It’s a frog-eat-frog world according to “Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”), in which tyro helmer Jason Kohn makes a series of scintillating connections between one of the planet’s largest amphibian breeders, a Sao Paulo plastic surgeon, a fat-cat politician and a professional kidnapper, each of whom plays a role in the sprawling cycle of violence and corruption that is modern Brazil. Crammed into a lively 85-minute package delivered with loads of dark humor and cinematic flair, this worthy winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury prize for documentary should post solid theatrical numbers and see even brisker ancillary biz.
Pic establishes its irreverent tone right from the opening sequence, in which excerpts from a grainy black-and-white ransom video are intercut with a staged sequence of a mannequin head being placed in a bulletproof glass box and shot at by an offscreen firearm. Then it’s on to the frog farm, where the gregarious proprietor, Deniz, tells Kohn about his work while nimbly sidestepping repeated requests to discuss a certain “scandal” in which the farm was involved. The interview (like many in the film) is shot by Kohn in a striking widescreen composition, with the Portuguese-speaking subject seated in the foreground and an English translator seated in the background, both staring directly into the camera.
Kohn spins a tangled real-life narrative in which the frogs are traced back to Jader Barbalho, a charismatic tycoon who has held every possible political office in Brazil save for the presidency. As a senator, we’re told, Barbalho was in charge of administering a fund meant to foster economic growth in the Amazon and other poor regions of the country. Barbalho is alleged to have embezzled millions and set up ersatz businesses to launder the money. He avoided prosecution because of a Brazilian law exempting sitting politicians from standing trial in civilian courts.
As Kohn tries to score face time with Barbalho himself, “Manda Bala” hopscotches between the bustling metropolis of Sao Paulo, the capital city of Brasilia and the rural province of Para, during which time we’re introduced to the Brazilian district attorney and others who have devoted their lives to trapping Barbalho.
But Barbalho is hardly all that Kohn has on his mind. A large section of the film is also given over to Brazil’s thriving kidnapping trade, from a former victim who had her ears sliced off by her captors to the brilliant physician (Dr. Juarez Avelar) who’s made a cottage industry out of aural reconstruction surgeries (one of which we see onscreen in graphic detail) to the booming businesses of private helicopters and bulletproof automobiles — requisite accessories for wealthy Brazilians.
Finally, Kohn sits down with an actual kidnapper called Magrinho, who nonchalantly compares the economics of abduction and drug-trafficking against those of robbing banks (his former pursuit) and plainly surmises that, in Brazil, “You either steal with a gun or a pen.”
Though Kohn occasionally seems to cast his net a bit too widely, he ultimately draws the pic’s disparate story threads together by arguing that the greed of a man like Barbalho and the “work” of a man like Magrinho (who ultimately seems almost like a latter-day Robin Hood)are not completely unrelated; rather that one gives rise to the other and will continue to do so until significant reforms are made to the Brazilian class and justice systems. It is a point Kohn (who is half-Brazilian) makes implicitly, never didactically. “Manda Bala” emerges as that rare film about the developing world that does not rub our privileged first-world noses in poverty and famine, but rather merely abides by that sage journalistic advice: “Follow the money.”
In his debut feature, Kohn, who began his film career as an assistant to Errol Morris, seems to have learned much from his former employer’s deadpan comic sensibility and sense of the rich visual possibilities of nonfiction filmmaking. Tech credits and production values are outstanding, owing in large part to Kohn’s insistence to shoot on film — a rarity for docus nowadays. Duly awarded by the Sundance jury, camerawoman Heloisa Passos’ color-saturated lensing is a particular standout, as is the razor-sharp editing of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden.