Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), directed and produced by Jason Kohn, is a richly painted, riveting documentary weaving together threads of political corruption and disparity of wealth distribution in Brazil, frog farms, kidnappings in Sao Paulo, reconstructive ear surgery, and the growth of the personal security business in Brazil. If all this sounds like a lot to meld together into one coherent tale, it is, but Kohn proves himself more than up to the task. Cinematical spoke to Kohn by phone recently about Manda Bala, which has received numerous awards on the fest circuit over the past year, and recently won three awards at the inaugural Cinema Eye Awards.
Cinematical: I read that at the Cinema Eye Awards, in your acceptance speech you talked about this film being made out of anger; can you talk a bit more about that?
Jason Kohn: Really that came out of my sense of frustration at the state of contemporary documentary films, at least at the time when I started making the film. There was a lot of talk going on about the democratization of docs, how it's cheaper to make them with new technologies, and I thought that was mostly bullshit. This idea that people on the marginalized fringes of society now have access to these technologies – it's just not true.
It's still the same middleclass white people making movies; it's not poor people making films. Only now with digital equipment, more of them can make movies, but is that a good thing? And I thought that was a real shame, because it got to the point that the conventions for the television doc and the theatrical doc were so blurred that most of the theatrical docs were really just TV docs just blown up to a 90 minute format. I set out to prove a point that there's a difference, and it's a point worth making. This (Manda Bala) was a film made to be seen in a theater, shot in Cinemascope.
Cinematical: You've also been somewhat critical of the way film critics review documentary film. Can you elaborate?
JK: Stephen Holden wrote a review for the New York Times that says Manda Bala isn't as "journalistic" as it should be. Not only is it hypocritical, it shows that he really knows nothing whatsoever about the genre, at all. He's looking at an apple and expecting it to be an orange. That would never happen with a narrative. There's this geriatric contingent that has this bad idea of what documentaries should be. It doesn't make any sense to me.
Cinematical: As far content versus style, do you find that many critics pay attention to the editing, to the way the film is shot?
JK: We've gotten some very good reviews, from people who understand that we're making a stylized film. But then others ... one person wrote that the film was "so stylized it was distracting." Pardon my French, but what the fuck does that mean? It's being criticized for its very strengths.
Cinematical: You have some very graphic footage in the film. Have you been criticized for using it, for it sensationalizing the subject?
JK: The footage of victims' ears being cut off during kidnappings, a police chief in Sao Paulo gave me this footage. And I used it. I realized, look, intellectualizing this kind of thing only goes so far. But to actually be witness to something like this happening, that's a completely different story. This was so integral to the actual story. It's not as if the movie was about frogs and we put in footage of an ear getting cut off. And the idea that this is sensationalistic, that it's included in the story just for some motivation to make money, is just ludicrous to me.
The whole thing is so hypocritical and so lazy, the way so many in the mainstream press critique documentary film. No one wants to offend filmmakers who make bad movies with good intentions, who go down there and stick cameras in the faces of poor people and make a sappy film.
Here's the thing. Making a film, even a documentary, is expensive - three, four hundred thousand dollars at the minimum. I'd really like to know on a specific economic basis, how much a film cost versus how much the film actually helped the people the film was about in any concrete way. Because I'm convinced, the money spent making those movies could have been better spent actually making a difference in the places they shoot in.
Cinematical: You think there's a tendency among critics to give poorly shot films good reviews based on the subject matter?
JK: I think critics have a hard time saying: This is a bad movie. It's poorly made, it's a bad story, the thesis is wrong. They just don't do that when the subject is highly sympathetic. And your role as a person who critiques film is to write about movies, not be a social worker. And then I make a movie that gets criticized for being "too stylish."
Cinematical: I've been to some panels recently on this idea that there's a blurring of the lines between documentary and narrative film. What are your thoughts on that?
JK: Having panels and discussions on this subject, it's fucking ridiculous. Look, this is not a new argument -- it's been around for years. Nobody picks up a fucking book and reads. Give me a break – objectivity in documentary? There's never been objectivity in general, the fucking book has been closed on that subject for years. It's all platitudes at this point. People need to read a fucking book, learn about what they're talking about. It's painstakingly stupid and obvious. There are real issues today facing documentary filmmakers. It's a real problem when a documentary filmmaker is accused of being too stylish. This is something I think is worth debating.
Cinematical: What motivated you to make a film about the politics and corruption prevalent in Brazil?
JK: My father called me one day and told me about this frog farm that was at the middle of this political corruption scandal. That's like movie stuff – it's odd, it's interesting, it's also beautiful. Around the same time I'd read a New York Times article about this doctor becoming famous for reconstructing the ears of kidnapping victims. They were both interesting stories, but I wasn't sure how they connected. And then one day a friend and I were talking and he said, it's kind of like how the rich steal from the poor and the poor steal from the rich. And that gave me the common thread that tied it all together. Making that abstract connection into a movie is the hard part.
Cinematical: Did you find, as you were pulling the story together, that you sympathized more with any particular player in the film? Anything that surprised you as you were learning more about these stories?
JK: I think there's a certain liberal tendency to want to see the kidnappers Robin Hood figures. But that's not really the way I saw it. This is basically a very common story – whenever the government leaves a vacuum of power, inevitably thugs come in and fill that vacuum. It's how any large crime organization works. And this is typical thuggery. This (the kidnapper interviewed in the film) is a very powerful man in a very poor neighborhood, who can pretty much buy influence. He says it outright, I protect them, and they protect me also – it's very clear what that means. Sure he paves the streets, and he gives out gas but at what price? There's a murdering, torturing kidnapper living among you that you have to fear.
Cinematical: He didn't strike me as having much conscience about what he does...
JK: That's actually one of the things I liked about him – at least he was frank, he's honest about what he is and what he does. It is a very typical story for someone to say "I believe in God, but I do what I have to do to support my family" – he never did that.
Cinematical: What about the disparity of wealth in Brazil sets it apart from similar situations in other regions?
JK: I don't think of this as a film about Brazil, I think the problems are universal. You'd have a hard time finding a country anywhere, where corruption and violence don't exist. What is unique about Brazil is the concentration of wealth. The country with the highest concentration of wealth is Swaziland, where the royal family owns something like 60% of the wealth. And then Brazil, the second highest, over 50% of the nation's wealth is in the hands of the top 1-2%. It's like robber baron days.
Errol Morris said this isn't so much a film about Brazil, as it is a film about the US in another five years. And I do think concentration of wealth is bad, and as such, it is a bit of a cautionary tale. This is a serious problem. But the minute you start talking about distribution of wealth you sound like a sophomore in college. Here in the US we're supposed to have this respect for the wealthy and successful, but if you talk about that you get, what are you, a communist? Capitalism is great, greed is not. This specific articulation of wealth that exists in Brazil is unique because it's such a financial player in the world. It's a great example of how destructive that kind of disparity and concentration of wealth is.