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Manda Bizarro From Sao Paulo

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Jason Kohn discusses Manda Bala after its screening Tuesday at Sundance (Photo: STV)

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

Comments (1)

Hi Stu-
This is Dan Nuxoll, Program Director for Rooftop Films. We haven’t met, but you have always been kind to Rooftop. I am the individual that asked the question at the Prospector about Jason deciding to exclude poor people from the interviews in Manda Bala. You described it as an "objection," but I wouldn't necessarily say that this was how I presented it at the time. I'd like to make it clear that when I asked him why he didn't include any interviews with poor people except for the one interview with the murderous kidnapper, I was asking the question in earnest--I really did want to know why he had chosen to not to include anyone else who wasn't wealthy. His answer, I thought, was relatively well thought out and genuine, and I wouldn't ever argue that EVERY doc about corruption has to have extensive interviews with miscellaneous poverty stricken individuals.

But I still have some serious issues with his film and with the way it characterizes the situation of the underclass in Brazil--and also his dismissal of any other sort of portrayal of the poor in "socially conscious" documentary films. Though the sentences you quote from his response at the Prospector are all very reasonable, you don't mention
that he actually began his comment by saying "I don't think that just because a first world liberal goes to the third world and sets up a camera in front of a poor person that this automatically makes for a good documentary," a comment that is so reductive and dismissive that it seems designed to put anyone talking seriously about his film on the
defensive and render any criticism of Manda Bala as politically correct, knee-jerk contrarianism. We are all well aware of the great many mediocre documentaries made by well-meaning but lazy left-wing filmmakers, and I realize that Manda Bala is operating with a different set of objectives and rules because it is attempting to see the situation in Brazil from a different angle than a lot of those other less ambitious and aesthetically impoverished (excuse the pun) traditional docs.
For this reason, Kohn deserves credit for trying a different tactic. But just because he has tried a different approach doesn't mean that his audience is no longer entitled to question the final product. I would never insist that a filmmaker get interviews of a few kindly, law-abiding poor people just to create the illusion of fairness. Screen time for the poor will not bring about justice in the world, nor will it necessarily make the film better. But at the same time I have trouble accepting his exclusion of the poor from the film. I’m not talking about random shots of depressing depravity, I’m talking about making a genuine attempt—indeed ANY attempt—to get at some kind of genuine truth about the situation from any perspective other than that of the rich. Just because a lot of documentaries are full of gratuitous interviews with the poor doesn’t mean that the poor and those who advocate for the poor in Latin America have nothing valuable to add to a discussion of corruption. But it seems like Jason didn't even consider this possibility—he said after the film that he didn't interview any other people from the community for the film—and to not even attempt to consider their perspective seems as lazy in its way as any of the bleeding heart filmmakers that he derides.

There have been plenty of great and sensitive and powerful films about decadence and corruption that didn't have any malnourished characters in them, but Manda Bala is not exactly L'avventua or La Dolce Vita. Those films are NOT about the poor, they are ONLY about the decadent. But Manda Bala DOES address the situation of the poor, and it does speak at length about the poor, and it IS about poverty—it just doesn't bother to ever actually discuss, depict, interview or spend any real time considering a single REAL poor person. Instead, Kohn is content to use one single metaphor to represent the entirety of the poor people in Brazil: the Frog Farm.

For this reason, I felt that the film is getting quite a bit too much credit for avoiding some of the cliches of anthropological documentary filmmaking and not nearly enough criticism for the one great cliché that it fails to dodge. Kohn has repeatedly stated in interviews how satisfied he is with his visual metaphor for the poor--that of the frogs on the farm devouring one another and the tadpoles being washed down the drain. The problems with the metaphor are almost too numerous to count, but let me begin with a couple of (long) points:
1. The metaphor doesn't really hold up or remain consistent. Early in the film, the frogs represent Brazil as a whole: The scene in which the frogs consume each other immediately follows a discussion of the kidnappers, and then we are told that the frogs only eat one another if they aren't fed properly. Fine, this works; the kidnappers and the wealthy are but two links in the cycle of destruction that extreme gaps in wealth bring about and the frogs are both the rich and the poor. When they do not have all they need or --they become gluttonous--they destroy each other.
But the next time we return to the frog metaphor, it is immediately following the discussion of all of the poor, ignorant folks in the Amazon and how they repeatedly vote for corrupt politicians who are stealing the money that was supposed to be allocated for the advancement of their impoverished communities. This sequence is immediately followed by a scene in which frogs are hung upside down by their feet from hooks and their throats are slit. What is the metaphor now? Are the workers at the frog farm now representing the rich and all the frogs are now only representing the poor? And if so, how is that an apt metaphor? The peasants in the Amazon are obviously being called out for playing a role in enhancing the power of their exploiters, but how are the frogs on the
farm complicit in their own destruction? The metaphor having now thoroughly fallen to pieces, he continues along with his tale and shows the rather graphic surgery scene (which one assumes is meant to echo the frog slaughter scene—put for what purpose, exactly?). After dashing around to interview his subjects one more time, interviewing the kidnapper, and without tying much else together, he finishes the film with an interview explaining that the rich and the poor of Brazil are ALL doomed if something doesn't change—followed by a shot of tadpoles being flushed down a drain back at the farm. Apropos of…what exactly? Now are the frogs yet again representing both the poor AND the wealthy? Kohn explained to me after the screening that the frogs are meant to be a very explicit metaphor, but that they are meant only to represent the poor. This just doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the way that they are used at the beginning and the end of the film—how are the poor people like frogs, exactly? Because they are imprisoned? Because they mindlessly eat their own children? Because they are born and die in
captivity? Because they are exploited? Is Kohn really this comfortable comparing indigenous people in Brazil to farmed amphibians?

Which brings me to my second major point about the metaphor:

2. There is a long, storied and humiliating tradition of relatively wealthy filmmakers—documentary or otherwise—using animals as a visual metaphor to represent poor people, and if Kohn doesn't realize that this is a mechanism that should be thought through and carefully considered before utilizing it in a film purportedly about the horrors of class injustice, then he is not yet a particularly thoughtful filmmaker. If he were making a documentary about corruption in Washington would he visually relate the swine raised on subsidized corporate pork farms to the poor white trash of Appalachia? Would we compliment his gifts for crafting metaphor if he compared our own disenfranchised populations to animals before the slaughter? Or would we recognize his metaphors for
what they are—trite, contrived, obvious and vaguely racist. This urge to visually connect poor, colored people with animals is so old and hackneyed that Bunuel satirized it (along with many other conventions of anthropological docs) in Land Without Bread in 1932.

The problem with Manda Bala—for me at least— is not primarily political. Rather, my contention is that this film is artistically and intellectually a muddle. Generally, if I find the central visual metaphor of a film to be confused and cliché, I generally tend not to be a big fan of the film. If Kohn wants to be a "filmmaker" and not just a "documentary filmmaker," I think it is fair to judge him as such, and a filmmaker whose film is based around a seriously flawed and audacious metaphor would generally be criticized for his pretensions.
Though Kohn has crafted a flashy and entertaining film, at root it is meant to be a film of ideas. But these ideas are really not that coherent. There are many moments in the film that are merely scattershot—why is the entirely pointless interview with Jader in the film? Just to prove that Kohn can get a tough interview subject to show up for 5 minutes and not answer any questions? Just because someone is hard to interview doesn't mean that interviewing them makes for a good documentary.
Jason was actually very polite when I spoke to him after the screening, and I asked him if he understood that for some people metaphor which relates the frogs to the poor people of Brazil might come across as reinforcing the point of view of the wealthy exploiters—that the poor are frogs deserving little more than to be fed a few scraps of food and then to be slaughtered. He insisted that this was not what he was trying to do, but then a moment later said that he thought it was fair to compare the frogs to poor human beings. Well, which is it? Is Kohn satirizing or embracing this corrupt and condescending depiction of the poor?
Maybe he isn't quite sure himself, which is reasonable. It is his first film, and he is entitled to make a mistake or two. There are plenty of things right with Manda Bala, and despite my reservations about the film I had guessed correctly that it would win Sundance before the final credits rolled. But I am a little disappointed that some of the film's failings have been glossed over in the rush to anoint Kohn as the latest hot young filmmaker on the move. Manda Bala is an interesting film at points, but I wish that Kohn had considered some of his decisions more carefully and been a bit less strident in his convictions. I asked him after the screening if he realized that maybe there was a better way to communicate the plight of the poor that didn't involve comparing them to frogs and his response was, "Well, I spent five years making this film and I am pretty sure my way is the best way."
I guess I have to disagree.

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