By David D'Arcy
If you are concerned about the widespread corruption of the Bush administration (Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Duke Cunningham, Scooter Libby, mining exec and safety czar Richard Stickler, etc.), you may be reassured by Manda Bala.
It may be bad in the US, but if you make a decent living and you live in Sao Paolo, the largest city of Brazil and the most concentrated locus of capital in all of South America (enjoyed by the small minority that is fortunate enough to possess it), you're a prime target for kidnapping. If your family hesitates in paying the ransom that your kidnappers demand, there's a good chance that you will lose body parts, if you don't lose your life.
And if you're just an ordinary citizen of that country and you earn enough to pay taxes, the elected officials of your country could be stealing huge amounts of that money.
Manda Bala, directed by the Errol Morris protege Jason Kohn, is a composite picture of the Brazilian kleptocracy, focusing on a frog farm in the north of the country, and then spreading forth and touching a whole range of sectors. We meet a powerful politician in the city of Belem, Jader Barbalho, who was prosecuted for corruption and tax fraud. His government-funded frog farm was one of many ways of laundering money, as reporters and prosecutors found. Yet a mountain of evidence couldn't keep Barbalho in police custody. As a state attorney explained, Brazilian judges are reluctant to keep someone from their own social class in prison. Now that sounds a bit familiar. Scooter Libby, after all, is now walking free.
Kohn's film style, as he explains, has a lot more to do with fiction filmmaking than with journalism or with much that we expect from documentaries. He denies that Manda Bala is journalism at all. The audience should be the judge of that, since in the US, where there's practically no news about Brazil that can't be seen on a soccer field, any look at the country is likely to be new information, or at least ahead of the news media. Bear in mind that the Brazilian newspapers were filled with stories about Senor Barbalho, although not as full as they might have been, since Barbalho owns newspapers and radio and television stations. Billions of dollars later, he's unrepentant. On camera, Barbalho says he's proud to be creating jobs for the poor people of the Amazonas region of Brazil. The poor people don't say anything about him, and it's not out of gratitude for the jobs that they don't seem to have. They're scared of what he can do to them. They're as helpless as the frogs that we see being being stored in pools and packed into boxes.
Kohn doesn't make a direct connection between desperately high levels of corruption and the high level of kidnapping in Brazil. (Note that Brazil does not lead the world in kidnappings. Mexico and Colombia are ahead in that category. People in cinema haven't been immune. Guillermo del Toro hasn't lived in Guadalajara since his father was kidnapped. Fortunately, del Toro pere survived, beating the odds.)
There's another cinematic dimension to this Brazilian pathology. We meet Patricia, a young woman who was kidnapped and lost both ears, who recalls that her abductors kept the television set at high volume so her screams wouldn't give away their hiding place. She remembers everything that was on, from sports to soap operas, including The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock, in which children had their heads pecked by attacking crows. Patricia herself was the child of wealthy parents. She still has nightmares about scenes in which birds are pecking away at little children.
She lost both her ears to kidnappers. On camera, we see the distinguished and very wealthy plastic surgeon Juarez Avelar building new ears for her out of rib cartilage. The ears have no sensation, just like many of those who survived the abductions. Avelar is an extraordinarily generous man who is known for his generosity, but he himself fears kidnappers and takes precautions to avoid becoming a victim. He has seen what kidnappers can do.
Avelar and others among Brazil's wealthy travel around Sao Paolo in armored cars, with teams of bodyguards. For some of them, the security works, but a kidnapper with years of experience tells of abducting the occupant of an armored car after murdering his guards. Another Brazilian businessman, in disguise, remembers being robbed in broad daylight in Sao Paolo, and then watching the thief stand nonchalantly on the sidewalk, counting the money he had just gotten at gunpoint.
Kohn isn't suggesting that criminals kidnap rich Brazilians because the kidnappers are on the wrong end of the inequality equation. A kidnapper interviewed in disguise explains that it's much more profitable than robbing banks. Forget about the theories that Brazil is an anarchic place. There's a clear logic to these crimes, which may explain why the criminals whom we hear from or about don't seem to be acting out of anger.
Manda Bala shifts back and forth from Sao Paolo residents who talk of everyday dangers, to the criminals who prey upon them, to the frogs being raised to be killed and eaten, to victims who talk of their ordeals with the numbness of those who can't communicate what it was like to endure such pain.
The haunting pictures don't all add up in the way that a scientific study or investigation creates a systematic picture of its subject. But you can connect the dots. Everyone in the film does.
Explain the title.
The title is Manda Bala. The literal translation is "Send a Bullet." But in the Portuguese vernacular, "manda bala" means "kill it." And it's used in many different ways, from "Hey, you gonna finish that coke" - and you can say, "no, manda bala" - "kill it" - or in the more violent sense, in the favelas, it's often just another way of saying "kill that guy." Because the actual title of the movie is Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), not just Manda Bala, I always think... It's interesting, the way that movies are translated in order to kind of convey a meaning, the actual language is often lost. And I think "send a bullet" is three really strong words put together, not that "a" is such a strong word.
There's so much political corruption in the United States right now. And even the Republicans are acknowledging that it's political corruption as much as the war in Iraq that's lost the confidence of the voters. Why did you travel so far as Brazil to find a story that you wanted to film? What was it about this story that made it - or these stories, really, that made them more compelling than stories of political corruption closer to home?
There are a lot of different reasons. This movie was really based on a very simple question: What is a frog farm? And the only reason I learned about this frog farm is because it was attached to this entirely institutionally corrupt political system that was in Brazil. In the end, I think that it doesn't really matter where you geographically place these crimes. Because it's corruption, and universal. And because it doesn't make it any more appalling that it's overseas than it is here. The geography is not so important. Had there been a corruption story in the United States that had the kind of cinematic detail that I found down in Brazil, I would have engaged that whole-heartedly.
But this was never meant as an activist film. It wasn't cause-driven primarily. It wasn't, "I want to make a movie about corruption, let me go find the scandal." It was that I was doing research on a whole bunch of things originally, because I wanted to make a movie in Brazil for production reasons - for practical, unromantic reasons. There are choices you make when you have no money, and you're a first-timer with literally no experience whatsoever. And one of those choices is how are you going to spend the little money that you have. Well, I could spend it in the United States making a film - I probably wouldn't have made a documentary, had I made a film in the United States. Or I could go down to Brazil and work with crews that are significantly more talented than I would ever have been able to afford in the United States. And you know, you get about three times the bang for [your] buck down there. So when I was doing research, the first stories that I was really interested in was this movement of revolutionary, landless, farming peasants that were literally taking over unused, privately owned land and farming it. And I thought it was a fascinating story, just cause it's a really revolutionary, great leftist movement, one of the last, like really all the leftist movements that were out there that I saw, I thought it was fantastic.
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