to rifle through the pilfered wallet on the corner of a busy intersection; Dr. Juarez Avelar, one of the world’s most esteemed plastic surgeons who pioneered an innovative technique for the reconstruction of the human ear; a young woman held for ransom, and the ousted President of the Brazilian senate -- Jader Barbalho, to name just a few of the film’s subjects. The connections are startling, fascinating and frequently disturbing.
It's a short hop from the frog farm to a scandal that would rock Brazil to its core.
Manda Bala is unflinching in its resolve to portray a city of extremes – the largest in Brazil with a population of nearly twenty million people, Sao Paolo is the financial center of the country, home to the many of Brazil’s wealthiest families who commute to penthouses via the largest fleet of helicopters in the world. And yet in its crowded slums, populated largely by transplants from the country’s impoverished northern states, criminal enterprise thrives, draining the limited resources of an overwhelmed police force which finds itself constantly on the defensive. The rich are forced to bullet proof their cars, hire security forces, and train themselves in counter terrorism measures. Sao Paolo is both the wealthiest city in Brazil, and simultaneously, the country’s kidnapping capital. In one telling scene, a kidnap victim subjected to brutal mutilation by her captors reveals a begrudging forgiveness stating that in her view, their life of poverty and ignorance excuses their basic inability to find empathy or compassion for their victims.
Director Kohn, having managed to finagle an apprenticeship with Errol Morris, stumbled upon the story at the center of Manda Bala by accident, after his father who lives in Brazil with Kohn’s Brazilian born mother, encouraged him to visit a nearby Frog farm. Kohn was captivated by the odd beauty of the place and set out to document it, but in the process heard about a scandal that tied the farm to some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians. Unclear about what story he was trying to tell, Kohn’s fondness for the work of his mentor Morris, and seminal documentarian Fredrick Wisemen, inspired him to doggedly pursue a number of different directions, until the themes of the film revealed themselves and their connections became clear. Manda Bala’s five year journey to completion and release in 2007 was difficult, given the eventual scope of the subject matter, and Kohn’s artistically bold and financially demanding decision to shoot it on film in Cinemascope.
Manda Bala presents the testimony of police and prosecutors, who describe with gallows humor their attempts to battle corruption that drained two billion dollars of money earmarked to help develop the northern regions. This story is juxtaposed against the matter of fact confessions of ski mask clad kidnapper “Magrinho” who is both criminal mastermind behind a series of abductions and a sort of Brazilian Robin Hood, if one is to take him at his word. That such a man would agree to be interviewed speaks volumes about the thinnest of blue lines in a country unable to shake off its history of corruption and ethnic hierarchy, still thoroughly dominated by the Portuguese elite who conquered and enslaved the indigenous peoples in the sixteenth century.
For those with the constitution to endure its odd mix of hypnotic and beautiful imagery, unflinching medical procedures, and heartbreaking hostage tapes, Manda Bala amply rewards with a riveting portrait of humanity that asks important questions about the human condition, and the future of Brazil as an economic force. The eclectic soundtrack of Brazilian pop songs perfectly complements, giving the story momentum while subliminally reinforcing the tension implicit in the films examination of a place that is both the definition of a modern metropolis of technical innovation, and outdated quagmire of corruption and despair. In light of Brazil’s victorious campaign to bring the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to neighboring Rio De Janeiro, Manda Bala, which won awards at Sundance and Rome, should find a newly receptive audience of people wanting to know more about Brazil of the early twentieth century. It is intellectually intriguing and at times overpoweringly visceral -- a challenging film of substance that will stay with you long after its images of swirling tadpoles fade.