Authorship in documentary filmmaking can be a tricky subject. It’s partly to do with the propriety of intellectual material; primarily, though, the ideal audience is willing and able to ascribe the documentary filmmaker an objective, anthropological eye and will take the verity of what they are seeing for granted. If a documentary makes too much of an effort to be didactic, it exposes itself as biased and loses its impact. I’ve seen this often. Bill Maher’s Religulous, for example, is a film that I had expected to enjoy due to my ideological alignment with its thesis; instead, due to Maher’s brutish, unsympathetic, needlessly antagonistic and mocking tone, I was repelled. Michael Moore, also, knows the caveats of this soapboxing all too well (whether or not he does anything about it is another matter entirely).
Similarly, if a documentary exhibits any signs of artifice, an audience may be inclined to question its integrity. In cinema, anything that draws attention to form at the expense of content (quick editing, ornamental camera work, overwrought musical cues, etc.) can rightfully be considered artifice. The documentary filmmaker must entertain without appearing as though he is giving his subjects short shrift or, worse, playing loose with the facts to deliver a more compelling narrative.
It’s a delicate balance, one which first time filmmaker Jason Kohn (whose only other credit is Research Assistant to documentary giant Errol Morris) handles adeptly. This is a bold debut. Manda Bala is a visceral, vital film which cunningly uses populist suspense narrative conventions and visual panache to highlight the Orwellian and Nietzschean undercurrents of contemporary Brazilian society. When the final credits roll, listing the interviewees’ names beside their title or occupation, it reads uncannily like the cast list from a fictitious film. It is strangely appropriate, as Kohn has managed to weave a tapestry that is both broad and personal, entertaining and informative, stylish and substantial, all with the brisk, effortless flair of Martin Scorsese or early Paul Thomas Anderson.
Beginning with the frog farm scandals which are said to have been responsible for nine million of the two billion dollars stolen from SUDAM by corrupt politicians for personal gain, the film branches out to include the rampant kidnapping which occurs daily in Sao Paolo as well as bulletproofing, anti-kidnapping officers, state prosecutors, local media, reconstructive surgery for kidnapping victims, and other such ancillary subjects. Kohn interviews a wide cross section of Brazilians, creating a surprisingly pragmatic virtual schema of Brazilian societal order, and of how intricately entwined all of its levels are. Included are Diniz, the frog farmer; “Mr. M”, the upper class businessman; Jamil, the anti-kidnapping detective; Dr. Avelar, the plastic surgeon; Patricia, the kidnapping victim; Jader Barbalho, the corrupt politician; and, most chillingly, “Magrinho” the thief, kidnapper, and sometime murderer.
By focusing on these and several other individuals who epitomize their social roles, Kohn’s subjects do tend to come off as archetypes. But the inclusion of telling personal details and the undeniable gravity of the situation keep them from becoming stereotypes or mere summations of their demographics. Instead, they balance delicately on the precipice of creating a cogent generalized chart of role and relation while still asserting they are real people and not simply illustrative theoreticals.
To this end, Kohn also illustrates several broader parallels among his subjects. Most unsettling is that which is drawn between the kidnappers and the politicians. In both groups, many flock around few who have managed to abuse and exploit their surroundings to their own benefit. As “Magrinho” astutely points out, “You either steal with a gun or a pen.” There are not groundbreaking concepts, mind you, but the lucidity and the lack of irony with which the criminal is able to delineate between his role in his microcosmic slum society and his role in the greater society of Brazil is disquieting. What makes the parallels between the upper class and the lower class even more unsettling is the inability to tell who is being compared to whom. Ultimately, Kohn compares both Barbalho and “Magrinho” to Diniz, the frog farmer. “I would never kill a frog,” Diniz insists, explaining that the frogs he cultivates are born to a different destiny, a destiny that simply happens to include slaughter for profit. In his frogs we see the citizens of Brazil, those who have suffered loss from the injustices of both government and terrorism. “Cannibalism only happens,” he continues, “when there isn’t enough food.”
We see shades of Orwell in the citizens who express interest in a computer chip implanted under the skin which will allow them to be tracked in the event of a kidnapping. They are willing to give up their privacy — and with it, some of their basic human liberties — in order to be protected. Protected by a government whose indiscretions are directly responsible for the violence from which these citizens seek refuge. The irony of such a self perpetuating downward spiral would almost be beautiful in a cyclical, Nietzschean sort of way if that cycle weren’t so deadly. And if it didn’t reflect so clearly on the current world at large.
Claudio Fonteles, the Attorney General of Brazil, whom I would assume has read his share of Nietzsche and Marx, explains that the goal in Brazil is not to “defeat the giant,” but rather to hit it constantly so as to not allow it to be comfortable. To remove one giant is to open the door for another, and as Manda Bala shows, the cycle is deep rooted and very hard to break. That the film shows this so stylishly — and as a means to such a broader, more generally/theoretically didactic end — could invite accusations of exploitation. I disagree. I feel that Kohn should be commended for his sheer talent as a filmic storyteller and considered lucky for finding such a topical subject that would allow him to express these specific socio-political-philosophical concerns with concrete examples of empirical fact. Kohn cannot be faulted for not having the answers; he has raised the questions and initiated the discourse, which is an important first step.
Regardless of intention, Manda Bala is engaging, entertaining cinema that is neither nebulous nor sensationalist in its handling of a subject whose implications far surpass its own geographical boundaries. Using cinematography, editing, and soundtrack to enhance rather than merely transmit its central thesis, the film manages to succeed in both form and content, creating a symbiosis between style and substance that is more organic, engrossing, and effectual than that which most lesser films ever attempt, let alone achieve.