Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (2007)
by Jason Kohn
MANDA BALA (2007)
Manda Bala, Jason Kohn's first feature, is a strikingly beautiful and well-constructed documentary about cycles of violence and how it affects both victims and perpetrators. Filmed in Sao Paulo and banned in Brazil, the film consists of segments in which victims of kidnapping, politicians, policemen, and criminals are interviewed about crime and corruption in Brazil. Although it contains nearly surreal content, so shocking is it to discover this rampant criminal activity, its intelligent, cohesive portrayal of the situation avoids morbidity. English translators sit with interviewees, relaying in chilling detail stories that defy logic. Interviewee Christina recalls atrocities inflicted upon her by kidnappers, while footage of her miraculously talented plastic Surgeon, Dr, Juarez Avelar, shows how he helps those scarred. Mr. M, a businessman, enlists in a course about driving one's bulletproof car, while Magrinho, a masked drug trafficker, discusses the Robin Hood ideal behind kidnapping. Though no direct solutions are proposed, Manda Bala points fingers at corrupt politicians, illustrating how their greed leads to civilian poverty, and how this destitution leads to crime.
Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)
Brazil, 2006, 92 minutes
AwardsReviews Interview with Director Jason Kohn
Brazil is known for its beautiful beaches, lush rain forests, and vibrant culture. However, in recent years, the country has developed more of a reputation for corrupt politicians, kidnapping, and plastic surgery. Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) artfully connects these seemingly disparate elements and conducts a dazzling, yet harrowing, examination of the tragic domino effect that has reshaped the face of the country and created an entire industry built on corruption.
From its unlikely opening on a money-laundering frog farm, Manda Bala displays a strikingly distinctive tone. Featuring a stylish score and articulate interviews with kidnappers, kidnap victims, and the people who profit off them, as well as the paranoid people whose lives they impact, it looks and sounds more like a stylized fiction film than a heavy political doc. However, it is never glib or trivial, and always inventive and haunting. It documents Brazilian reality without falling into patronizing clichés and reveals that corruption and kidnapping represent two sides of the same violent crime: the rich steal from the poor people of Brazil, while the poor steal back some of the rich people.
First-time director Jason Kohn shows the influence of his mentor Errol Morris but bravely carves out his own unique style. Manda Bala is an ingenious documentary in the vanguard of what will hopefully be a new wave of documentary filmmaking. — Trevor Groth, Sundance Institute
* GRAND JURY PRIZE, Best Documentary, Sundance Film Festival, 2007
* EXCELLENCE IN CINEMATOGRAPHY, Sundance Film Festival, 2007
“MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET)” (2007)
by - Chad Clinton Freeman, April 2008
Starring: Jader Barbalho, Claudio Fonteles, Diniz the frog farmer, Dr. Juarez Avelar, Mr. M the entrepreneur & Magrinho the drug-trafficking bank-robbing kidnapper
Produced & Directed by Jason Kohn
Central Brazil is home to the world’s largest frog farm. I had no idea such an agricultural industry existed until I saw “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet),” the debut film from Oscar winning filmmaker Errol Morris’ protégé Jason Kohn. But after watching this brilliant documentary I now know there are a lot of weird, thriving industries that I previously had no knowledge of in the violent, politically corrupt and greatly socially-split, frog-eat-frog country of Brazil.
Kohn’s film opens with a man in a lab coat placing a thick piece of glass in front of a mannequin head. The screen then goes to very grainy black and white footage. The words “A film that cannot be shown in Brazil” appear. The black and white scene is of kidnappers and a victim. A masked man is holding a gun near a woman’s head. She is blindfolded.
“Her life is in your hands,” the male voice says in Portuguese. “You know what this is, right? She has grenades tied to her neck. We are very well armed and we are not playing. If you don’t pay, we are going to blow up your house with everybody in it, including your children and you. We are going to get this money.”
The film cuts back to the lab scene with the mannequin. A gun is fired, the bullet goes through the glass, shattering it and knocking the mannequin to the floor. The opening credits roll over skyline images from a helicopter of Sao Paulo, Brazil, a huge city of more than 20 million people. Then we meet the frog farmer Diniz, who looks like a cross between Ed O’Ross (Nikolai of “Six Feet Under”) and Brian Dennehy.
Wait… What? Yes, Kohn’s film seems a bit random at first. It also features subtitles sometimes, while other times interpreters are present and we hear a question asked in English then in Portuguese, answered in Portuguese and translated back to English. But slowly we as viewers get the hang of Kohn’s seemingly mishmash of a film. As we do, it becomes clear how this won the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Grand Jury Prize and why Morris (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.,” “The Thin Blue Line”) has called it “one of the best and most powerful films I have seen in years.” “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” is an engrossing cinematic experience that literally unfolds before us. Part dark comedy and shockumentary, and part educational and true crime documentary, Kohn’s film is like a nonfiction version of “Babel” or “Crash” that will blow you away with its subject matter. If that isn’t enough, it also has visual and audio styles galore, looking and sounding like a fiction film as opposed to a stuffy movie you’d only see at school or in an arthouse theater.
Aside from frogs, Kohn explores politics, plastic surgery, helicopters, crime and then some. The elements all appear as unrelated dots in the beginning, but by the time “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” is over; all the dots have been connected. The key is a man named Jader Barbalho, one of the most powerful politicians in Brazil. Jader has held every political position in Brazil, except president. He’s been kicked out of office, prosecuted and then elected to different positions.
While he was the head of the Brazilian senate, we learn Jader was at the center of a number of money scandals. He oversaw the Sudam Bureau of Amazonian Development, which was a government program to help start businesses in the poorest parts of the country. According to Brazil’s Attorney General Claudio Fonteles, however, Jader funneled the cash to his own companies, many of which, it seems, never even existed. He’s been accused of receiving nine million dollars from Sudam to build a $300,000 frog farm - Diniz’s frog farm. Though Kermit sang “Its Not Easy Being Green,” frog farms do appear to make laundering illegal cash quite simple. In all, nearly two billion dollars were stolen from Sudam.
So who in their right mind keeps electing Jadar - a man that is basically taking food out of the mouths of the poor? Ironically, it is those with nothing that vote him into office via bribed votes. Thus the rich gets even richer, the poor gets even poorer and the middle class completely disappears. Brazil’s divide in economics has created a huge sociological divide in the country that is basically unrepairable. The poor feel as though they are backed into a corner with no place to turn, so they lash out, using violence to get what they need from those that have it. No, Jader Barbalho isn’t to blame for each individual crime and every singular act of violence, but it’s politicians like him that created the environment that Mr. M the entrepreneur talks about in the film.
“Every stop light there is a risk of a guy with a gun appearing out of nowhere and robbing you,” Mr. M explains. “It’s just unimaginable to not have a bulletproof car in Sao Paulo city.” Yes, bulletproofing one’s car is a popular practice among those that can afford it. There are 50 or so companies that can bullet proof your car in Sao Paulo. It’s quite expensive though. Mr. M’s Porsche 911, a $135,000 car in the United States, cost him $55,000 in bulletproofing. There are even classes on how to drive your bulletproof car and avoid being kidnapped. San Paulo is also the home to the largest fleet of privately owned helicopters. Those that can afford it, take to the skies in getting around the city, so they don’t have to deal with the threat of car jackings and such.
The city’s police department does have an anti-kidnapping unit. We meet one of the detectives in the film. Straight from him, we hear how their 80-some odd detectives are just not enough. Crime is always a step ahead. One of the most telling moments is when he is showing off his own arsenal of weapons. He pulls out a gun that is illegal to own and then states “You can buy this from smugglers as you can buy nuclear weapons or cocaine.” To which Kohn asks “You can buy nuclear weapons in Brazil?” The detective hesitates and then says “I don’t know. I’ve never tried, but I guess so. With money you can buy everything.”
But money is something many in Brazil do not have. So the poor have turned to “Robin Hood” like techniques to not only get money, but to also share it among others living in slums. Selling drugs and stealing can translate to decent loot, but the real money lies in kidnapping. “When the rich steal from the poor... the poor steal the rich,” one of the film’s taglines reads. A ski-mask wearing man named Magrinho is an example of one of the individuals born into poverty that does such practices. By age nine, Margrinho had turned to a life of crime. Seven years later, he committed his first murder. Currently he kidnaps and holds individuals for ransom. “I don’t really think about it,” Margrinho says when asked about what he does. “I spend my time planning robberies to get more money. Or else we don’t survive.”
We also meet someone on the other end of the kidnapping spectrum in a woman named Patricia. She was abducted. They locked her in a room with a television on full volume, so neighbors could not hear her crying and screaming for help. The TV was the only way she knew it was night or day. “I remember when the programs were over those vertical colored lines come up on the screen and that terrible noise,” Patricia said. “So I was lucky enough to get the whole week of Alfred Hitchcock. I watched ‘The Birds’ the same day they cut my first ear. That night I dreamed that a bird had bitten my ear off. I still have the same dream today.”
Most kidnapped victims in Brazil have their ears cut off. The practice is widespread. The ears are sent back to the families and loved ones with photos, notes and videos demanding ransom. Though this is a hideous and vile crime that leaves the victims scarred physically and emotionally, the kidnappers usually get money that they can then share with those around them, so Magrinho has no remorse in what he does. Dr. Juarez Avelar also profits. Avelar is a plastic surgeon that specializes in ear reconstruction. He takes cartilage from the individual’s ribs and makes them a new ear.
It is easy to see how hopeless it can become for some and how the cycle can continue. It’s as if Brazil’s whole ecosystem is based around crime. It starts at the top with the government and trickles down to the poor. It’s completely insane. Brazil seems to be governed by Reaganomics on crack or steroids. “You either steal with a gun or a pen,” Margrinho says. “Look, how do the politicians steal? With a pen... Our politicians never look out for the poor. They only see the rich.”
There are currently companies developing microchips that Brazilians can have implanted under their skin, so they can be monitored 24 hours a day. People are actually excited about the technology and can’t wait to get “chipped.” Mr. M included. “If it was only available through one company, I’d only put one,” Mr. M said. “ As soon as the competitor came out, I would use two. Then I would feel safe in San Paulo.” Though his car is bulletproofed and he has taken a course on how to avoid being kidnapped, Mr. M will not feel safe in his own country until he is equipped with two microchips on his person. And to think many Americans feel they have it bad.
- Chad Clinton Freeman, April 2008
Manda Bala (City Light Pictures, NR)
Written by Sarah Boslaugh
Saturday, 10 November 2007
Magrinho is an economic success story: born to a poor family who migrated to São Paolo from Brazil's impoverished north, he runs a business which supports a family of ten and has created many jobs for more recent migrants. His trade: kidnapping. It's simple economics—while a young man from the Brazilian slums with no education can make a living as a bank robber or drug dealer, he can do three times as well as a kidnapper, and the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty in Brazil's cities creates ample opportunity to practice his chosen profession. That's not to dispute the brutal nature of kidnapping: the victims are often women or children, and if the ransom is slow to arrive the kidnappers may find it necessary to hack off an ear or two to send to the victim's relatives along with a videotape of the amputation process.
Magrinho is not the worst person in Manda Bala, however: he's small fry in comparison with Jadar Barbahlo, a remarkably corrupt politician who has held every elected position in Brazil except the presidency. One of the more notable scandals associated with Mr. Barbahlo was SUDAM, a multi-billion dollar development program intended to foster economic development in Amazonia. Most of the money disappeared, very little development took place and the north remains as poor as ever, resulting in a steady stream of people migrating to Brazil's large cities. Since their prospects for legitimate work are limited, this creates a perpetually refreshed labor pool for Magrinho and his competitors.
The theme of Manda Bala ("send a bullet," in Portuguese) is that everything is related. Brazil has the greatest income inequality in Latin America, and the cities of modernist skyscrapers and luxury homes for the rich are surrounded by ever-growing favelas occupied by the poor and desperate. Official corruption is encouraged by a legal system which grants sitting politicians immunity from prosecution and tolerates overt vote-buying. Concentration of media ownership aids the already-powerful: Barbahlo owns radio and television stations as well as the only daily newspaper in Belém, his center of operations. Crime also creates new business opportunities: there's a growth market in bulletproof cars and evasion-driving courses, and the kidnappers' propensity for amputations prompted plastic surgeon Dr. Juarez Avelar to develop a streamlined technique for ear reconstruction.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, Manda Bala may be the most visually creative film you will see this year. Director Jason Kohn makes his points by juxtaposition, allowing viewers to draw the connections between Magrinho and Barbalho, between grainy kidnapping tapes, footage of a surgical ear reconstruction, and helicopter shots of gleaming cities and windswept beaches which could have been created by a tourist promotion board. It's all framed by a sort of demented nature documentary about the world's largest frog farm (possibly financed by stolen SUDAM funds) whose owner assures us that while frog cannibalism does exist, it usually occurs only in times of scarcity. | Sarah Boslaugh
MANDA BALA (2007)
reviewed by SCOTT FOUNDAS
Scott Foundas has been reviewing films for Variety, where this review originally appeared, since 2000. He is also a regular contributor to Indiewire.com, where he has published a series of interviews with leading international filmmakers, including Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke.
It's a frog-eat-frog world according to Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), in which tyro helmer (first time director) Jason Kohn makes a series of scintillating connections between one of the planet's largest amphibian breeders, a Sao Paulo plastic surgeon, a fat-cat politician and a professional kidnapper, each of whom plays a role in the sprawling cycle of violence and corruption that is modern Brazil. Crammed into a lively 85-minute package delivered with loads of dark humour and cinematic flair, this worthy winner of Sundance's Grand Jury prize for documentary should post solid theatrical numbers and see even brisker ancillary biz.
The film establishes its irreverent tone right from the opening sequence in which excerpts from a grainy black-and-white ransom video are intercut with a staged sequence of a mannequin head being placed in a bulletproof glass box and shot at by an offscreen firearm. Then it's on to the frog farm, where the gregarious proprietor, Deniz, tells Kohn about his work while nimbly sidestepping repeated requests to discuss a certain ‘scandal’ in which the farm was involved. The interview (like many in the film) is shot by Kohn in a striking widescreen composition, with the Portuguese-speaking subject seated in the foreground and an English translator seated in the background, both staring directly into the camera.
Kohn spins a tangled real-life narrative in which the frogs are traced back to Jader Barbalho, a charismatic tycoon who has held every possible political office in Brazil save for the presidency. As a senator, we're told, Barbalho was in charge of administering a fund meant to foster economic growth in the Amazon and other poor regions of the country. Barbalho is alleged to have embezzled millions and set up ersatz businesses to launder the money. He avoided prosecution because of a Brazilian law exempting sitting politicians from standing trial in civilian courts.
As Kohn tries to score face time with Barbalho himself, Manda Bala hopscotches between the bustling metropolis of Sao Paulo, the capital city of Brasilia and the rural province of Para, during which time we're introduced to the Brazilian district attorney and others who have devoted their lives to trapping Barbalho.
But Barbalho is hardly all that Kohn has on his mind. A large section of the film is also given over to Brazil's thriving kidnapping trade, from a former victim who had her ears sliced off by her captors, to the brilliant physician (Dr. Juarez Avelar), who has made a cottage industry out of aural reconstruction surgeries (one of which we see onscreen in graphic detail), to the booming businesses of private helicopters and bulletproof automobiles -- requisite accessories for wealthy Brazilians.
Finally, Kohn sits down with an actual kidnapper called Magrinho, who nonchalantly compares the economics of abduction and drug-trafficking against those of robbing banks (his former pursuit) and plainly surmises that, in Brazil, "You either steal with a gun or a pen."
Though Kohn occasionally seems to cast his net a bit too widely, he ultimately draws the film's disparate story threads together by arguing that the greed of a man like Barbalho and the ‘work’ of a man like Magrinho (who ultimately seems almost like a latter-day Robin Hood) are not completely unrelated; rather that one gives rise to the other and will continue to do so until significant reforms are made to the Brazilian class and justice systems. It is a point Kohn, who is half-Brazilian, makes implicitly, never didactically. Manda Bala emerges as that rare film about the developing world that does not rub our privileged first-world noses in poverty and famine, but rather merely abides by that sage journalistic advice: "Follow the money."
In his debut feature, Kohn, who began his film career as an assistant to Errol Morris, seems to have learned much from his former employer's deadpan comic sensibility and sense of the rich visual possibilities of nonfiction filmmaking. Tech credits and production values are outstanding, owing in large part to Kohn's insistence to shoot on film -- a rarity for documentaries nowadays. Duly awarded by the Sundance jury, camerawoman Heloisa Passos' colour-saturated lensing is a particular standout, as is the razor-sharp editing of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden.