By S.T. VanAirsdale
One of my favorite interviews with a New York filmmaker prior to the festival was the chat I had with Jason Kohn, whose competition documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) I had the chance to check out a little while ago. Five years in the making, the film constructs a triptych of Brazilian phenomena including the world's largest frog farm, a plastic surgeon specializing in ear reconstruction and one of the country's most corrupt politicians, positioned against each other in a colorful, hyperstylized kinesis of treachery in Sao Paulo. A title preceding the film affirms its inability to be shown in Brazil -- yet not as a result of any censorship issues, as Kohn told the audience at the Prospector Square Theater on Tuesday. Rather, the subject matter is so severe and the cultural tumult so vividly portrayed that even Kohn's family, who lives in Brazil, faces reprisal following the filmmaker's riveting (if indeed outrageous) depiction of their nation.
But the story isn't so much the thing in Manda Bala as it is a foregone conclusion; Sao Paulo is viewed from the sky, streets and slums as a megalopolis of finite possibilities and virtually infinite lawlessness. Kohn's interviews with the money-laundering frog farmer yield to an interview with a former kidnapping victim whose captors sent her severed ear as a ransom demand; that pair gives way to a bulletproof car entrepreneur and an actual, ski-masked kidnapper himself. With subjects like these -- all equally haunted and defined by their relationships to crime and country -- Kohn's film lives in the extremes while somehow taking refuge in the commonplace. It's fascinating, unsettling viewing, with dolly shots in operating rooms and symmetrical, offbeat interview set-ups recalling Kohn's mentor Errol Morris.
And as Kohn told his audience this week, it was equally unsettling filmmaking. "I was down there for about four months trying to get a kidnapper through prisons," he said. "But there are a lot of documentaries about prisons and how bad they were in Brazil, and they wouldn't let anybody in. We couldn't pay off an official -- that's how bad it was. Usually it's pretty easy. And my Dad has a friend who's a cab driver -- an old-time friend, maybe 10 years or so. And my car had broken down; I was on my way to the dentist. He asked me how things were going, and I said things sucked; I couldn't get an interview with a kidnapper. I mean, I was down there just to do that. And he was like, 'Well, you want me to introduce you to someone?'
"Turns out he delivers packages every once in a while for some extra money to that guy (in the film)," Kohn continued. "The guy called that night and said, 'What do you need?' I said, 'I need an interview with someone who's kidnapped somebody.' Now, after four months, I would have gladly interviewed your garden variety flash kidnapper -- someone who goes to ATM's from the evening into the morning or something like that. And he said, 'Well, all right, you've got a kidnapper. What else do you need?' I said, 'Well, what about some violence?' He was like, 'Well, I've, you know, pulled out fingernails, cut off ears...' Well, that was a wet dream, right?"
One audience member objected to Manda Bala's exclusion of any "poor person(s)" besides the kidnapper as interview subjects, after which Kohn unequivocally restated his mission. "This isn't a film about poverty," he said. "It's a film about wealth, decadence and corruption. I wanted to try to stay away from poverty as much as possible, because I think there' something about the liberal, first-world eye going down to poor people and filming them and it's very easy to film poor people because they've got nothing to lose. I didn't want it to be that kind of movie. But poverty was an essential part of the story; to make that final link and bring it full circle, we needed somebody. And that person needed to be a criminal. It's not by any means saying every poor person is a criminal, but he was the necessary element. And he had an unreal life, and he's now dead. He as recently killed a few weeks ago in a shootout with the police."
Kohn's been the quote of the festival so far; more on Manda Bala later as it navigates its way to distribution.
Posted at January 25, 2007 6:16 PM
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