Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (Director: Jason Kohn): First-time director Jason Kohn’s film was a controversial winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this past year, and after seeing it, I can understand why. It’s a travelogue of sorts, whisking us around Brazil to talk to police, politicians, prosecutors, businessmen, victims of kidnapping, and even a kidnapper himself. The film’s tagline is “When the rich steal from the poor, the poor steal the rich” and the basic outline is that it’s a film about a culture of theft. We see all the precautions the rich are forced to take to avoid the ransom kidnappings that are now widespread in cities like Sao Paolo. They buy bulletproof cars, they take helicopters and contemplate implanting microchips under their skin. We hear from a kidnap victim who had both of her ears sliced off, a common tactic of the kidnappers to show how serious they are. Kidnapping is such a growth industry that now plastic surgeons have developed ways of creating new ears from rib cartilage. On the other hand, we’re introduced to corrupt politician Jader Barbalho, whose graft included the establishment of frog farms to launder government grant money. Recurring images of the frogs, including a memorable sequence of one frog devouring another, seem to work as a crude metaphor. With a population of 20 million, Sao Paolo’s residents are just as crammed together as the hapless frogs, and the resulting anarchy is almost inevitable.
Kohn’s film is full of startling and often beautiful imagery, and his conscious decision to shoot on film and in anamorphic widescreen tells me a lot. Along with a jaunty soundtrack of Brazilian samba, the gorgeous images look better than they have a right to. I caught myself asking whether a film about such ugliness had a right to look so pretty. And I think that’s where my problem with the film lies. It feels like a carefully-constructed object that was planned around aesthetic, rather than moral, concerns. It looks great, but I’m just not sure there’s a real heart to the film. Many of the director’s choices seem calculated to distance the viewer from the horrors he’s observing. For instance, Kohn made the decision to forego subtitles in many of the interviews, including the kidnap victim’s. Instead, we hear the dialogue in Brazilian Portuguese, and then hear the translation in English from the translator, who is also in the frame with the subject. It’s a strange effect. As well, there is no attempt at any analysis of the problems of Brazil, other than a throwaway line about how the Portuguese established Brazil simply to plunder it.
I remember hearing as a young student about how Brasilia was designed from the ground up as the new capital of Brazil, and the film does convey some of the tarnished futuristic optimism that was coming out of the country in the 60s and 70s. Kohn described the film as a kind of “non-fiction science-fiction” film, and I think he does a passable job of conveying the feeling that Sao Paolo’s sinister landscape may soon seem very familiar to the rest of us.
But I’m still convinced that this is more an exercise in style than substance.