Review: Manda Bala

Documentary connects rising crime in Brazil with corrupt politicians in a style more glib than enlightening.

Winner of a grand jury prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) uses fractured narrative style to address the very real problems of class inequity, rising crime, and corrupt government in Brazil. While these are worthwhile subjects, peculiar structural decisions result in a documentary that alternates between mildly informative and grossly voyeuristic.

The film opens on a frog farm in central Brazil, an area that served as a personal bank to politician Jader Barbalho. By manipulating a government anti-poverty program, Barbalho allegedly established some four hundred dummy organizations to siphon off billions of dollars in federal funds. A legal loophole that prevents politicians from being tried in civil courts protected him from retaliation. In the Belem area where the program was centered, Barbalho owns a newspaper, television station, and radio station, ensuring positive coverage of his schemes.

Three prosecutors talk about their failed attempts to bring Barbalho to court. Barbalho agrees to sit down for an interview, but like politicians in this country, he is practiced enough with the media to deflect difficult questions. In fact, he comes off as an articulate, friendly personality, not a rapacious vulture oppressing the poor.

A second thread in the film concerns violent crime, especially kidnapping. The filmmakers interview a worried entrepreneur, show how cars are modified to become bulletproof, and follow students in an evasive driving course. Police assault teams show off wounds and weaponry, and shrug their shoulders over their inability to protect the inhabitants of Sao Paolo.

Much of this material is solid, if unoriginal, reporting, but producer and director Jason Kohn pushes his film into more troublesome areas. Interviewing a kidnap victim so she can describe how her ears were cut off leads to extended, close-up shots of reconstructive ear surgery. Kohn also includes far too much video footage of sobbing kidnap victims being mutilated by their captors. The documentary’s final interview is with a self-professed “Robin Hood” who switched from robbing banks to kidnapping because it is more profitable. Giving him the final say, and allowing him to excuse his crimes because he was raised in poverty, throws Kohn’s moral judgment into doubt.

Back to the frog farm. Apparently Barbalho charged nine million dollars for one that actually cost $300,000. It’s a sordid story, but does it really merit devoting so much of the film to shots of frogs mating, eating each other, and being skinned alive? For that matter, does the film’s flashy packaging add anything to our understanding of the serious issues at stake here? Couldn’t Kohn have made just as effective a statement without the luxurious helicopter travelogue shots, the snatches of torture porn, and the weirdly inappropriate Brazilian pop songs that punctuate the soundtrack? Does anyone still need to be convinced that kidnapping is bad, that the poor often turn to crime, and that politicians can be corrupt?

Featuring: Jader Barbalho, Claudio Fonteles, Helbio Dias Leite, Dr. Juarez Avelar, Paulo Lamarao, Mario Lucio Avelar, Cunha Lima, “Margrinho.”

Credits: Directed by Jason Kohn. Produced by Jason Kohn, Jared Ian Goldman, Joey Frank. Executive producer: Julio DePietro. Director of cinematography: Heloisa Passos. Edited by Andy Grieve, Doug Able, Jenny Golden. Sound by Coll Anderson. A City Lights Pictures presentation, in association with Kilo Films and Whitest Pouring Films, of a Kilo Films production. In English and Portuguese with English subtitles.

City Lights Pictures/Color/2.35/85 Mins./Unrated

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