Given all the dull, shot-on-video documentaries that have poured into theaters and film festivals in the last few years, it’s tempting to give Kohn’s debut feature, Manda Bala, high praise simply for placing some value on aesthetics. Shot on film, edited artfully and scored with vibrant music from Brazil, Kohn’s examination of rampant crime and political corruption (and frog farming) in the South American country sometimes seems to value aesthetics a little too highly, coming too close to trivializing its very serious subject matter.
The exciting, almost giddy visual sense draws viewers in to that serious subject matter, though, and the entertaining tone can lull you into a false sense of security that makes disturbing revelations all the more powerful. Kohn focuses primarily on two problems in Brazil: the widespread corruption of its public officials (as embodied by a senator who embezzled over $2 billion earmarked for improvements in the country’s most impoverished regions) and the epidemic of kidnappings in its largest city, Sao Paulo.
Kohn’s interview subjects are creatively varied, from the obvious (prosecutors who went after the senator; a businessman who takes extreme precautions to avoid being kidnapped) to the inspired (a plastic surgeon with a booming business in reconstructing ears cut off by kidnappers; the manager of a frog farm that was allegedly a front for laundering government funds), and he shoots them all with an eye for personality and detail. Certain stylistic choices create a distancing effect, though—Kohn uses interpreters rather than subtitles for most of his interviews, and hearing the words come out of someone else’s mouth while the subject sits and fidgets saps some of the power of what they’re saying. This is especially evident in the conversation with a woman who endured a 16-day kidnapping ordeal.
More often the style adds to the film’s power, and Kohn is able to show some haunting, harrowing (and occasionally graphic) stuff, including actual kidnapping videos, a disturbingly upbeat interview with a masked criminal and squirm-inducing footage of ear-reconstruction surgery. The picture he paints of Brazil is limited, surely, but it’s also fascinating, and presented with such panache that you can’t help but get drawn in.
Directed by Jason Kohn