“With money, you can buy everything.”
Unrated. Released on DVD April 8th. Directed by Jason Kohn.
When I was an undergrad, I had a friend who was from Brazil, and I remember her telling me about being upper-class and living in constant fear of being kidnapped, a totally foreign concept to me. The rate of kidnapping in Brazil ranks 3rd in the world, a direct result of the world’s 3rd widest income gap between the rich and the poor. When I think of Brazil, the images that come to mind are lush rainforests, beaches and Carnival, but also those of crime in the dirt-poor slums (favelas) as shown in one of my favorite films, City of God.
Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in Documentaries explores the reasons behind and the consequences of this dichotomy. Director Jason Kohn spent five years tracking down interview subjects, which include a kidnapping victim, kidnapper, frog farmer, policemen, lawyers, wealthy businessmen and the politician involved in the scandal at the heart of the film.
Kohn weaves his story around, cutting often between interviews and subjects and tries to connect the corruption scandal of one of Brazil’s most powerful politicians, Jader Barbalho, to the frog farm to the kidnappers themselves. He tries to show that the actions of the wealthy have led to the blowback from the lower class, and while the connection he establishes is tenuous at first, he coalesces towards the end. Also interesting is the exploration of how the prevalence of crime and kidnapping has led to burgeoning industries like bulletproof cars, anti-kidnapping classes, human microchip tracking devices, and even plastic surgery to repair the damage kidnappers do to their victims.
The widening income-gap is an issue that affects not only Brazil, but many other countries in South America and even the United States. The idea of corrupt politicians stealing freely from the taxpayers (ahem Halliburton) is universal and Manda Bala explores where a country can find itself after that kind of leadership. The film makes no effort to conceal its viewpoint, even crediting Barbalho as “Corrupt Politician”.
Though it is a documentary, it feels much more like a film because of the way it is presented. It is well-directed, slickly edited and looks great, a result of being shot on film. The score is loud and oftentimes distracting, but only adds to the stylized feel of the movie. While technically proficient, the film is too slick for its own good — making the people interviewed feel more like characters and the story feel more like a Hollywood script. It is an interesting dilemma for a documentary filmmaker — you want it to be presentable, but you don’t want it to be so presentable it doesn’t seem real.
Although it is fairly entertaining and sometimes frightening and compelling, I never found myself really immersed in the film, perhaps because of its style. As a result, it works more as entertainment than as education, and the treatment of the subject ends up being only skin-deep. Kohn is more interested in showing you the dots, making sure they look pretty, and then connecting them for you. Overall, while a solid film, it would have been better if he had opted for more substance over style.
As a side note, it is unrated, but there are graphic scenes of plastic surgery, frogs being slaughtered, and actual footage of kidnappings, so it is not for the faint of heart.