If you're going to send a bullet, Judge William Lee thinks you should send it with flowers.
When the rich steal from the poor…the poor steal the rich.
What is the connection between a corrupt politician, a frog farm, and plastic surgery? Their relationship might be flimsy but first-time director Jason Kohn puts in an earnest effort to make the case in the documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). Featuring a fascinating collection of interview subjects and shot in an arresting visual style, it is a thrilling and mesmerizing look at a dark side of sunny Brazil.
Facts of the Case
Known for its beautiful beaches, lush rain forests, and vibrant culture, Brazil is also a nation rife with corruption. In Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million people, the divide between filthy rich and filthy poor is perfectly illustrated by crowded hillside slums situated next to skyscrapers topped with helicopter pads. The movie introduces us to a variety of people who would fit the archetypical roles in a standard crime movie: criminals, cops, victims and lawyers. Manda Bala has guns, car chases, helicopters and ransom demands, but these stories are the real thing.
The first person we meet in this tangled web is Diniz, the hardy-looking frog farmer. An innovator of the industry, Diniz has a warm, friendly personality as he talks about his successful farming operation. But the interview comes to an awkward pause when he is asked about the recent political scandal linked to his farm. At the other end of the scandal is Jader Barbalho, a successful politician who has held every elected office in the country except president. He is accused of embezzling $2 billion from a government program meant to develop the poverty-stricken northern regions of Brazil. Diniz's farm was started with a $300,000 grant—a fraction of the $9 million that was supposedly earmarked for it. Despite evidence of the theft, Barbalho continues to live as a respected figure of Brazilian high society.
If the country's highest public servants can get away with theft on a grand scale, what must life be like for its regular citizens? In parallel with the story of government corruption, Manda Bala shows us a dark side of life on the city streets where kidnapping has become an industry of its own. We meet Patricia, who survived a kidnapping ordeal but had her ear cut off, and "Mr. M," an understandably paranoid businessman who has spent $55,000 to bulletproof his sports car. Bulletproofing is just one example of the security services thriving in Brazil. Another profitable off-shoot industry is plastic surgery, where Dr. Avelar has built a career and a reputation with his technique in ear reconstruction. Some of the other people we meet are the anti-kidnapping detectives, who seem like characters straight out of an action movie, and the prosecutors trying to nail Barbalho for his crimes.
The most striking quality of Jason Kohn's documentary is its visual style. Shot mostly on film, Manda Bala looks more like a conventional movie than the typical documentary. Credit must be given to cinematographer Heloisa Passos for the consistent, high-quality look of the picture. From the talking head interviews to the close-ups of frog pens, every shot possesses an inherent dramatic beauty. It is a shame that this movie, winner of the documentary and cinematography awards at Sundance in 2007, did not receive a wider theatrical release. The filmmakers have infused their work with a cinematic quality and it must have looked great on the theater screen. Luckily for us, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of this DVD preserves the wonderful visual energy of the movie.
The close observation of frog behavior and the workings of the farm reminded me of the Errol Morris film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (where the camera lovingly captured the beauty of others' obsessions). There is something beautifully soothing about watching the thousands of frogs in their holding pens (even if they are prone to cannibalism). IMDb credits Kohn as a researcher on The Fog of War so it makes sense that the veteran documentary filmmaker's influence is so apparent here. The deliberate framing of interview subjects with their translators in the background is directly borrowed from Morris.
The interview subjects have a natural ease about them that speaks to the level of trust they had with the filmmakers. Patricia recounts a horrible event in her life with a brave, matter-of-fact plainness. Mr. M's coolness just barely hides the fear he lives with after being the victim of too many robberies. In addition to the accounts of victimization, we also hear from stubborn individuals who continue to fight the good fight. And there is plenty of room for dark humor, too. Perhaps most amusing is Jamil, the head of an anti-kidnapping police unit. When he shows off his gun collection it seems like this character is just a bit too good to be true. But the entire movie has a slightly surreal quality to it. Sao Paulo begins to resemble that dystopian super-city of futuristic movies where crime is out of control. Indeed, the wealthy elite live high above the streets and get around by helicopter to ensure their safety.
Kohn displays a sure hand at storytelling with this debut effort. The pacing is good and he knows how to provide enough information without overwhelming the viewer. The embezzlement scheme could have been a complicated maze of details but in a few scenes it is presented clearly enough. There are seven deleted scenes included as supplements on this DVD and each sequence is beautifully shot, concisely edited and interesting. Their omission from the main feature, which runs at a brisk 85 minutes, says something about Kohn's confident direction and the expert precision of his editors.
The widescreen photography is well presented on this DVD with colors that are warm and nicely saturated. Deviations in picture quality are due to existing footage (kidnappers' ransom videos) sourced on videotape. But it's actually a relief that the picture in those scenes are of poorer quality. The lively soundtrack, filled with moody Brazilian pop music of the 1960s and 70s, is a pleasure to hear. Alternating between the music and the interviews, the mostly uncomplicated sound mix makes adequate use of the surround sound presentation.
The audio commentary with Kohn and producers Joey Frank and Jared Goldman is as fast and fascinating as the main feature. They talk continuously about the production, which took five years to complete. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes about how they acquired funding, found their interviewees and managed the logistics of shooting in unfriendly locations. It is also interesting to hear the director explain the specific look he wanted. The trio acknowledges the many crew members whose extra efforts were invaluable to the production. Kohn's father is specially singled out for his contributions: he put the crew in touch with some of the interview subjects and helped them find their cinematographer. What comes across in the commentary is that this was a truly collaborative effort by people who felt strongly about seeing it done right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A small quibble I have with this disc is the partial English subtitling that initially left me believing the subtitles were not working at all. I eventually figured out that the selective subtitling was only done for non-English dialogue. So the subtitles will often accompany a line in Spanish or Portuguese. But just as often, if an interviewee has an interpreter, there are no subtitles and we must wait to hear the translation. A few times the interpreter or another English speaker talks too softly or quickly and those lines are lost without consistent subtitles.
Not quite a journalistic documentary, Manda Bala has more of an impressionistic quality about it. If there isn't a hard link between the frog farm and Brazil's explosion of kidnappings, it does feel like they are of the same social environment. Widespread political corruption and the breakdown of social safety seem to go hand in hand. It won't do much for Brazilian tourism but it is hard to look away from this movie. With its superb visuals, brisk pacing and exciting soundtrack, this is an engrossing documentary. It is a strong debut effort from tenacious director Jason Kohn who brings a slightly abstract, but thoroughly entertaining, sensibility to documentaries.
The filmmakers, their friends and their dads are cleared of all charges and free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: City Lights Media
• Audio Commentary with Director and Producers
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