Manda Bala: A Sundance Doc Guaranteed to Freak You Out
UPDATE: It was announced Saturday evening that Manda Bala won the Grand Jury Documentary Prize, as well as the Excellence in Cinematography Award!
At the end of our interview, Jason Kohn let me know that he wants a hybrid convertible and he wants it now (are you listening, Lexus?). Ironically, it would be suicidal to drive one in Manda Bala's (Send a Bullet) Sao Paulo. Does your Brazil free association involve Carnival and boob jobs? Try bullet-proof cars and a growing specialty ear replacement surgery for kidnap victims. Instead of capoeira, imagine the rich safely flitting from rooftop to rooftop via private helicopter. Rain forest-friendly economic development? Think "sustainable" money-laundering frog farm.
Kohn's kinetic and brutal tour of decadence, wealth and corruption will appeal to a wide audience -- not just those who go out of their way to see "socially relevant" films. It will leave you spinning -- just like Kohn was as we sat a few tables away from Dakota Fanning at a restaurant-turned-press room on Main Street in Park city Tuesday afternoon. Torn in a thousand directions, on the verge of a cold, and fresh from an audience Q and A, he discussed his reasons for focusing on the powerful, and why disparity spells doom for Brazil and its ecosystems.When I first sat down with Jason, I was ready to talk about what the cottage industries sprouting up around crime in Brazil tell us about our own GDP valuation. When you're looking at a completely different cultural context, where entrepreneurs are filling needs like digit replacement, car bullet-proofing, and personal microchip implantation (so you can be traced if kidnapped), it's easy to see that not all economic growth is good growth. But Jason wasn't inclined to go that direction. He filled me in on how Manda Bala's villain, Jader Barbalho, is involved in rain forest deforestation.
Jadar, former president of the Brazilian senate and current Congressman for the state of Para, was in charge of SUDAM, a multi-billion-dollar fund intended for public works projects to stimulate the economy in the poorest regions of Brazil's interior. Through corrupt business dealings, Jader laundered billions from the fund. Warrants are out for his arrest, but Jader avoids prison by buying votes, exploiting the poor local electorate and holding on to public office year after year.
Jason tells me that Jader's associates were rumored to be involved in the murder of American nun and activist Dorthy Stang.
JK: The ideal of SUDAM was "sustainable development." There's a lot of land in the Amazon, and a lot of very poor people. It was just announced last week that [there are] plans to start logging -- instead of going in from the bottom they're going to select areas in the middle to give the chance for regrowth. It seems like a more environmentally sound way [to log], but the problem is the further you go into the Amazon the less regulation you get. There's nobody that's going to be able to watch this. Already you have problems with indigenous people in the middle of the Amazon that have never seen civilization before. What's going to happen to them? The problem really is a lack of monitoring. There's no way to enforce anything, and that's why impunity, especially in the north, runs rampant.
KS: If Jader were gone? If he were killed?
JK: Nothing would change.
KS: It struck me, watching, what do NGOs do? What do international organizations do when they're dealing with this kind of corruption?
JK: It's institutional in Brazil. It's from the inside out. So, this isn't supposed to be an activist film because I don't honestly believe... At it's grandest ambition, let's say, if it's ambition were to get Jader out of office. Let's say that even worked. What happens then? Nothing. It's not going to change anything. So, I really don't consider this an activist film. I think, you know, documentaries at their best can serve as a historical marker of where any society is at that moment. History's important, right? It's good to know what the hell's going on. So, I don't think a movie like this or simple, little changes can do anything. Brazil is a very big country -- it's the size of the continental United States. It's very, very wealthy with 160 some odd million people. Illiteracy rates are over 50%. It's a third world country with first world cities.
KS: So, the private helicopter fleet?
JK: There are more privately owned helicopters in Sao Paulo than any other city in the world, including New York and Tokyo. There are more helicopters in New York and Tokyo, but they're mostly owned by corporations. These are people who own helicopters as if they're their cars.
KS: So the super-rich just use them as a safe place to get around?
JK: Safe and convenient way, yeah. Every single building has a helicopter pad on top.
KS: They just might go from penthouse to business meeting and never really be on the ground?
JK: Like any huge global city, traffic is horrible. When traffic is horrible there's a lot of crime on the streets. In Rio there are stories of a highway where an entire sea of people descend on stopped traffic -- like hundreds of people -- and they rob every single car. It's insane. And how do you judge? These are people who are fighting for their survival. Sure, the plastic surgeon [featured in the film] was born poor and he went and paid his own tab, but to moralize and to judge is impossible. Like, the kidnapper in the movie, he's obviously a ruthless killer. He's not a good person. But at the same time, who else is helping out the people in the village? I never intended to propose answers, but I do believe that it's important to raise issues.
While Jader siphons money, the kidnapper featured does provide assistance to villagers in the form of laying road, for instance.
Among the most notorious of Jader's phony public works projects was a $9 million frog farm. The film continually returns to the mass of frogs: eating one another, piled, crammed into boxes for shipment to the States. The last shot is of tadpoles swirling down a drain.
KS: So, you use the frogs to represent the majority of Brazilian people?
JK: Poverty. It was a challenge to make a movie that has poverty as a component of the story. I think that it's a little bit patronizing for the liberal, middle-class white person to go to third world countries and stick their cameras in front of poor people.
KS: You have cred though because you have a Brazilian background.
JK: Even so, it's easy. Poor people have nothing to lose, so they're very easy to film, and I don't mean this in any condescending way. It happens to be true. And rich people are extraordinarily difficult to interview because nobody wants to talk. They're the ones with something to lose when faced with the social problems that exist in Brazil. So, the challenge was how to represent this problem without further exploiting poor, disenfranchised people who generally don't have education, don't have schools, are illiterate. Embracing poverty I never think is good. There's no greater fight in the world, I think, than ending poverty. Illustrating this point through frogs, you know, the first line in the movie is [from the frog farmer] "I would never kill a wild frog but since with these frogs it's predetermined, it doesn't bother me." It's a simple way to summarize the way a lot of rich people think about poverty in Brazil. There's nothing they can do, they're just poor.
KS: What would you most like American audiences to take away?
JK: I'd like for them to be entertained. People don't know anything about Brazil. What people know about Brazil are cliches. There's soccer, samba, women, carnival. That's a fifty-year-old idea, when Rio was really the face of Brazil. Contemporary Brazil is really based around Sao Paulo, it's the third-largest city in the world. There's more money clustered in Sao Paulo than there is in the rest of Latin America combined. We're talking a ridiculous amount of power here, but nobody knows anything about it. So, it was really exposing this other side of Brazil. I thought it was time, not just like a City of God, which was an amazing movie, it kind of looks like poverty around the world. Poverty doesn't look so different. But this was about a reality in Brazil that people don't really know about: wealth, decadence and corruption, and impunity's in there somewhere, too.
Manda Bala took five years to make, and is Kohn's first film. Screening it in Brazil is dangerous for members of his family who still reside there, but he hopes to. We'll keep you posted on US distribution.
::Manda Bala, Sundance Film Festival