Saturday, March 24, 2007

MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET)—The Center For Latin American Studies Q&A With Director Jason Kohn

I went to Berkeley yesterday evening fully intending to catch a PFA screening of SFIAAFF's The Great Happiness Space: Tale Of An Osaka Love Thief and became distracted by boisterous posters announcing a free screening of Jason Kohn's Manda Bala (Send A Bullet) sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies promising the director in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards. Rationalizing that I could catch a screener of The Great Happiness Space, I crossed the campus to the Andersen Auditorium in the Haas School of Business to take advantage of this rare, welcome opportunity.

Manda Bala, you might recall, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Dave Hudson scooped up the immediate critical reactions for The Greencine Daily, where David D'Arcy likewise dispatched on the film, forecasting that the documentary's visual flair will earn Jason Kohn much attention. So it appears. Though I was the first person to arrive at the Andersen Auditorium, affording me the chance to converse with the CLAS AV guy while he was setting up, and though he was a bit concerned that attendance would be slim due to it being the first day of Spring Break, by the time the lights went down every single seat in the auditorium was filled; an amazing response to basically a word-of-mouth event.

In his Variety review of Manda Bala, Scott Foundas can't resist using the hook that it's a "frog eat frog world" (can you blame him?) and echoes D'Arcy's praise for the doc's "dark humor and cinematic flair" and adds: "Duly awarded by the Sundance jury, camerawoman Heloisa Passos' color-saturated lensing is a particular standout, as is the razor-sharp editing of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden."

Alex Billington nicknames the doc "a Brazilian Fahrenheit 9/11" at First Showing.Net and applauds its well-made, powerful theatricality. "Now I never want to go to Brazil for fear of being kidnapped or even being caught up in the incredibly corrupt political system," he admits. He's not confident, however, that the film on its own merits will attract audiences because of the disturbing content of its subject matter.

Though admittedly disturbing and not for the squeamish, I disagree with Billington's dismissal. This is a documentary that needs to be seen. Perhaps not so much as a story that "has to be told" as a metaphor that deserves contemplation. Protégé to Errol Morris, Kohn relays that Morris says the film is important not because it is about Brazil, but because it is about America in five years, which is to say it's a stern warning about the consequences of unjust distribution of wealth; a problem which Americans in power are gleefully ignoring (as if the remaining American populace are so many tadpoles down the drain). As skillfully as Kohn hopscotches between his seemingly disparate stories in Manda Bala, he can't keep still in front of his audience, reminding me of Shakespeare's Puck, playfully juggling his dark concerns. Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight) helped Kohn out with his introduction, explaining that their two films were in competition at Sundance but that, after watching Manda Bala, he considered it an honor to lose to Kohn.

After the film, Kohn answered a few questions. The film took him five years to make and—though it's like every indie film cliché you've ever heard of—it started out by his selling his car to get the seed money. Kohn is half Brazilian on his mother's side, his father is a rich businessman stationed in Sao Paolo. It was his father who first alerted him to the frog farm central to the Jader Barbalho scandal. If, as Strindberg once said, politicians are one-eyed cats, Barbalho is a fat one. Having held every political office in Brazil except the Presidency, Barbalho used a senatorial position to embezzle billions from a fund intended to foster economic growth in the Amazon. The subject frog farm was just one of the ways Barbalho laundered his money. That he then bought up media outlets—newspapers, radios, televisions—was an incidental if not strategically effective investment.

To Kohn's knowledge, no one in Brazil has seen Manda Bala so there has been no official response, though there have been plenty of disgruntled rumblings about the nerve of this young upstart criticizing and questioning Brazil when Bush is in power. Kohn swiftly positions himself as having a documentarian's right to criticize and question whatever he wants. He is inquisitive by nature, which is requisite for a documentarian. He hopes the film will be distributed in Brazil but it's a complicated process, the details of which he didn't feel at liberty to discuss. I could only imagine this would have to do with direct physical threats to him and/or his family.

Being a documentarian, Kohn is subject to having his access justifiably scrutinized. Most of the questions revolved around how he secured interviews or where he found footage. This struck me only because I had just read Paul Arthur's fine essay "Art of the Real" in the current issue of Film Comment (March/April, 2007), which I heartily recommend to anyone concerned with the aesthetics and ethics of documentary filmmaking. I feel Kohn has been straightforward about disclaiming his film as a political documentary. He suffers no pretensions. But this places him in a sensitive contemporary category, precisely because he won an award for best documentary. Though writing about Michael Moore's film Roger & Me, Paul Arthur's concerns seemed applicable to Kohn's work precisely because Kohn has defended Manda Bala by its entertainment value, or his wish to have it be entertaining. As I interview more and more documentarians, this keeps coming up, this wish to be entertaining, which Arthur argues is a hazardous trend in documentary filmmaking. Arthur writes that assaults on corporate arrogance raise "increasingly important questions about legitimate uses of 'dramatization' in nonfiction. In other words, when does factual or scenic maneuvering perpetrated in the name of social insight—or merely 'entertaiment'—the rubric under which [Kohn] defends his tactics—become something more than a clever stylistic wrinkle? When must we call it an infraction of reasonable codes of evidence or argument, a rhetorical weapon to be shunned rather than applauded." Kohn seemed completely up to the task of defending his first film on its own merits, recognizing the influence Errol Morris has had on his style of documentary filmmaking, and his own opinions about the marketability of documentaries. Elsewhere, in his interview with Reeler's S.T. VanAirsdale, Kohn has asserted he's been "stupid lucky" with Manda Bala and that the main importance of his first film is to allow him to make another film. It's telling, I think, that of the four or five ideas he has in his head, none of them are documentaries; all are fiction features.

Asked how he gained access to interview the kidnapper Magrinho and what it was like talking to him, Kohn categorized him as "a sweetheart" and explained they were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, a taxi driver whose palm Kohn greased a bit to secure his one-on-one with Magrinho. He had tried to secure an interview with a kidnapper through the prison system but so many documentaries had been made about the corruption of the Brazilian prison systems that they weren't letting any further documentarians in. Commiserating with the taxi driver about how he had come all the way to Brazil to get an interview with a kidnapper only to have no luck whatsoever, the driver then offered to set him up. It so happened that to make a little money on the side the taxi driver delivered packages for Magrinho, who comes off as something of a Robin Hood, robbing from the wealthy to provide medicine and food to his favela constituency). A proud father of nine, anticipating a tenth on the way, Magrinho's hooded disguise and gun costume economic necessity. If any evil is to be ascribed, one must point at need, and not the individual. As a poignant aside, Kohn indicated at his Q&A following the Sundance screening that Magrinho had been killed in a police shootout.

Asked why the rich in Brazil don't disguise their wealth so they won't be targeted, Kohn quipped that was his strategy but that it's not one that would be readily adopted by the wealthy who would, in fact, feel indignant about acting poor. This is a class struggle after all. It was difficult enough to get representatives of the wealthy class to appear on camera. You have to understand, Kohn explained, it's easy to get footage of the poor. You can walk into any favela and photograph the poor. It's privatized wealth that's difficult to capture. As Scott Foundas has astutely synopsized: "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.' "

Asked why he preferred to use interpreters on film rather than subtitles, Kohn credited Errol Morris' influence. You can see it. Using a widescreen composition with his subject seated slightly in the foreground and the translator slightly behind, they both stare into the camera. Kohn wanted his film to be visual. He didn't want to distract his audiences by having to read subtitles. Americans, perhaps, are more willing to watch and listen to a translation than having to read one.

As for the translation of the film's title, "Send A Bullet", that's literal, which Kohn chose because it seemed more cinematic. But the actual slang term manda bala refers to finishing something off. If you have a little bit of Coke left in a bottle, let's say, you could say manda bala to indicate "drink it down." It's comparable to saying "shoot" if you agree to someone questioning you.

I was particularly interested in a bleak data point that stated that—despite the recognized corruption of political leaders—the public continued to elect them back into office. (Morris' admonition that the film is about America in five years was still ringing in my ears.) I asked Kohn if he had any explanations of what would fuel such folly? He had no answers, of course, other than to reference yet again Brazil's institutionalized culture of impunity. It's not that Brazil is not a democracy. It's not that there aren't laws in place that criminalize these abuses of power. It's not that there isn't enforcement that tries to go after these criminals. Barbalho was, in fact, convicted of his embezzlements but his sentence was rescinded by a convenient judge in his pocket. Upon his release he boasted that he could and would have any political office he desired. These officials break the law because they know they can and that nothing will be done to stop them. As for how such a "culture of impunity" could become so alarmingly entrenched, Kohn conjectures that a continuity of corruption extends back to the Portuguese colonialization of the Brazilian natives. These powers aren't granted overnight. It is precisely their institutionalization over centuries that make them so formidable. I asked Kohn if he felt screening Manda Bala in Brazil could effect any change. There's no way he could know, of course, and he felt it important to emphasize that he doesn't consider himself an activist. That's not why he made the film.

What makes Manda Bala so challenging to watch is its explicit visceral depictions not only of torture (I squirmed in my seat watching a big ol' knife cut off someone's ear)—footage Kohn secured from a police chief—but the aural reconstructive surgeries of Dr. Juarez Avelar, a plastic surgeon Kohn first read about in the New York Times. Dr. Avelar extracts rib cartilage to reconstruct ears that have been cut off from kidnapped abductees. The ears, of course, are meant to accompany ransom notes. Dr. Avelar is, as David D'Arcy puts it, the "odd hero" of Manda Bala because he has the "genius [for] rebuilding ears for wealthy abductees who have somehow managed to survive their kidnapping. If the judicial system can't reconstitute your world, at least you can have something that looks like the body part that was taken away from you, provided that you can afford the surgery."

D'Arcy's comment underscores the class issues at the spiraling heart of Brazil's corruption, what can and cannot be afforded, and by who. Hopefully America will listen up before it begins losing its own ears.

Photo courtesy of S.T. VanAirsdale. Cross-published at Twitch.

04/15/07 UPDATE: Dispatching to The Greencine Daily from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Cinetrix encourages readers to "believe the hype" about Manda Bala. "How did the filmmaker decide to tell this story? Affable, casually cursing Jason Kohn revealed during the Q&A that years ago he and his producer got high and watched some video he'd shot at frog farms while visiting his father in Brazil. With the profundity of one in an altered state, Kohn observed of the frogs: 'They look like little people.' And thus a film was born."