Directed by Jason Kohn
Studio: City Lights
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 85 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 26.98
Release Date: April 8, 2008
Review Date: March 19, 2008
The astounding degree of corruption and the horrifying sense of danger existing now in Brazil is the focus of Jason Kohn’s award-winning documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet). Seeing such lawlessness and disregard for human justice will send shivers through the average moviegoer’s spine as criminals look squarely into the camera and admit they do what they do for money and have no qualms about it. Living relatively safe and secure here in the United States has never seemed like such a privilege.
Kohn’s assemblage of his documentary is a bit haphazard touching on one central political charlatan (Jader Barbalho), at one time president of the country’s senate (which under Brazilian law protected him from civil prosecution), and also dealing with frog farms through which these professional criminals launder their stolen funds, the out-of-control rampage of kidnapping which has the country’s middle and upper classes in a panic, and the cottage industries which this scourge of kidnapping has caused to develop. Through all of the footage and interviews, we get a real sense of a nation out of control, in dire need of rescue from this corruption but with few if any signs of optimistic change ahead. (After all, after being forced to leave the senate for a time, Barbalho was pardoned from his prison sentence and was once again elected to the senate thus once again rendering him immune from further prosecution.) So, some of the rich are stealing from the poor, and some of the poor are kidnapping the rich in turn. What a vicious cycle it is!
Sao Paulo is the center of much of the corruption we see illustrated in the film, and grainy home-made footage of kidnapped victims having ears removed, nails pulled from fingertips, and fingers sliced off is countered with an interview with one of Sao Paulo’s eighty police officers hired to work kidnapping cases (which run an average of one a day, 365 days a year). With a population of 20 million, Sao Paulo has a definite problem on its hands with no easy solutions. Not so for the people reaping the benefits of these kidnappings: car dealerships that are offering bulletproof cars for premium prices, fleets of helicopters that can keep the rich safely above the lawlessness on the streets, defensive driving academies that offer to teach road strategies to avoid potential attacks on the streets, and even plastic surgeons who have perfected replacing severed ears on surviving victims using rib cartilage for rebuilding the outer ear (we see extensive footage of one such operation, not for the squeamish).
It’s a harrowing film, but to the filmmakers’ credit, it’s not exploitive footage. We’re shown certain atrocities, but other things are merely described by former victims or the police to reflect the reality of the desperate situation the country is in. Yes, it’s a very obvious metaphor when we’re shown the frogs feeding on one another to survive just as some of the street gangsters interviewed for the film are feeding on their own people for profit, and the rich corrupt politicians are looting the masses as well for their own benefit. (And we also see the wealthy at the end of the film feeding on the frogs thus bringing the figurative symbols full circle. Could their money have come from the very real thefts of the common people that are laundered through these frog farms? It‘s a very real possibility.) Manda Bala provides no easy answers, but the points it raises have made it a movie that cannot be shown in Brazil, a fact the filmmakers boast of with a pre-title card.
The film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio is presented in anamorphic video. As in many documentaries, the various footage collected for the feature varies greatly in quality from the dimmest and grainiest of home movies to personal interviews shot with professional equipment. None of it is particularly sharp though color is adequate and sometimes better than average. Subtitles are used throughout the film, sometimes burned onto the image and sometimes placed below in the letterbox bar area. All of the subtitles are easy to read. The film is divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track uses music as the only surround element. Most of it is in the front channels with occasional separations into the rears with little in the way of LFE. Dialog and narration come clearly through the center channel, however.
The director and his two producers take part in an audio commentary. Like the feature itself, the conversation is a bit haphazard. The trio admit they had no experience making their film before producing this, their first movie (Kohl did work for documentarian Errol Morris so he did have some experience in the business), and they admit to mistakes made along the way in a very candid and honest fashion. Still, it’s an interesting talk by three guys learning by doing and is worth a listen.
The disc offers 7 additional scenes not in the finished film (well, one of them is the complete ear reconstructive surgery sequence which is shortened in the film itself). Three of the scenes involve more information about the frog farms. One shows us the helicopter landing pads for the helicopter fleets available for the wealthy, and one shows us a bulletproof glass plant at work. The viewer can watch the nonanamorphic letterboxed scenes separately or all together. In total, they run 23 minutes.
The disc offers nonanamorphic previews of The Ten, The Year the Parents Went on Vacation, Descent, A Generation Apart, and Everything's Cool.
It’s not a movie that I’d think would get much repeat viewing, but a one-time rental of Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) will likely be as eye-opening an experience for you as it was for me.