What do a philosophising frog farmer, a ropey plastic surgeon, a fat-cat politician and a professional kidnapper all have in common? You might be forgiven for thinking they are the odd ball line up of characters constituting the cast- list for the next Coen brothers film. These are however all too real people—each of whom plays a crucial role in the sprawling cycle of violence and corruption currently plaguing modern Brazil.
How their fates grow inextricably intertwined, is one of the many strokes of narrative genius revealed in Jason Kohn’s riveting documentary “Manda Bala (The literal Portuguese translation is “Send a Bullet’) which is to be screened at the Durban International film Festival this week.
Bizarrely, much of Manda Bala , hinges on an outlandish scam initiated by a corrupt Brazilian politician Jader Barbalho, whose government funded frog- farm was employed as a flimsy front to launder huge amounts of money from under the noses of thousands of poverty-stricken Brazilians living in the Amazonian basin.
It’s from this frog- farm that director Khon manages to glean some unsettling imagery to punctuate the rest of his film. This is not a dog eats dog world, we soon discover, it’s a frog eat frog one. The frog providing a far more appropriate metaphor for the slimy and carnivorous (these Amazonian amphibians have been known to consume their own kind) politicians in question.
For most of us, the documentary tends to be a medium we have come to forgive for its shoddy camera work, the occasional furry boom microphone poking into shot and the persistent presence of some nosey investigative reporter along the lines of Michael Moore. This is precisely what Manda Bala is not, and its genius perhaps lies in it managing to more closely resemble a craftily plotted crime film over didactic left-wing sermon. It’s a clever, if not revolutionary subversion of the medium and one that makes this film essential viewing.
Using politician Jader Barbalho‘s frog farm front as his starting point, Kohn promptly widens his frame of reference to explore the devastating consequences of corruption on the South American metropolis of Sao Paulo. For many of the poor disenfranchised people living in Brazil, kidnapping wealthy members of the public and holding them to ransom has become their only means to a regular income. Over the course of the film, we are introduced to one such kidnapper named Magrinho, who chats quite candidly about the various body parts he has shorn from his victims, while on the receiving end we meet Patricia, a young woman recalling the horror of loosing both of her ears to a video (which we as the audience are made to witness), filmed by her kidnappers in an attempt to urge her parents to pay up.
“The kidnapper interviewed in my film” explains Khon, “was using the money he received from kidnapping wealthy citizens to literally pave the streets in his poor favela. It certainly isn’t my intention to make him into a good guy, I mean he is a brutal killer but at the same time, what I am attempting to show, is that the world is a very complex place.”
Forgivably, cashing in on such ”˜complexity’ are a sleazy band of entrepreneurs: including a businessman in the lucrative industry of bullet proofing vehicles, a machismo kidnapping detective and an affluent plastic-surgeon– who specialises in furnishing crime victims with newly reconstructed pairs of ears.
Crime, Khon expertly reveals, is one big relentless cycle, perpetuated at the top of the food-chain and maintained through sheer necessity by the indigent masses left to forage on scraps at the bottom. With his film’s many disparate story threads woven together by the notion that the ”˜greed’ of a man like politician Barbalho enforces the “work” of a man like the kidnapper Magrinho.
This is a world then, not unlike South Africa, where the rich steals from the poor and the poor, return the favour, by stealing from the rich. As one robin hoodesqeue kidnapper aptly surmises in the films closing: “In Brazil, you either steal with a gun or a pen.”
Just how such a heavy handed subject matter has been woven into an engrossing 85 minute documentary that feels more Tarantino in tone then it does say your average Debora Patta expose, comes down to the audacious vision of Jason Kohn.
Khon a 34 year old New Yorker garnered invaluable experience by working under legendary Academy Award winning director Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, Vernon Florida and The Fog of War ). As with his mentor, Khon cites his garish stylistic choices and high production values in Manda Bala as having a lot more to do with fictional film-making than they do with cinematic journalism.
“Errol always considered documentaries as a part of cinema” he says, “they are part of movies, part of that tradition. I don’t see it as a separate form of story-telling, for me it’s just another genre.”
Certainly there’s something disarming behind Manda Bala’s artful shots, flashy editing, colliding narratives(so cinematic, you could easily misconstrue them as plot) and upbeat Jorge Ben soundtrack. Here is a film that sets out to challenge the ”˜pop-corn munching escapist’ inherent in all of us””whereby we are constantly reminded that far from this being a work of fiction masquerading as reality, it is in fact reality veiled in the flimsy guise of fiction.
“I really thought of Manda Bala as a non- fiction science fiction film, along the lines of Robo Cop” Khon has said. “This fucked up futuristic society that’s gone totally wrong, where corporate interests are out of hand and there’s this complete loss of civil order and disregard for human life.”
What of course makes Kohn’s film all the more indelible, is when we remember that these events are not occurring in some galaxy far far away but on our very own doorstep. That beneath Manda Bala’s glossy cinematic pretence and grimy Oceans Eleven chic, lurks a stone cold and very chilling reality. In fact I’ll vouch that Mandala Bala is a film with the rare ability to reassure South Africans about their own heinous crime and corruption stats, and it’s for this reason, that this is probably the most relevant, if not frightening piece of cinema you are likely to see all year.
Jason Khon will be in attendance at the Durban International Film Fest to talk on his film, which will be screened on the 26 at Suncoast at 18h00 and on the 28 July at Musgrave at 22h00.