Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” — believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.
Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.
Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.
Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level — between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.
As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out — if high profile — car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.
Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences — legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.
But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes. Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.
Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best — illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film — Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world — contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention.