August 15, 2007

It's All True: Brazil as Sci-Fi Dystopia in 'Manda Bala'

Brazil evokes a wealth of associations, from soccer to samba, but recent films such as City of God, Bus 174 and Favela Rising have pointed up the gross class disparities that the post-Cold War global economy has wrought in South America's wealthiest country. When the very rich and the very poor cohabit such huge cities as São Paolo, corruption and violent crime rule the day.

Kidnappers and kidnap victims, corrupt politicians, bullet-proof car manufacturers, plastic surgeons, cops, prosecutors, money launderers...and frog farmers: these are the players in Jason Kohn's Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), an artful mosaic of interconnected narratives about the dark carnivale that is Brazil. Kohn, a New York resident with roots in Brazil, learned his art and craft from Errol Morris, who has returned the favor by praising Manda Bala as "one of the best and most powerful films I have seen in years." IDA caught up with Kohn via e-mail as he was prepping the West Coast premiere of his film--August 31, through City Lights Pictures.

IDA: Given your Brazilian heritage, what were your impressions of the country during your stays there, prior to making this film?

Jason Kohn: Before making the film, I was consistently surprised how São Paulo (where I spent most of my time) had nothing to do with the conventional image that most people associate with Brazil. The romantic clichés that have persisted about Brazil (beaches, samba, soccer, exotic women etc.) are very old and hark back to the days of Carmen Miranda, before the capital was moved to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro. Today, the economic and cultural center of the largest and wealthiest country in Latin America is São Paulo, a city with its own unique characteristics that I had never seen portrayed in any American media outlet. And São Paulo is an awfully violent city.

IDA: What inspired you to make this film?

JK: One of the inspirations was a report by Jean Ziegler (a special UN correspondent), who identified what he called a passive genocide occurring in Brazil. He noted that in a country as rich as Brazil (both in natural resources and capital), the 40,000 annual victims of starvation and malnutrition are victims of political crimes. This was the first time I started to see political corruption as a violent crime as opposed to merely a crime of theft. I was also interested in understanding how poverty in such a wealthy country is perpetuated and who profits from such a disarticulation of wealth. I wanted Manda Bala(Send a Bullet) to attack the conditions that keep hundreds of millions of people poor and disenfranchised, not by eliciting sympathy for the poor, but rather by exposing the methods of the corrupt, greedy and decadent.

IDA: Manda Bala has a distinct style and texture--both visually and aurally--that is intrinsically Brazilian. Let's start with the choice of shooting on film. How did you arrive at that choice? You have credited your cinematographer, Heloisa Passos, as a great teacher as much as a great artistic collaborator. What are the most essential things about filmmaking and cinematography that you learned from her?

JK: I don't actually believe that the style and texture is intrinsically Brazilian. I was hoping to tell this story using the visual language of traditional narrative cinema, specifically Hollywood science fiction and action films. São Paulo had a lot of the aesthetic conventions that I saw in the dystopic cityscapes of futuristic films, and I wanted to show how very real problems can and do lead to the kind of nightmare conditions heretofore only presented in science fiction.

Heloisa taught me what it meant to be a professional. She never gave up on a shot, lit every scenario until it was right, and worked harder than anyone I had ever seen before.

IDA: You worked for Errol Morris for a time, and he has said great things about your film. What did you take away from that experience of apprenticing with Morris?

JK: Errol revolutionized the documentary genre so many times, and although his films are always examples of amazing storytelling, I was even more impressed by his dedication to craftsmanship and technology. Errol always gave his audience reason to see one of his films on the big screen, and I love that.

IDA: Brazil, as depicted in your film, is a very corrupt and dangerous and foreboding place--imbued with an endless cycle of the rich and poor preying on one another. You yourself seemingly put yourself at risk with a number of the characters you interviewed--i.e. Jader Barbalho, the corrupt politician, and Magrinho, the professional kidnapper. How did you earn their trust? How did protect yourself in general? Were you ever in danger?

JK: The interview with Jader Barbalho was significantly longer than it lasts in the film. I gained his trust by asking a bunch of softball questions for an hour about development in the north of Brazil. He was mostly using the opportunity as a platform for attracting foreign investment in his home state of Para. The tone changed significantly when we started talking about the SUDAM scandal, and he just got up and left after being asked about his frog farm.

Magrinho only agreed to be interviewed in exchange for money and threatened that if anyone were to find out his identity through the release of the film, he would kill the family of the contact that put us in touch. The police came to his house while we were there filming and after a brief standoff, during which his gun was drawn and he was ready to exchange fire with the cops, the police decided to leave. We later learned that they were there looking for him outside his house to extort him for cash. Magrinho was killed in a shootout with the police shortly after production was complete.

IDA: Talk about the post-production process. How did you address the challenges of structuring the different stories and characters?

JK: Editing took about 18 months, three different editors, and was definitely the hardest part of the process. Jenny Golden, our first editor, made a seductive 11-minute trailer that helped raise funding and set the stylistic tone for the film. Doug Abel really deserves credit for assembling a narrative, making Manda Bala into a movie and teaching me how to tell a story. He started by creating a single thread (the rise, fall and rise again of Jader Barbalho) that could serve as a beginning, middle and end. Dealing with kidnapping, security and industry was significantly more difficult, though, because the characters were related by a theme rather than a specific crime; it was impressionistic rather than journalistic. We spent months rearranging scenes and building new threads in order to make a cool film that ultimately didn't have a satisfying ending. At that point we were still missing interviews with Magrinho and Jader.

After returning from Brazil with the two final interviews, Andy Grieve built a new ending and tightened up the whole picture. He is also extraordinarily talented.

IDA: The music is such a vital character is the film, lending a strangely seductive counterpoint to the grisliness of the story. How did you choose the music? How did you work it into the overall sound design?

JK: Although some of the tracks were chosen way in advance of photography, most of the music was chosen by trail and error. I have a large collection of Brazilian music and did about as much music research as anything else. Also, Manda Bala is not simply a critique of corrupt Brazilian institutions; it also brings to light some of the less obvious resources of an amazing country: world sophisticated industrial sectors, brilliant surgeons, innovators in agriculture, and some of the greatest music ever produced in any country.

IDA: You've mentioned in previous interviews about legal issues preventing you from showing the film in Brazil. Will you ever be able to show the film there?

JK: We will hopefully fight this, but unfortunately laws in Brazil do not protect documentary filmmakers the same way that they do here. Furthermore, this kind of documentary would never have been able to be produced in Brazil by a Brazilian. In Brazil, most of the funding for independent films comes from the government. I don't think they would have funded this project.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary and the IDA E-zine.